Thursday, April 29, 2010

Medical Marijuana's Dramatic Rebound: How It Looked from the Inside

Posted By on Thu, Apr 29, 2010 at 12:51 PM

Thousands of Tennesseans suffering from cancer and other maladies — and thousands more of their families, spouses and loved ones — got a boost of hope when the House Health and Human Resources Committee voted Tuesday to send a proposed medical marijuana bill for further study by the State Board of Pharmacy.

It was a remarkable turn of events for the dogged citizens' coalition that has been pushing the Safe Access to Medical Cannabis Act. (And not just because it seemed to slap the smirk off some of the state media covering the issue.) Just last week, the bill appeared on slippery footing as the same committee members voted 12-9 against the measure recommending study. This time, though, the measure passed with bipartisan support, with just four Republicans voting no.

What made the difference? According to Bernie Ellis, the voting-reform advocate who has emerged as a leader in Tennessee's medical-marijuana movement, it was a combination of factors — including hundreds of constituent emails bombarding legislators; an amendment adding the TBI and the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association to the study group; a lobbying effort that put representatives in touch with Tennesseans directly affected by the bill; and a full hearing three weeks ago that helped convince lawmakers the issue was both serious and urgent.

Above all, Ellis says, it was a meeting between two men that made the difference: John Donovan, a 25-year-old Red Bank, Tenn. resident who began suffering at age 16 from juvenile-onset rheumatoid arthritis — a condition portrayed movingly in a widely read Chattanooga Times Free Press article — and Rep. Joey Hensley, the Republican MD from Hohenwald who chairs the committee.

Below, Pith excerpts an email Ellis sent describing the process that led to the vote.

John [Donovan] and I spoke and we decided he should come to Nashville yesterday (Monday). Starting around noon, John visited with perhaps 15-20 legislators, slowly limping (painfully) from office to office. He was accompanied by Chad Fowler, an Iraq War vet who uses cannabis medically (and illegally) for injury-related degenerative joint disease.

Both John and Chad shared their stories, giving copies of the Chattanooga paper and letters describing their conditions and need for safe access to cannabis. Several more of us accompanied those two patients and also discussed support for the bill with the same legislators. (I mainly ran to the next office to see if there was anyone John and Chad could speak with.)

Perhaps the pivotal meeting was with Rep. Joey Hensley, the only physician in the legislature. Dr. Hensley gave John almost 30 minutes face-to-face and he also gave Chad about 15 minutes one-on-one. I gave him more information and [medical-marijuana advocate] Paul Kuhn likewise brought requested information to Rep. Hensley. I do believe that Dr. Hensley's willingness to listen to these men's stories and to have his own questions answered really changed the climate. From being the leading voice of opposition last week against moving forward on safe access, Dr. Hensley became a clear and vocal supporter of further study today. His voice carries a lot of weight, but I also believe that having many legislators meet actual patients and give them a few minutes spoke volumes and provided a personal education on this issue that perhaps has been lacking for many of them.

Right up to the last minute, I wasn't sure whether our amendment would pass. I was tracking down two legislators to get them back in the committee room to vote, so I missed most of the discussion on the amendment. I did hear (and do support) adding the TBI and representatives of the Sheriffs Association to the study process, which was recommended by Rep. Dean. The only thing I heard was when I walked back in the room and heard a call for "yeas" (which were noticeable) and then "nays" (that were noticeable by their [relative] absence). Then it was on to a round of press interviews and coming home to see Andy Sher's (Chattanooga) story on the Safe Access vote having already made it to AP and on to 2 dozen web-sites.

Let me tell you ... the world doesn't look like the same place right now. ... The policy arena around cannabis is shifting mightily on all levels and in all directions today and Tennessee is both a beneficiary and a contributor to that change. It's about time.

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