Bill aims to legalize use of cannabis oil by suffering Tennesseans

Kimberly Brown, right, with Brown's German Shepherds, speaks as five-year-old Cora Vowell watches during a meeting to discuss the legalization of medical cannabis with Times Free Press editors and writers on April 1, 2015.

Conditions that could warrant cannabis use

Proposed legislation aims to give patients the ability to use cannabis oil if they have one of the six following "debilitating" conditions: * Stage II-IV terminal cancer * Parkinson's disease * Multiple sclerosis * Intractable seizures diagnosed from epilepsy * Huntington's disease * Crohn's disease * Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity * Any terminal health condition in which palliative use is recommended for end-of-life care Source: House Bill 1284/Senate Bill 1248 APPROVED DELIVERY METHODS * Vaporization or atomization * Oils * Ingestible gel caps * Transdermal patches Source: Source: House Bill 1284/Senate Bill 1248

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Sporting a pale pink helmet and flanked by her faithful German shepherd, 5-year-old Cora Vowell looks ready to hop on a tricycle, or maybe go barreling headfirst into a backyard football game.

But Cora cannot ride her bike or play sports.The helmet is part of her everyday outfit, protecting her head against the nine to 12 seizures that batter her body each day. Her German shepherd, Hulk, is a therapy dog, trained to alert Cora's parents when the seizures start.

Brought on by an accident more than a year ago, those seizures are a constant in the family's life - so frequent that her mother, Melissa Vowell, doesn't even break conversation as she swiftly reacts to one of her daughter's brief episodes, holding her close until it passes.

But just because the Vowells have grown familiar with Cora's epilepsy doesn't mean they feel OK with it. They aren't OK with her not knowing her ABCs. Or her steady intake of psychoactive drugs, which make her sleep through most of the school day but don't do much to relieve her seizures. They want more options.

That's why they are trying to bring momentum to one Tennessee group's 11th-hour efforts this legislative session to make cannabis oil legal for treating conditions like epilepsy. Physicians have told the Vowells that the oil could minimize Cora's seizures.

"It's heartbreaking to have to tell your child that she can't go play on the jungle gym or do karate like the other kids do," Melissa Vowell said. "It's just hard to explain to her, when she asks you to take the pain away every day."

The bill, introduced and sponsored by Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, and Sen. Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville, would allow marijuana to be grown, manufactured into medical products and sold to Tennesseans of all ages who suffer from a handful of debilitating medical conditions including epilepsy, terminal cancer and Parkinson's disease.

The investment group pushing the legislation, called TennCanGrow LLC, was started late last year by Murfreesboro health care attorney Ted LaRoche.

"We see this could be life-changing for many people," said LaRoche, who hopes to form a cannabis production company if the bill is passed. "It's a business opportunity for us, which allows us to focus on what is reasonable and doable when it comes to getting legislation passed. But it's a business that could help people."

Dickerson, an anesthesiologist, said he felt comfortable carrying the legislation after seeing how the "science has accumulated" on the therapeutic properties of cannabis oil.

"The national dialogue has changed dramatically on this issue over the last several years," Dickerson said.


Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, sponsored a bill that passed last year permitting a pilot program that uses low-THC marijuana cultivated by Tennessee Technological University as a therapy for epileptic children.

That program has stalled so far. But for advocates, it signaled an openness to rethinking marijuana legislation.

photo Five-year-old Cora Vowell has from 9-12 seizures a day. She and her mother, Melissa Vowell, attended a meeting to discuss the legalization of medical marijuana with Times Free Press editors and writers on April 1, 2015.

A Vanderbilt University poll in 2014 showed that 76 percent of Tennesseans are in favor of legalizing marijuana in some form, with 32 percent in favor of general legalization and 44 percent supporting only medicinal use.

Twenty-three states permit some kind of marijuana usage. Georgia passed a bill last week legalizing cannabis oil in medical treatment.

The wide spectrum of state legislation gives lawmakers a range of test cases to study, explained Erik Williams, a Colorado-based political consultant and medical marijuana activist brought in by TennCanGrow to direct the organization's government affairs. He is unrelated to Rep. Ryan Williams.

"We see how things have been done well, and how things have been done poorly," Erik Williams said. California, with its loose laws on dispensaries, is the prime example of what not to do, he said.

Dickerson and Ryan Williams say their bill lies on the strictest end of the spectrum, excluding recreational use and allowing only minimal levels of THC, the psychoactive agent that causes users to get high.

Tennessee companies that wish to sell cannabis would have to take on the entire operation - farming, production and distribution - to be licensed, and would have to install plant-to-sale tracking systems. Doctors would have to recommend patients to the Tennessee Department of Health, which would issue ID cards required at dispensaries. The cannabis would come in the form of gel tabs, a patch or oils.

Even without all the regulations, the advocates say that in comparison with prescription painkillers - heavily abused in Tennessee - marijuana is a far safer drug. And it could have far fewer side effects than medications epileptic patients now rely on, said Rita Moore, education services director for the Epilepsy Foundation of Southeast Tennessee.

"Those medicines can completely incapacitate them," she said. Conversely, "the side effects of [medical marijuana] are very, very minimal."

Ryan Williams says the strict language of the bill "eliminates one of biggest concerns, which is that medical cannabis is going to lead to a 'pot culture.'

"Tennessee was never meant to be a Colorado, and I don't want it to be," he said.

Still, he and Dickerson say some critics believe such legislation would pave the way for outright decriminalization.

On the other side, advocates for legal marijuana have mixed responses. Some have celebrated the bill, while others say it is too narrow and benefits only special interest groups. Production companies would have to pay $50,000 with their license application, and the fact that licensees must oversee the entire seed-to-sale operation effectively excludes small, independent farmers, critics say.

"This bill has nothing to do with ending suffering," said Steve Cooper, a Nashville-based medical marijuana advocate who runs a website called Tennessee Medical Marijuana Voter Initiatives. "It is all about some wealthy guys getting together, seeing the writing on the wall when it comes to what directions this country is moving in with decriminalizing marijuana, and trying to get in there on the ground floor to monopolize production."

Cooper favors medical marijuana legislation repeatedly introduced by Democratic Rep. Sherry Jones, which has not made it out of committee this session. That bill, he said, is less stringent on which medical conditions warrant cannabis, and does not limit production to all-in-one operations.

Dickerson said getting criticism from both sides makes him think he has "landed in the sweet spot" for workable legislation.

But the bill's outlook remains unclear. On Thursday, House Speaker Beth Harwell said she believed the bill needs more study and vetting, with input from the commissioner of public health.

The bill is scheduled to be discussed Wednesday in the House Health Committee and be presented in the Senate House and Welfare Committee.

Contact staff writer Kate Belz at or 423-757-6673.