A far-reaching Tennessee medical marijuana bill passed a critical vote in the state Senate on Wednesday, but only after it was amended to delay its enactment, potentially indefinitely, until the federal government downgrades the illegality of marijuana.
The bill, introduced by two medical doctors, Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, and Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, will now advance to a Senate Government Operations committee for further debate.
A separate version of the bill, which is not contingent on the federal government, is scheduled to be debated in the House health committee next week.
As written, the legislation would create a legal infrastructure for Tennesseans with qualifying medical conditions to legally purchase marijuana oils, tinctures, lotions, pills and suppositories, but not joints, vapes or most edible products. The bill would also create a new government body, the Clinical Cannabis Commission, responsible for licensing dispensaries and issuing cannabis cards to eligible residents in Tennessee and eight neighboring states.
Originally, the Senate bill would have allowed Tennessee medical marijuana sales to begin next year. But a late amendment by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, delays the bill’s enactment until if and when the federal government reduces marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II. Schedule I drugs, like heroin, are always illegal, while Schedule II drugs include medicines that can be prescribed by doctors.
Watson advocated for delaying the bill out of concern for allowing dispensaries to sell marijuana while it remained illegal at the federal level.
At a hearing in the General Assembly on Tuesday, Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, the sponsor of a new medical marijuana bill, tries to hold back tears while describing a young seizure patient who benefited from treatment with cannabis. (Photo: Tennessee state government video stream)
Representatives of both the Tennessee Department of Health and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spoke in opposition to the bill. Testimony in favor came from a neurologist, a doctor specializing in pain management and Holly Ramsey, the mother of T.J., an 8-year-old Brentwood boy who suffers from daily epileptic seizures.
Ramsey, who said T.J. had suffered from two seizures as lawmakers debated, said marijuana-related products were the only treatment that had helped her son without damaging side effects.
“I can’t get the oil that he needs in this state, and it kills me,” Ramsey said, beginning to cry.
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, speaking in favor of the bill, said he preferred his family members use medical marijuana, even if it remained illegal at the federal level, to a legal opioid. He urged lawmakers not to “adopt the federal government’s paralysis on medical marijuana.”
Dickerson, who has supported several failed attempts to legalize medical marijuana in recent years, appeared to grow frustrated as lawmakers amended and delayed his legislation on Wednesday.
Because the federal government had left marijuana illegal at the same level as heroin, all Tennessee medical marijuana legislation was “difficult,” he said. Now, the state government and his fellow lawmakers were putting further roadblocks in the path of legation designed to help the “sickest people in Tennessee,” he said.
“We are doing the best we can with a tough situation,” Dickerson said. “We are trying to navigate a minefield here.”
Brett Kelman is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at 615-259-8287 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @brettkelman.