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Front Page - Friday, January 5, 2018

View from the Hill: Legislators can’t get past threat of medical marijuana

Heading into the 2018 legislative session, Rep. Jeremy Faison is looking to send a message about his medical marijuana bill: Tennessee won’t open the door to recreational pot without General Assembly action.

“The No. 1 thing I hear people are frustrated about with me is they just think this is the gateway to legalize marijuana,” Faison says.

The Cosby Republican from the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee admits he’s “struggling” to make lawmakers understand states with recreational marijuana adopted it through ballot initiatives in which people showed they “wanted it and demanded it.”

Tennessee, though, doesn’t have ballot initiatives. It does allow constitutional amendments, which would require approval by two consecutive general assemblies and a gubernatorial race in which a majority of those voting in that election would have to support the measure. Otherwise, the Legislature would have to approve recreational marijuana on its own.

“My whole thought on that is it’s not going to happen unless the General Assembly lets it happen,” Faison says. “My biggest opponents in the Senate are saying, ‘Jeremy you’re just trying to legalize it.’ They won’t listen to you when you say, ‘Listen guys, it’s not going to happen unless we let it happen as far as becoming a recreational state.’”

Sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville Republican and anesthesiologist, the bill would create a statewide commission to oversee the growing, manufacturing and dispensing of medical marijuana products.

Prescriptions would have to be written by physicians for people suffering from a number of debilitating illnesses, ranging from cancer to HIV and AIDS, severe arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and severe chronic pain and nausea.

Allowable products would be oils and extracts in capsules, pills, transdermal patches, ointments, lotions, lozenges and liquids. Smoking weed is out of the mix, Faison says.

The bill would be the “strictest in America,” he adds, the only way it could survive a legislative committee. It is filled with restrictions on growing facilities, dispensaries and the people who run them.

Taking things further, even if medical marijuana were to be approved by the state Legislature, this bill would be permissive legislation, requiring counties to hold referendums for approval of the growing and dispensing of the plant.

So, in a way, it would have to go to a ballot, even though Faison’s legislation appears to be a major buzz kill for folks dreaming of a legal pot high.

The other side

House Majority Leader Glen Casada predicts medical marijuana will be “front and center” for the House of Representatives in 2018.

“I don’t see it passing this year, but it’ll be debated,” explains Casada, a Franklin Republican.

In the upper chamber, a handful of senators are standing in the way of passage, including two physicians, Joey Hensley and Richard Briggs.

Hensley, a Hohenwald Republican, says he is afraid medical marijuana is a “stepping stone” to recreational use.

For him to back even medical use, Hensley says, “It would take me seeing studies done on marijuana, actual studies like we do on other drugs. That would be the first thing.”

Briggs, a Knoxville Republican, takes the same view, asking in a summer study meeting why the Drug Enforcement Administration doesn’t reclassify marijuana as schedule II drug instead of putting in a harsher category.

Oddly enough, half the states in the nation are thumbing their noses at the feds by legalizing medical marijuana and five enacting recreational use.

Sen. Jon Lundberg is another skeptic, calling Faison’s agenda a “clear path,” based on what the Legislature has approved over the last few years.

First, it legalized hemp, he points out, then it allowed the use of cannabidiol, an oil that can be shipped into the state for patients suffering from multiple seizures.

“That’s not far enough, so, OK, how far do you want to go with it. That’s my question. What is the definition? You’re talking about a product that’s still federally illegal,” Lundberg points out.

The Bristol Republican contends this debate sounds similar to the one lawmakers had roughly a decade ago when they passed legislation designed to make it easier for people suffering from traumatic pain to get opioids.

Tennessee is now in the midst of an opioid crisis with thousands of people dying every year from abuse, and the Legislature is expected to consider comprehensive measures in 2018 to crawl out from the mess.

But while legislators such as Faison contend medical marijuana could help ease the pain of the opioid epidemic, Lundberg says he hears word from his home state of Colorado that recreational marijuana hasn’t quelled opioid abuse there.

His lawmaker friends there tell him it’s no cash cow, either, and it could be leading to higher use among those 18 and younger.

“At a certain point, we have to take the covers off and say: People don’t want oil. They want recreational marijuana,” Lundberg adds. “They want to go down to a store and buy a joint. Somewhere we’ve got to be honest.”

What the numbers show

A 2016 study by the University of Michigan showed patients who used medical marijuana to deal with pain reported a 64 percent reduction in their use of opioid pain relievers.

Some 185 patients who used a medical marijuana dispensary in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also said they had fewer side effects and a 45 percent improvement in their quality of life after they started using cannabis.

However, the Michigan report points out the study conducted from 2013 to 2015 was done at a dispensary where people said they believe in the benefits of medical marijuana and were surveyed after they’d been using marijuana, “which may decrease the accuracy of their recollections.”

Further research in Colorado showed opioid-related deaths in Colorado dipped by more than 6 percent in the first two years after the state began to sell recreational pot. The development reversed a 14-year trend of increases in opioid-related deaths there since the turn of the century.

Another study showed legalizing recreational marijuana did not affect the number of Colorado teens who smoke pot or think it’s dangerous. Yet it points out years of medical marijuana sales could have skewed the numbers.

National survey figures found the percent of Colorado teens who said they’d used marijuana in the past month was no different from 2010 to 2012 before recreational pot than from 2013 to 2015, post-legalization years.

They might have been smoking it already.

In Washington State, the study found young people in eighth and 10th grades started using pot more after the state legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. The study also showed they were less likely to think marijuana posed a moderate or great health risk.

The analysis

Regardless of where people stand on medical marijuana or recreational use, people are smoking a lot of the stuff in Tennessee illegally.

This includes young people, and they’ve been doing it for decades. It’s said to be the state’s biggest cash crop, and a good deal of it is smuggled into Tennessee, as well.

As a result, the state’s jails are filled with men and women busted for burning weed or holding small amounts, a problem catching the attention of several lawmakers.

Still, the state Legislature balked at efforts by Nashville and Memphis to cut people a break for minor possession offenses.

Another move to increase the amount of marijuana someone can possess before they face a felony charge ran into a legislative roadblock in 2017.

With the legislative session set to start Jan. 9, Faison reiterates what he’s been saying for years: He doesn’t favor recreational marijuana.

Yet, he notes: “What we’re currently doing to fight drugs isn’t working. It’s over 90 percent rate of recidivism when we pick up a person for using an illegal drug.

“I am in favor of us looking at what we can do until something actually works. Only a fool would keep doing the same thing over and over and over.

“This whole idea of arresting and putting people behind bars to stop rampant drug use isn’t working. We as a state and as a country need to relook at what we’re doing, and we’ve given people felony records for their whole entire life now, and they’ve haven’t hurt a soul except themselves. So, what we’re doing isn’t working.”

So. what about these felony convictions for pot possession?

“You should never get a felony for marijuana,” Faison explains. “It’s a plant for goodness sake. What in the world are we doing? We’re destroying people’s lives.”

More than likely, a lot of other people’s lives will be altered before this debate is over, whether they’re smoking a joint to ease the pain or killing one of their buddies to control the marijuana market.

Sam Stockard covers the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.