For the first time since Lamar Alexander was governor, a medical marijuana legalization measure appeared on the full floor of a Tennessee legislative chamber. But unlike three decades ago, when the General Assembly approved the use of government-grown cannabis with a doctor’s prescription, this year’s proposal was snuffed.
On Tuesday, Nashville Democrat Sherry Jones, a long-time advocate of easing pot prohibition, made a motion to amend a GOP-sponsored bill dealing with elder abuse to include language allowing physician-prescribed cannabis. The amendment sought to grant ailing Tennesseans the right to possess up to one ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants at home. Sufferers of serious illnesses like cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, ALS, Alzheimer’s and post-traumatic stress disorder were among those listed who would have qualified under the provision.
“I believe firmly that cannabis helps people, and it helps people that have debilitating pain and disease,” Jones said on the House floor. “I am asking those of you who believe in compassionate care for all people — and you have seen those people up here and you know who they are and you see how they are suffering — to help me pass something to help them. Let’s show a little compassion to some of these people who have been coming up here for years.”
The Republican supermajority however voted en masse to kill the medical marijuana amendment, 73-22. Three Democrats were listed as having not voted.
Criminal Justice Committee Chairman William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, spoke forcefully against the amendment. He said it hadn’t been vetted properly by the chamber’s committee system.
“In Washington, D.C., there are all kinds of different ideas that they toss onto a bill that have nothing to do with that bill — that’s not how we run this chamber,” Lamberth, a former prosecutor from Cottontown, said on the floor.
Lamberth said members of the Criminal Justice committee who voted to to set medical marijuana legalization aside for another year “did not take this issue lightly.” He asserted that Republican lawmakers are “very serious about continuing this discussion,” and suggested Rep. Jones wasn’t prepared to convincingly present her case when the bill came up in subcommittee.
“We want to hear from doctors, patients, individuals — none of which actually showed up in the criminal justice committee to testify for your bill,” said Lamberth.
Jones shot back that she didn’t feel compelled to invite a list of witnesses to the earlier proceedings because Republicans had already made it known to her “that the bill wasn’t going to pass out of that committee.” She denied she was “playing politics” with with the issue by attempting to tack it on to an unrelated bill so late in the session, noting that the elements of her amendment were the result of years of legislative talks.
The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted in late March to send Jones’ perennial medical marijuana legislation to summer study following a motion by Morristown Republican Tilman Goins, who voiced concern the group had lacked the time to properly vet and weigh the outcomes of moving forward with such a measure.
Jones alleged on the floor that Republicans had pushed her proposal to the side to make way for their own measure, which they subsequently also tabled for the year.
“I just thought that since the Republicans had said that they were going to pass their own, and then withdrew it, that we needed to try to do something for people,” Jones told TNReport later Tuesday.
Jones said she hopes the “70 percent of their constituents in favor” of allowing the medical use of marijuana will put pressure on their representatives to reconsider their positions.
“The right thing to do is pass that, and let them have those little plants,” Jones said.
Recent statewide polls by Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University have shown a sizeable majority of Tennesseans favor legalizing marijuana use for at least medical use. Additionally, 23 states, as well as D.C., have legalized the medical use of marijuana, and support for legalizing the plant polls 51 percent nationwide.
Jones also pointed out the measure had been introduced several times in the years prior, but had never come up on either chamber’s floor for a vote by the full body.
The Tennessee Medical Marijuana Act was first carried in 2005 by then-Sen. Steve Cohen of Memphis, as Senate Bill 1942.
But although the Legislature was Democrat-led at that point in time, the measure failed 3-3 in the Senate’s General Welfare committee. Its House companion never received a hearing before being taken “off notice” April 19, 2005.
A similar measure appeared in 2007, carried by Jones, but was deferred to summer study — a familiar resting place since.
But while it may seem like extremely long odds to get the General Assembly to even consider discussing changes to the state’s pot policies, medical marijuana was allowed in the Volunteer State once before.
In 1984, then-Gov. Lamar Alexander signed a law to include Tennessee in the federal medical marijuana state research programs. However, the program petered out later that decade, given the difficulty in receiving approval for federal marijuana. And when AIDS patients began inundating the federal program with applications in the early 90s, it was scrapped altogether, and subsequently repealed in Tennessee in 1992.
Two medical marijuana measures — the one sponsored by Jones, and a more-restrictive proposal crafted and sponsored by Republicans — were already sent to summer study by their respective committees earlier this year, amid fears of increased drug abuse by Tennesseans, as well as of running afoul of federal supremacy.
But the tone of the federal debate could be changing as well.
A bill filed at the federal level with bipartisan support — co-sponsored by Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — would reclassify cannabis from Schedule I down to Schedule II, expand access to the plant for research, allow inter-state transport of some medicines derived from the plant and allow banks more freedom to work with the industry.
The U.S. House version is co-sponsored by Tennessee’s own 9th District Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen.
Additionally, the National Institute of Drug Abuse recently gave the green light to supply marijuana for a study approved by the federal government in 2014 to consider the effects of marijuana on veterans suffering from PTSD.
Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.