Medical Cannabis and Decriminalization Efforts Face Long Odds in the Legislature

For a group of scofflaws who regularly file bills thumbing their noses at federal law, the Tennessee General Assembly’s anti-pot crowd sure cares a lot about the federal classification of cannabis.

As usual, the legislature is considering dozens of cannabis bills this session, ranging from the establishment of a commission to study the drug’s potential medical uses all the way up to full-blown recreational legalization. The common thread: They’re mostly going nowhere.

Opposed lawmakers cite, among other things, the federal designation of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, or one with no medical use. But the U.S. Department of Justice does not meddle with the 40 states and territories that already offer some form of medical marijuana, and a diverse group of Tennessee lawmakers is still trying to make the state the latest to join the group.

“We know that patients are going to the illicit, recreational market to find relief,” says Rep. Bryan Terry (R-Murfreesboro), a doctor and the chair of the House Health Committee. “We are looking at ways to decriminalize patients and help them find relief.”

But it hasn’t been so simple. Even small efforts at progress have been stymied. Terry and a fellow doctor, Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), carried a bill that would slightly raise THC limits for state employee drug tests. The goal was to prevent users of legal CBD products from losing their jobs if tiny amounts of THC show up in their urine tests — CBD being a legal, nonpsychoactive cannabis byproduct sold legally in Tennessee and used for therapeutic purposes. But the bill failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. Briggs blamed the failure in part on misinformation from prosecutors, who he said should have had nothing to do with the employment-related legislation.

“It was very frustrating,” Briggs says.

Another bill would allow veterans with quadriplegia from injuries sustained during military service to use liquid extract cannabis. That one isn’t dead yet, but it’s been slow-walked in both the House and Senate.

“At some point, Tennessee is going to have to deal with this issue,” Democratic Rep. John Mark Windle, a National Guard officer and one of the sponsors of the legislation, told the House committee. “It’s going to be sooner or later, but the public will demand it from each of you.”

More aggressive attempts at loosening the state’s marijuana laws have also faced pushback. A Republican-backed medical cannabis bill failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, meaning it’s dead for the year. A small cohort of Republicans in the supermajority has joined Democrats in pushing for a medical cannabis framework in Tennessee for years, with no success.

The issue has produced some of the strangest coalitions at the legislature, with right-wing members in some cases joining superminority Democrats to push for weed reform.

Sen. Janice Bowling, a Baptist Republican from Tullahoma, had tears in her eyes as she urged her colleagues to back the medical cannabis bill. After initially balking at the concept of legalized medical marijuana, Bowling was converted, she said, by stories of families with sick children desperate for relief and by reading international research on the drug. Bowling also cited the potential to reduce Tennesseans’ use of addictive opioids. 

“Please consider what I’m asking,” she told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which ultimately voted the bill down. 

Bowling said a vote against the bill, which established a regulatory framework for medical cannabis, was “not only short-sighted, it’s ill-informed and it’s a danger to every one of us in the state of Tennessee.” She was joined by one perhaps-surprising committee member, conservative Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts of Springfield.

“I’ve gotten to the point where I realize how many people I actually know are driving to Illinois,” Roberts said. “They’re looking for relief. The genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back in.”

In addition to the push for medical cannabis, some members are trying to decrease punishments for possession and use of the drug, especially in small amounts. Democrats are sponsoring several decriminalization efforts, though they have largely failed to gain traction this year.

Asked if the bills that are still alive have a chance of passing, House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie was succinct.

“I’m always hopeful, but being realistic, no,” he said.

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