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Medical Pot Bill Punted to Summer Study

Despite widespread public support, lawmakers say they don’t know enough about issue to relax prohibition

For at least a decade members of the Tennessee Legislature has been snuffing out attempts to make cannabis legal for medical uses, and this week they did it again.

On Tuesday, Criminal Justice Subcommittee of the House of Representatives sent the latest medical marijuana legislation to summer study, commonly a legislative proposal graveyard.

Sherry Jones’s “Medical Cannabis Access Act” — House Bill 561 — sought to allow Tennesseans suffering from certain chronic and terminal maladies to use cannabis to treat their illnesses.

Some of the ailments for which Jones’s legislation sought to specifically allow doctors to prescribe marijuana include cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, ALS, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease. Other “chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition(s)” listed that physicians could recommend cannabis to treat or alleviate symptoms are cachexia or wasting syndrome, severe and debilitating chronic pain, severe nausea and seizures and “severe and persistent muscle spasms.”

In addition, hospice patients could legally obtain marijuana, as well as anyone else suffering an an injury or disease approved for marijuana treatment by the state Department of Health.

Jones said the legislation was the result of “10 years of work,” and had a long time had been spent on making sure they “get it exactly right.”

“We firmly believe that medical marijuana should be allowed to help people that we know it can help,” Jones said to the subcommittee, explaining there were “thousands of studies that prove that medical marijuana can help people.”

Jones also noted that marijuana was legal in Tennesseans in the mid-1980’s, under then-Gov. Lamar Alexander.

But some members of committee said they still aren’t ready for the “very big step” of adding marijuana to the list of drugs available for a doctor to describe, despite national and statewide polling that shows overwhelming public support for it.

Polls from both Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University have consistently shown Tennesseans favor allowing people with serious illnesses or injuries to use doctor-prescribed marijuana. A survey from Vanderbilt in December showed nearly 70 percent approved of some form of marijuana legalization. An MTSU poll last year indicated less than 20 percent of Tennesseans think pot should remain altogether illegal.

“When you sort everyone out, you end up with 33 percent saying marijuana use should be allowed in general, 36 percent saying marijuana use should be allowed only for medical purposes, and 18 percent saying marijuana use should remain entirely banned, even for medical purposes,” said Ken Blake, director of the MTSU poll. “Another 6 percent are undecided about a general ban but would permit medical use, and the rest say they aren’t sure.”

Nevertheless, Morristown Republican Tilman Goins said lawmakers on the committee haven’t time yet to vet the legislation and determine if “the actual process is proper to move forward.”

“That’s where I have anxieties,” Goins said. He joked that he knows “some would prescribe something for my anxieties — but that’s not legal yet.”

Goins made a motion for the committee to study the bill in the Summer, when they could take more time to consider it. However, he added that he wants “a commitment of a true summer study,” so that he can explain “knowledgeably” whatever vote he may eventually make.

The Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus issued a press release shortly after the vote criticizing the deferment and the “restrictive version” the GOP seems willing to support,

A bipartisan federal initiative to allow states to craft their own medical marijuana policies has been introduced into the U.S. Senate by Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand. Nevada Republican Dean Heller has also signed on to the legislation.

Congressman Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrats, is co-sponsoring the U.S. House version of the legislation with Alaska Republican Don Young.

And in October, Alexander, the Volunteer State’s senior senator, released a statement saying “Washington, D.C. should not be telling states what to do” with their individual pot policies.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana access programs.

Alex Harris can be contacted at

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