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Front Page - Friday, March 31, 2017

View from the Hill: A disjointed stash of marijuana bills

This year’s marijuana bills are a mixed bag.

Rep. Jeremy Faison is sending his medical marijuana legislation to a task force, as opposed to “summer study,” typically considered the trash heap for unwanted bills.

But at the same time, a resolution by Rep. Sabi “Doc” Kumar urging the Legislature to wait for the Food and Drug Administration to approvemedical marijuana is getting a chilly reception, a signal some lawmakers don’t want to wait for the feds to lighten up on pot.

Meanwhile, a move to pre-empt Nashville and Memphis ordinances decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana is likely to be approved. Yet at the same time, having up to an ounce of weed, as opposed to a half-ounce, could become a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

Despite taking his bill off notice, saying the Senate is afraid of the political consequences of endorsing medical marijuana, Faison, a conservative Republican from Cosby in the Great Smoky Mountains, says he believes the Legislature is starting to warm up to his proposal – though slowly.

“Tennessee is there,” Faison says. “Tennessee is ready to embrace medical cannabis and the freedom that it offers its citizens.

“The Legislature’s not there, and that might be indicative of Tennessee politics. That’s fine. So, I know by next year that number’s gonna grow even more.

“And my colleagues, hopefully, are gonna get on board and we’re gonna run this.”

The day he forged his task force agreement with the House and Senate speakers, Faison says he received information from a Facebook poll showing 97 to 98 percent of Tennesseans support allowing medical marijuana use by veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome, children suffering from epileptic seizures and people battling chronic pain.

Faison, who is becoming one of the Legislature’s most outspoken medical marijuana proponents, plans to have serious discussion on the matter this summer by bringing in professionals from Israel to shed light on the matter and let people know the FDA isn’t “the end-all-be-all on what’s right for human beings.”

Waiting on the feds

Faison led the charge to defeat Kumar’s resolution, which would leave the decision on government-approved marijuana plant products for medicinal purposes up to the patient and physician. The only allowable use, though, would be FDA-approved, purified and precise dosages of marijuana plant products available in pharmaceutical form for medicinal purposes, according to the resolution.

“It blurred the lines between recreational and medicinal, and it pigeon-holed Tennessee into saying we have to wait until the FDA approves something. But the FDA is not gonna approve the medical use of that plant, the whole plant. They’re never gonna do that,” Faison points out.

Kumar’s resolution failed on a voice vote but only after the House Health Committee heard testimony from one man who says his 32-year-old son has struggled with marijuana addiction since he was 11 years old, causing him to lose his job, apartment and contact with his family.

Robert Johnson of Robertson County said his son recently completed rehabilitation at Buffalo Valley.

“What we learned in the program is that marijuana to a person who has an addictive nature or personality, is as addictive as alcohol, crack, heroin or any of the hard type drugs we would associate with addiction,” Johnson explained.

Lynn Nolan of Recovery Community in Davidson County described her own fight to overcome addiction, which started with pot, she says, and escalated to alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine.

“Thank God recovery is possible,” Nolan told the committee. She’s concerned, though, that the nation is creating a generation of young people who “self-medicate” themselves.

“We are raising this generation of couch potatoes,” she added. “We have 30-year-olds trying to figure out what they’re going to do when they grow up.”

Several legislators, though, raised concerns about confusing medical and recreational use of marijuana, including Rep. Bryan Terry, a Murfreesboro anesthesiologist, who explains cocaine, a Schedule 2 drug, is legal for medical purposes and is commonly used in liquid form to stem bleeding and prepare for nasal surgery.

“A lot of times what we do is conflating two issues, the issue of recreational versus actual medical use of a medication or a drug,” says Terry, a Republican. “And if done the right way and under the right circumstances, I think marijuana, or the cannabinoids, can be of medical value to our state and to our patients.”

Persuading state bureaucrats to accept that outlook is going to prove difficult, especially considering the views of people such as Dr. Michael Warren, deputy director of the Tennessee Department of Health, who says he believes highly addictive opiates are better for curing pain than ingesting a cannabinoid pill.

Warren, of course, backed the spirit of the Kumar’s resolution and rattled off some statements more or less backing the FDA’s position that marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, which makes it more dangerous than cocaine.

Asked pointedly if he believes people get addicted to pot, Warren says, “I think marijuana’s addictive. … If we think about the underlying science of what drives addiction in our brain, yes.”

That would explain, others pointed out later, why heroin addicts and alcoholics go through terrible withdrawal when they can’t get their drugs, compared to pot smokers or brownie eaters who can indulge for a day or so.

Yet, more testimony from a veteran suffering from PTSD showed the only way he can sleep at night is by medicating with marijuana, putting 10 milligrams of medical stuff in brownies. One brownie and about an hour later he’s knocked out. Six hours later, he’s ready to roll.

“Vehemently” opposed to recreational marijuana use, the man said he’s lost seven members of his unit to suicide or other deaths, including his squad leader, who “shot his face off” in a standoff with SWAT unit.

He contends VA doctors are failing him and fellow vets by prescribing opioids that fail to solve their problems but cause them to develop severe addictions.

The veteran did acknowledge later, though, he occasionally eats more than one brownie, but only one weekends.

And Kumar, shortly before his resolution was shipped to summer study, continued to argue, “medical marijuana in some certain states is nothing but an excuse for recreational marijuana.”

Local control vs. weed patrol

Reacting to ordinances passed last year by Metro Nashville and Memphis city councils, Rep. William Lamberth persuaded the House to endorse his measure enabling the state to pre-empt municipal efforts to control drugs.

Both Nashville and Memphis passed ordinances in 2016 giving police officers discretion to write civil citations for possession of small amounts of pot, as opposed to arresting people on misdemeanor charges. Memphis put its ordinance on hold after the state attorney general opined both moves are unconstitutional.

With the AG on his side, Lamberth says rich and poor, white and brown should be treated the same instead of having police officers decide who gets cited and who gets arrested in a traffic stop.

He points out 37 people have been cited in Nashville compared to 888 who’ve been arrested for simple marijuana possession since the ordinance passed and wonders why those 37 got off with a $50 fine.

“If we’re going to change the way we deal with criminal justice issues, we should do it so it matters to everybody and it actually works,” he says. “They could have gone to a policy that said they cite every single person to court and let the judge deal with it. Boom, no problem.”

Rep. Sherry Jones, a longtime proponent of medical marijuana and softening marijuana penalties, says Lamberth’s bill is not about cannabis, though she points out he is a former assistant district attorney and has strong opinions on marijuana.

“This legislation is not about cannabis. I submit to you this legislation is about whether you support or don’t support local control. If you want to take local control away from your governments, this is the bill to do that,” the Nashville Democrat said during floor debate.

Lending credence to the notion this is more about control than smoking weed, the Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Jack Johnson, a Republican, who has spent a good deal of time worrying as much about Nashville ordinances and amendments as he has about the Franklin district he represents. He is scheduled to present his measure on the Senate floor Monday.

A bigger bag

In a strange twist, while arguing about citations vs. criminal arrests, the Legislature might let people start carrying more weed around town, at least the amount that counts toward a felony.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat is pushing a bill through the Legislature allowing people to have up to an ounce of pot, instead of a half-ounce before they are charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor. He says it silly to fill up the jails with people caught with a small amount of pot.

“It’s still a work in progress, and we’re taking this committee by committee,” says Parkinson, pointing out the bill ties in with Democrats’ People’s Bill of Rights and criminal justice reform.

Lamberth agrees the state needs to take a comprehensive approach to criminal justice laws. But he says it will be hard to do that in regard to marijuana as long as the federal government considers pot a Schedule 1 drug.

“They need to get out of the way and let the states deal with this. We can work with the cities and counties and figure out what works for us, instead of worry about what the feds are gonna do with this,” Lamberth says.

Of course, more than half the states in the country have legalized medical marijuana and several have approved recreational. They might have put their faith in Democratic President Barack Obama, thinking he would be followed by Hillary Clinton. There’s no telling what President Donald Trump will do.

But as long as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally is holding sway in Tennessee, passing a medical marijuana law could prove difficult. While Faison accused the Senate of being scared to take action on medical marijuana (sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville), McNally says there’s no “fear” factor.

“That’s a little bit overblown,” he says, pointing out the substance is classified as a Schedule 1 with no real medical research showing it reduces pain.

Still, he says he’ll appoint a summer task face at Faison’s request, going along with a joint move by House Speaker Beth Harwell to encourage people to “delve deeply” into the matter.

The analysis

Regardless of conservative views emanating from General Assembly, a lot of people like pot, whether for smoking, eating, killing pain or dealing with disease. When the Legislature sucks it up and figures that out, Tennessee might catch up with the rest of the country.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com