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‘Summer Study’ Planned for GOP-Crafted Medical Cannabis Proposal

Legislature once again punts on pot for the seriously ill, but longtime TN marijuana activist says there’s reason for optimism

Bernie Ellis never thought he’d see a medical marijuana legalization proposal he just couldn’t abide. Then he saw the one drawn up by Republicans in the Tennessee Legislature this session.

The 66-year-old retired epidemiologist turned stalwart medical marijuana activist told TNReport last week that a yet-to-be finalized distribution system outlined by Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville and Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville seems too restrictive and overly bureaucratic.

It’s definitely for the best that the plan has been sent back to the “summer study” drawing board for more work, said Ellis.

The Dickerson-Williams legislation proposed the creation of a tightly controlled medical marijuana franchise system to provide state-approved cannabis products to sufferers of serious illnesses whom the General Assembly deems worthy. Also part of the plan were steep bonding-fees and tracking requirements on a strictly limited number of producers and distribution points in the state.

Additionally, Tennesseans would have to meet several restrictions themselves, such as giving up their drivers license, if they qualify to register.

Dickerson, an anesthesiologist, told reporters last week that he’s looking forward to a “very thoughtful summer study.”

Ellis was relieved to see the legislation punted for the year because to him it seemed loaded with unnecessary regulation, laden with centralized planning and encumbered by punitive caveats for would-be enrollees.

The requirement that medicinal pot users give up the privilege of legally operating a motor vehicle seemed especially onerous and uncalled for, said Ellis. He pointed to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study released in February that, after factoring in age and gender, showed marijuana use does not cause a significant increase in risk of accidents.

Ellis also criticized the limited number of ailments covered. “If this law passed as currently written, we’d be the only state in the country to prohibit glaucoma and AIDS patients from accessing medical cannabis,” he said.

But Ellis stressed that taken in sum, even with its many imperfections, neither the bill nor the fact that this issue has once again been begged off for the year by the Legislature is bad news.

A key development this year over years previous is that there’s been a noteworthy elevation in “the dialogue around the evidence for medical cannabis,” said Ellis, who is accustomed to taking the long view with respect to drug-war reform.

Given that only in the past year have majority-party Republicans in the Volunteer State indicated a willingness to even discuss the potential medicinal benefits of the country’s most maligned plant family, Ellis is convinced the conversation is on the right track.

“This was just not the right bill — too many problems with it,” Ellis told TNReport.

Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis.

For the past year and a half, GOP lawmakers have been taking the cannabis plant with increasing seriousness, amid growing public support for making marijuana available to those who need it to treat debilitating health conditions.

Last year the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to legalize industrial hemp. And this year, a bill legalizing the use of low-THC cannabis oil has been moving steadily through the legislature, and looks likely to pass.

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