Both the Tennessee House and Senate on Monday approved legislation allowing for the medical use of oils made from non-psychoactive strains the cannabis plant family.
The low-THC “cannabidiol” or CBD oils can aid in the treatment of intractable seizures, particularly in children, but without intoxicating side effects.
Knoxville Republican Becky Duncan Massey, the Senate sponsor, took pains to differentiate her legislation from efforts to legalize higher-level THC cannabis for treatment of other chronic conditions.
“It is not a medical marijuana bill,” she told members of the upper chamber during debate on SB280. “This does not in anyway legalize the smoking of marijuana.” Massey said CBD oil “has no street value.”
The bill passed 26-0, with several Republicans abstaining.
The legislation would carve out an exception in the state’s marijuana prohibition statutes for people, under a doctor’s supervision, to use cannabis oils containing less than one percent tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical in marijuana chiefly responsible for producing mind-altered states.
Massey said patients will be allowed to have the medication if they have paperwork from the state indicating their diagnosis met the necessary qualifications. And while Tennessee doctors would write the diagnosis to allow their patients to access the medicine, they could not actually prescribe the oil, she added.
Massey noted that, “ironically,” other drugs used to control seizures have a lot more potential for abuse, addiction and physiological harm.
“Cannabis oil doesn’t work for everybody, but neither does traditional medicine,” Massey said.
The bill’s sponsors worked with many interested parties, including the Department of Safety, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the American Academy of Pediatrics to craft a better bill, Massey said.
Last year the General Assembly passed a law allowing Tennessee Tech to grow, produce and administer CBD oil for a study of its effects. However, the federal government refused to sign off on the study, Massey said.
“They are not giving out permits at this point in time, so we were not able to do that,” Massey said.
While the measure seemed to have broad support, some Senate Republicans voiced concern about the current federal status of the substance, as well as the lack of federal oversight or regulations.
Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson questioned who regulates the production and quality of the drug if it’s “not regulated” by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
With “no governmental certifying body” to indicate the product meets certain standards, people might not know for sure what they are really getting, suggested Watson, a physical therapist from North Chattanooga.
But Massey countered that the states in which the medication is produced have their own state-level regulations in lieu of federal oversight and controls.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, a pharmacist, also worried about how the federal government might view Tennessee’s move. He worried that Tennessee patients could be charged under federal law for criminal marijuana possession, since the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies all cannabis plant materials and extracts as Schedule I drugs having no legitimate use recognized by the government.
Massey acknowledged that while qualifying Tennesseans would not face state-level prosecution, they could still be subject to arrest and imprisonment at the hands of the feds.
Another pharmacist who moonlights as a state senator, Gallatin Republican Ferrell Haile, was more supportive of the use of CBD oils. He noted that many parents considering it for their children are likely in desperate straits and would be willing to risk the DEA’s wrath if it potentially means saving their child’s life.
Massey agreed kids may unnecessarily die without access to this medication. “Ultimately we’ve got to trust the parents” who’ve “tried everything” and “exhausted every hope they had” to do what’s best for children, she said.
In the House a short while after the Senate’s vote, Cosby Republican Jeremy Faison accepted the Senate version of the bill, and, after including an amendment to the bill that adds epilepsy to the treatable conditions for the medication, the lower chamber passed the bill with no debate, 95-0, with one member abstaining.
“This is a big deal for Tennessee,” said Faison on the floor after it passed. “The people of all over helped, from Mountain City to Memphis, and it was just a testament of all the work that they have done to see that much green on the board, and we didn’t have to speak about the bill.”
As the House version of the measure carried an additional amendment, the bill now returns to the Senate for the upper chamber’s approval.
Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.