NASHVILLE — Proponents of a bill to legalize medical cannabis in Tennessee clashed with law enforcement officials during and after testimony Wednesday in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
Supporters said the legislation would provide a safe alternative to opioids in a state that has high rates of addiction and fatal overdoses from the narcotic painkillers.
"This is not recreational. This is medical," said Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, an anesthesiologist and the bill's sponsor. "This is a medicine bill to help Tennessee's sickest residents. And I think it is time for Tennessee to take this step."
But Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch charged the measure is "an attack on safety, and it's my duty to address this."
Committee members, including Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, took no action and plan to come back next week to debate the bill.
It comes with Georgia now about to legalize medical marijuana after lawmakers there approved legislation for in-state sale and production of low-level THC varieties of the drug for medicinal purposes. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign it into law. Back in 2015, Georgia legalized its use for those from severe seizures, cancer and other illnesses. But there was no way to purchase it legally.
In Tennessee, Dickerson's measure has united various lawmakers with competing bills on one measure for the first time. It would put in place what he says is a strictly regulated regimen, first requiring a patient to have a "bona fide" professional relationship with a physician or doctor of osteopathic medicine to prevent patient shopping.
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It would also require "physician-confirmed conditions" that would qualify someone to obtain the drug. Doctors, at a patient's request, would have the option of providing the person with a form allowing them to obtain a medical cannabis card and obtaining access to dispensaries created under the bill. They would have to be operated by pharmacists.
The bill also creates a regulated and licensed, three-tier system of growers, processors and dispensaries.
During presentations, Dr. Amy Neff, a board-certified family physician, cited Tennessee's "opioid crisis," telling lawmakers that about 25 percent of her patients have acute or chronic pain issues.
"Western medicine doesn't really do well with pain," Neff said, adding about 20 percent of her patients with pain issues say they are using a cannabinoid. "For many of them, it is their source of relief for pain."
Dan Probon, a board member of the Tennessee Cannabis Trade Association, said the bill establishes a "licensed, highly regulated system" and would reduce law enforcement agencies' expenses.
The "entire premise of the bill is to create a partnership with law enforcement and public safety," he said.
And Cory Glenn of Winchester described having to sell his dentistry practice to combat leukemia and deal with chemotherapy and pain-related issues. He said he tried cannabinoids and was "amazed" and that it "absolutely did work. It was not a miracle cure but I was able to function."
But TBI Director Rausch, a former Knoxville police chief, said that while he's "not against the use of medical cannabis," there are four cannabinoid drugs currently legally available for some of the conditions "that this bill purports to address."
Critics say they're beyond the reach of many patients.
"I've heard costs being the issue," of the available drugs, Rausch continued. "I think the challenge I would put before you is get behind the president's effort to make all prescription medicines affordable if cost is the issue."
Rausch said while the bill "purports" to create a new classification of agricultural medicine, "it's clear to those of us who've closely monitored this effort what's going on. It's another attempt by the marijuana industry because of their previous failed attempts to capture states that are strong in agriculture like Tennessee."
He also cited a recent book, "Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence," written by Alex Berenson, an award-winning author and former New York Times reporter.
And the TBI chief also referred to a 2017 National Academy of Medicine report on health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. Rausch argued the report says the short- and long-term impacts of "both harms and benefits of cannabis remains elusive. It calls for more research, which is currently being done."
He also worried about the plant's production flowing into "black" and "gray" markets. Moreover, Rausch said, a medical cannabis law would also jeopardize $9 million in federal grants for his agency.
Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Dereck Stewart said that in speaking with his Colorado and Washington state counterparts, they tell him that the number of fatal crashes attributed to cannabis have "more than doubled.
"We think that would hold true in Tennessee," he said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a total of 34 states have approved a comprehensive, publicly available medical marijuana/cannabis programs. Colorado and Washington states are among them.
But both Colorado and Washington state have also legalized recreational use of marijuana in small amounts for adults, according to NCSL.
Spokespersons for the Tennessee Sheriffs Association and Tennessee Chiefs of Police fretted to senators about enforcement headaches and the threat of losing millions of dollars in federal grants if the medical cannabis legislation is enacted.
The debate later spilled into a legislative hallway when Dickson County Sheriff Jeff Bledsoe approached Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, a bill co-sponsor, and accused her of having been "disrespectful" to law enforcement during the hearing.
"We don't appreciate what you did in there," said Bledsoe, who towered over the diminutive Bowling.
Bowling's responses weren't audible in the crowded corridor. But the senator didn't appear to back off any as she was nearly surrounded by several sheriffs and law enforcement officials.
Speaking later, Bowling, who until this year had been skeptical of medical cannabis efforts, said her concern was Rausch's statements that she construed as an attempt to blur lines between medical cannabis efforts and the illicit marijuana-growing industry.
"We weren't there to talk about the marijuana industry," Bowling said. "We were there to talk about medical cannabis. And we were presenting a bill on medical cannabis. And for them to conflict and conflate the two different issues and then to use the words 'I wish they would just tell the truth.' This was about medical cannabis. That was not the truth."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.