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Republican Legislators Detail Tennessee's Medical Marijuana Bill

Flanked by retired police officers, children, veterans and musicians, two Tennessee Republican lawmakers ceremoniously introduced a bill Wednesday that would allow the use of medical marijuana for patients, but insist it is not pushing the state closer to allowing recreational pot use.

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, are leading the most concerted effort to legalize medical marijuana in Tennessee, and encouraged anyone who already supports medical use to "educate" others who might not support the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Though being sponsored by Republicans in the Republican-dominated legislature, the measure is expected to meet some resistance from members within the GOP, including House Majority Leader Rep. Glen Casada, R-Brentwood.

"At its heart, I really do think this is a very Republican, conservative bill," Dickerson said. "I know that's a little counterintuitive, but it gets the government out of our lives."

Dickerson has sponsored similar legislation before, but acknowledged this bill is the most focused effort yet to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The legislature has discussed similar measures in the past, but none have gained much traction.

Dickerson and Rep. Ryan Williams, now the House Republican Caucus chairman, co-sponsored a similar bill to legalize medical marijuana during the 2015 session, but it died in committee. Democrats also have previously sponsored legislation on the issue.

Other Republicans, such as Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, have taken more hard-line positions on marijuana. Lamberth told the Tennessean in September he was considering proposing legislation that would withhold state highway funds if cities passed ordinances decriminalizing possession of marijuana.

Twenty-eight states have legalized medical marijuana.

Faison and Dickerson repeated that the bill is not opening a door to recreational use.

Faison said his three-day trip to Colorado led him to believe that state will soon consider repealing its recreational use laws.

Dickerson, a doctor, said the bill addresses concerns put forward during the 2016 legislative session that he said were focused on treating marijuana "like a medicine."

"What this bill is not is opening the door to recreational use; this is not a bill that will allow people to get high on the streets," Dickerson said. "This is, however, a bill that would bring a necessary medicine to some of the sickest and most critically ill Tennesseans."


The legislation would allow the use of medical marijuana for Tennesseans with a specific list of medical conditions, including cancer, Lou Gehrig's disease, HIV/AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, seizures and Alzheimer's. The Department of Health and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission would be able to add conditions based on doctors' findings.

The state would generate revenue through licensing by three state departments: Agriculture, Safety and Health. Each department would develop its own rules and pricing for licensing.

The bill would allow for 50 grow operations statewide, the first 15 of which would be in "distressed" areas of the state.

Medical practitioners able to prescribe medication also would have to get a special license to prescribe medical marijuana. Patients would have to get a special $35 medical card to buy doctor-recommended strains of marijuana and would have to use the marijuana in their home, not in a vehicle or in public.

The Department of Safety would oversee transport and security, and the Department of Health would oversee items available in dispensaries.

Each grow house will be required to have security in place, including locks, cameras and security officers. Each grow operation would be allowed to have one dispensary at the grow house and two storefronts, which equates to 150 dispensaries across the state.

Revenue would be distributed across state agencies in the following proposed structure, according to a fact sheet distributed by Faison and Dickerson:

  • 20 percent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (earmarked for "drug intervention")

  • 10 percent to the Sheriffs' Association (for "drug training")

  • 10 percent to the Police Chief Association (for "drug training")

  • 20 percent to the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD)

  • 20 percent to "K12 education"

  • 20 percent to the executive branch, or the governor's office

Connection to opioids

The measure is part of a push by lawmakers to address an opioid epidemic in Tennessee, where more opioid prescriptions are handed out than there are people. Williams told The Tennessean there will be a "big push" for medical marijuana during the 2017 legislative session to address the epidemic.

Supporters suggest that states that have legalized medical marijuana have seen double-digit decreases in opioid-related deaths, up to 25 percent on average.

Dickerson said that statistic is not one on which to base all supportive arguments, but does hold merit.

"I think there are significant anecdotes and some data that substantiate the proposition that medical cannabis will have a decrease on the consumption of opiates," Dickerson said.

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