"The Senate, bless their heart, are [sic] just scared to death."
That was Tennessee Rep. Jeremy Faison's response earlier this year after medical marijuana legislation he sponsored was pushed into summer study.
Summer study, in case you're wondering, is where many bills are parked when it becomes clear they don't have enough momentum behind them to get an actual vote in the current year. Think legislative limbo. Some bills never resurface. Some, though, attract more attention in later sessions.
With summer now turning to fall, it appears members of the legislature are becoming more serious than ever about the prospect of legalizing marijuana for medical use.
That, as I've long argued, is a good thing.
After being directed by House Speaker Beth Harwell (also a gubernatorial candidate) and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally to investigate the matter, Tennessee lawmakers will hold their first public medical marijuana hearing next Thursday in Nashville. The 10-member bipartisan panel includes three physicians, who, after participating in more discussions across the state, will make recommendations for a possible 2018 marijuana bill.
Today, 29 states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana — the bulk, of course, being for medical purposes only. Yet, of all Tennessee's eight contiguous neighbors, only Arkansas has approved medical use. We'd be wise to follow the Natural State's example.
As it stands now, the benefits of legalizing marijuana for qualifying patients far outweigh the detriments. Just ask the parents of children who've won battles against epileptic seizures, or combat veterans who are better able to manage their PTSD symptoms, or chronic pain sufferers who've been able to trade in their opioids for an organic cannabis alternative.
That last point alone should be enough to catapult us closer to medical legalization. In a state that, according to the most recent data, experiences nearly 1,500 opioid overdose deaths per year, where there are more opioid prescriptions than people, it's time we give medical marijuana a legitimate look as a safer option.
The statistics are encouraging in this regard. According to Colleen Barry, a Johns Hopkins researcher and professor, opioid deaths fell by an average of 25 percent in states where medical marijuana was made legal compared to states where across-the-board prohibition is still intact. And, as a recent study of nearly 3,000 patients demonstrates, some 92 percent preferred marijuana to opioids.
What we're seeing here is a case being built for medical marijuana to be considered as an exit drug, not the gateway drug of lore.
Unfortunately, the entire industry remains plagued by the waning Cheech and Chong stereotype, as well as the unrealistic fears instilled by War on Drugs messaging. That sentiment tide is turning, however, evidenced by an April CBS News poll showing 88 percent of Americans have favorable opinions of medical marijuana.
Speaking of polls — and this bodes well for patients in Tennessee, considering the political makeup of the state — survey results released earlier this year by Tennesseans for Conservative Action revealed that 52 percent of Volunteer State Republicans supported medical marijuana. Only 31 percent opposed, and another 17 percent were either unsure or needed more information to form a strong opinion.
Which brings us back to the upcoming public forums around the state. They hold the potential to provide an opportunity for marijuana advocates to make their cases, and for those seeking more knowledge to acquire the information they're seeking. These hearings could serve as a perfect example of how democratic decision-making should work.
Elected officials need not be "scared," as Rep. Faison previously phrased it, about medical marijuana. Nor should the voters.
It's past time to soothe such fears.
Contact David Allen Martin at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DMart423.