GOP-Backed Medical Marijuana Legislation Advances in House

A Republican-backed medical marijuana proposal cleared the House Health Subcommittee’s final calendar this week.

The bill’s sponsor, subcommittee Chairman Ryan Williams, a Cookeville Republican, explained the measure was “a best effort to consider options for those Tennesseans across this state who are facing terminal illness.”

The bill was developed in association with Ted LaRoche, a Murfreesboro attorney and managing member of TennCanGrow LLC, an “investment group” working to support efforts to make medical cannabis available in a restricted fashion to Tennesseans in need.

LaRoche, former legal counsel for the National Healthcare Corporation, said he would like to see Tennessee join the 23 other states that allow their citizens to treat serious or life-threatening ailments with cannabis — and, in time, combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

In its current form, the bill would allow for “very limited, narrow” delivery mechanisms of medical cannabis, including the use of nebulizers, gel-tabs and time-release patches, and would not resemble recreational marijuana at all, Williams said.

The illnesses covered by the bill include terminal cancer in stages II through IV, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, intractable seizures, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, and damage to the spinal tissue resulting in intractable muscle spasms.

Williams’ measure would also strictly govern cannabis production.

For instance, for each grand division of the state there would be two grow facilities, and 33 dispensaries statewide where Tennesseans with these diagnoses would be able to use their Health Department-issued marijuana registration card.

Williams explained those dispensaries “will have to be licensed by the state of Tennessee. They will have to have performance and payment bonds,” as well as pay a “nonrefundable application fee.” He added that any companies who do participate in the new industry would also have to “provide seed-to-sale technology” to allow the tracking of cannabis from genesis to the end-result.

Williams later told TNReport the technology for “seed-to-sale” tracking is already in use by many food-producers, though it would be “new and newer to this industry.”

There was no subcommittee discussion following Williams’ explanation, and although the “Ayes” were voiced a bit half-heartedly, the proposal passed easily to the lower chamber’s full Health Committee.

This would not be the first time the Volunteer State allows cannabis for medical use: in the mid-80s, then-Gov. Lamar Alexander gave approval to medical marijuana legislation.

The issue polls positively among voters, with polls from both Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University consistently showing a large majority of Tennesseans favor moving forward on allowing doctor-prescribed marijuana.

But last week a medical marijuana measure annually brought by Nashville Democrat Sherry Jones was sent to summer study in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, due to committee-member concerns the panel hadn’t had the time to fully vet and consider the legislation themselves.

Jones told TNReport after the Health Committee hearing that while she wants to see medical marijuana legislation approved to help the Tennesseans “who are suffering needlessly,” she’s concerned this bill hasn’t been well thought out.

According to Jones, the bonding requirements and other restrictions on the industry side will limit those able to begin producing marijuana to “some out-of-state entity that already” produces cannabis and has the necessary cash-on-hand, rather than giving some Tennessee farmers a new cash-crop.

Jones also criticized the legislation’s requirement for the terminally ill to give up driving privileges in order to participate in the medical marijuana program. “You don’t give up your driver’s license for alcohol, or for morphine, or anything else, but you will have to for marijuana,” she said.

Williams later confirmed to TNReport that surrendering a driver’s license would be a condition of receiving a state-issued medical marijuana card.

According to Williams, most of the people diagnosed with these illnesses already aren’t driving. And “it gives law enforcement a comfort level,” because there’s been no tests developed determine if someone is driving under the influence of cannabis.

But Williams also said the number of dispensaries allowed under the law was just a starting point to get the discussion rolling, and not necessarily “set in stone.”

Should his bill pass the full Health Committee, Williams said it would next be heard by the Criminal Justice Committee, as it does also deal with criminal law.

At the national level, a bipartisan measure to allow states to craft their own cannabis codes without federal interference — sponsored in the Senate by Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat — has been gaining support. In the U.S. House, Memphis Democrat Steve Cohen is co-sponsoring the measure.

And during the run up to the November elections last year, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced he was in favor of allowing states to dictate their own pot policies.

Cannabis Oil for Intractable Seizures Headed to Floor

Elsewhere in medical-related Cannabis news, a bill to allow Tennesseans to use a low-THC cannabis oil to treat intractable seizures is currently assigned to the Calendar Committee in both chambers, awaiting scheduling for full floor votes.

The measure — HB197/SB280 — is being carried by two Northeast Tennessee Republicans: Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby and Sen. Becky Massey of Knoxville.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday with seven members voting in the affirmative, and two abstaining.

Voting for the measure were Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, as well as fellow Republican Sens. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, Doug Overbey of Maryville and Kerry Roberts of Dickson, as well as Memphis Democrats Sara Kyle and Lee Harris, the Senate Minority Leader.

The two members abstaining from the vote were Republican Sens. Mike Bell of Riceville and John Stevens of Huntingdon.

It passed the House Health Committee Wednesday on a voice vote, after being amended by the sponsor to expand the treatment to those with seizures from epilepsy, as well.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.