published Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Tennessee bill urges medical marijuana

Poll
Should medical marijuana be legalized?

NASHVILLE — A Democratic legislator has filed a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would authorize prescription sales of marijuana for medicinal purposes in Tennessee under somewhat stringent regulations.

"It's just simply a matter of being rational and compassionate," said Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, sponsor of HB1385. "It would apply to only the most severely debilitated people ... children suffering a hundred [epileptic] seizures a day, people on chemotherapy, people with multiple sclerosis ... people with a plethora of diseases" who now must either leave the state to get marijuana or make their purchases illegally.

Tennessee allowed marijuana by prescription under state law for a period in the 1980s, but that law was repealed, and attempts to revive it have died in legislative committees since -- most recently in 2012. But Jones and Doak Patton, president of the National Organization for Marijuana Legalization in Tennessee, say times might have changed in the state because of developments on the national front.

They said the push could be seen as parallel -- or a juxtaposition -- to the ongoing push toward allowing the sale of wine in grocery stores, wherein expanded sales of an alcoholic beverage for consumer convenience are sought.

"I think anybody would tell you alcohol is much worse than marijuana," Jones said. "If you think alcohol should be legal, then you would think that for sure medical marijuana should be legal."

Twenty-one other states allow marijuana sales for medical purposes, and Colorado gained national attention by authorizing sales for recreational purposes, effective on New Year's Day. A few other states have eliminated or minimized criminal penalties for simple possession, but Tennessee law makes possession or sale of "pot" a crime.

Jones' bill, which she says was drafted by Bernie Ellis, a longtime champion of medical marijuana once convicted of providing the drug without charge to individuals with medical problems, would allow prescriptions only to those suffering from a "qualifying medical condition," who would have to be certified by a physician and pay a $25 registration fee. Such patients would get a special card, which would allow qualifying pharmacies -- there would be a procedure for getting qualified -- to provide the drug.

The bill has a long list of qualifying conditions -- including cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV and AIDS, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig's disease, Crohn's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder or Alzheimer's disease -- and a catchall adding "any other medical condition or its treatment as certified or prescribed by practitioners and approved by the (state) health department."

The last medical marijuana bill was sponsored by former Rep. Jeanne Richardson and former state Sen. Beverly Marero, both Memphis Democrats. Both said at the time they were told privately by several Republican legislators that they were supportive of the concept, but feared negative reaction from primary opponents or the public to embracing any sort of legalized marijuana.

The bill died in committees, and Richardson and Marrero lost bids for re-election in 2012 after Republican-controlled redistricting left them running against fellow Democrats for re-election.

In recent weeks, Tennessee media have given the issue some attention. WSMV-TV of Nashville, for example, reported on a family moving from the Nashville area to Colorado so a child with horrific seizures could have access to the cannabis-based drug they believed they needed, while Johnson City Press columnist Robert Houk suggested that, politically, Democrats should offer such legislation as a means of contrasting themselves with Republicans.

Patton, while acknowledging his organization has an ultimate goal of legalizing marijuana along the lines of Colorado's law, said Jones's bill is merely a matter of "compassion for people who are suffering." It could be a step along the way toward Tennessee following Colorado's example, he said, but a small one.

"Maybe as people begin to think about it (their attitudes could change)," said Patton, a former Middle Tennessee assistant district attorney general who prosecuted drug offenders. "This really isn't about marijuana at all. It's about freedom and liberty."

Jones said her brother died two years ago of Crohn's disease and would have benefited from medical marijuana in the latter stages of his illness. The bill explicitly includes patients in hospice care.

"I don't mind being out there on this," said Jones, who has gained considerable media attention by advocating children's rights.

She said other legislators are "just scared" about bringing up the subject during the Republican supermajority rule, fearing characterization as drug supporters.

So far, the the bill has no Senate sponsor -- a prerequisite for passage. Jones said efforts are underway to find a senator willing to sponsor the bill.

Contact Tom Humphrey at humphreyt@knoxnews.com or 615-242-7782.

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