The medicinal effects of marijuana are no joke to Rita Moore, education services director for the Epilepsy Foundation of Southeast Tennessee.
"If they'd found [the medicinal effects] first," she says, "it would be a miracle drug. We have to get past this."
The "this" is what you already know -- the casual "high" you get from smoking marijuana, its ability to impair your judgment, its addictive qualities, its potential to be a gateway to other drugs, plus the jokes about "the munchies," Cheech & Chong, and Bob Marley music.
Moore isn't interested in legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. She's more concerned with the statistic on her business card, which says "1 in 100 [people] has epilepsy."
She wants legislators to pass pending legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly allowing the use of cannabis (marijuana) oil for the treatment of several diseases, including epilepsy. The legislation also mentions its use, mainly in nebulizers, time-release patches and gel tabs, for people with, among other illnesses, stage II, III or IV cancer, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), hepatitis C, Alzheimer's disease and serious spinal cord damage.
Its use, advocates told the Times Free Press in an editorial board meeting last week, can relieve pain, stop or significantly reduce epileptic seizures, and increase appetite. It can do those things and more, they said, without the negative effects that can come from smoking it.
Across the country, 24 states -- Georgia, last week, most recently -- have passed medical marijuana bills.
Tennessee should do the same, though it should give the specific bill introduced by Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, and Sen. Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville, its due diligence. The legislation calls for strict regulation, including a $50,000 fee with grower licensee applications, seed-to-sale tracking, user mandatory doctor involvement, Department of Health user cards and a physicians review panel.
The advocates were clear that "it doesn't help everyone" and that it is "not a cure-all." Opponents worry about the high fee that would restrict licensees to wealthy individuals or companies.
The bill is scheduled to be discussed in the House Health Committee and to be presented in the Senate House and Welfare Committee on Wednesday.
Where the rubber meets the road, cannabis oil has the possibility of helping someone like Cora Vowell, a 5-year-old Ooltewah resident who has epilepsy as the result of an accident less than two years ago. Her mother, Melissa, says her daughter has from nine to 12 seizures a day, must take seven daily medications, and can't play sports or ride a bike. She's lethargic a lot, must wear a helmet when she's alert and active, and is in the constant companionship of her seizure dog, Hulk.
Doctors say she "would be a good candidate" to try the customized marijuana, that it has the potential to get her off some of her meds. It is customized because it, like all the marijuana used in cannabis oil, would be grown to have more CBD (cannibidiol), which is non-psychoactive and offers the more medicinal effects, and less THC (tetrahydrocannibinol), which is the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis.
House sponsor Williams says his late father-in-law might have benefited from it with his end-stage cancer. And Senate sponsor Dickerson is an anesthesiologist who believes the "science has accumulated" on the oil's therapeutic properties.
Another Chattanooga area resident, whose name is not being used to protect her privacy, grows her own, reduces it to oil and treats her Crohn's disease with it. Without it, she says, she couldn't enjoy her children and do her job.
The bottom line, say advocates and members of TennCanGrow, an investment company pushing the legislation, is for patients to have "an option" and for that option to be the possibility that their overall "quality of life is changed."
"None of these people want to get high," said Dr. Elizabeth LaRoche, a Tennessee physician. "They just want to be functional."
Neither is it, advocates said, the "camel getting his nose under the tent" in order to one day push for legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana.
Tennessee legislators should either pass the legislation, delay it only in order to ask more and better questions, or explain to those who might benefit from it why they have to continue suffering for even one more year.