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Senator Expects Panel will Help Educate Public, Tennessee Lawmakers on Medical Marijuana

Educating lawmakers and the general public will be a key component of the recently formed legislative committee tasked with tackling medical marijuana, according to one of the legislators heading up the panel.

“I think one of the goals is to make sure that the people and the advocates and the patients are aware of what we’re doing and make sure that they give feedback to their elected officials,” said Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, who along with Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, are heading up a legislative committee to study the issue.

The committee, which was formed last week by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Beth Harwell, will study whether the legalization of medical cannabis is in the best interest of the state.

Dickerson said as the committee holds meetings throughout the three grand divisions of the state, the discussions will likely focus on different aspects of medical marijuana, including talks about law enforcement and taxation.

“The goal is not to have the same meeting (in the different areas of the state),” he said.

The senator said although he and Faison are still working on scheduling logistics, the first meeting could take place as early as September, with gatherings tentatively held each subsequent month.

Dickerson said he hopes the meetings will hear from those for and against medical marijuana all in an effort to work toward a bill that could advance further in the legislature during the upcoming session.

Calling the first medical marijuana bill he introduced several years ago “substandard,” Dickerson said each subsequent piece of legislation has gotten better.

During the 2017 session, Dickerson and Faison introduced yet another medical marijuana bill.

“This year, I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily going to be different in its thrust or its overall scope, but some of it will have refinements,” he said.

Among the many hurdles Dickerson and Faison’s legislation will have to overcome is opposition from older Tennesseans, said David Hairston, president of Safe Access Tennessee, a chapter of Americans for Safe Access, a Washington, D.C.-based organization.

“People over 65 were just so inculcated with the 'Reefer Madness' kind of thought. They often find it shocking to find out the gateway theory is a complete lie,” he said, referring to the idea that marijuana use can lead to other harder drugs.

Earlier this year, Safe Access Now successfully pressured the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to remove marijuana from its list of “gateway drugs” on the agency’s website.

Given the tendency of those 65 and older to vote more often than younger people, Hairston said that could lead to some hesitancy among lawmakers to support medical marijuana.

Another aspect that is frequently brought up during discussions on medical marijuana is concern that legalizing it in Tennessee would move the state closer to recreational usage.

“My firm belief is that those are two very different conversations,” Dickerson said, calling the notion of getting the legislature to even consider recreational use inconceivable.

Despite Dickerson's assertion, Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, thinks medicinal marijuana would eventually lead the state toward legalizing recreational marijuana.

“That’s all it is,” he said. “Any time that we have a legalized process where we have raw marijuana and it’s in a form that it can be utilized to be smoked, that is, in my opinion, only a step toward full legalization.”

Holt pointed out that Tennesseans can legally obtain certain oils and pills that have similar curative powers that do not require smoking or eating marijuana.

“We have access to medical marijuana. When folks try to make me out as this person who is opposed to any utilization of a medicinal product that’s incorrect,” he said.

“What I’m opposed to is any process that will allow raw hash to be sold or grown or processed or in any way distributed in the state of Tennessee knowing that a large percentage of that is going to fall into the hands of individuals who are not consuming it for a medical purpose.”

Although acknowledging that there’s an uphill battle ahead, Hairston is confident the state legislature could see serious advancement on the issue during the 2018 legislative session.

Hairston believes Tennessee will become the 30th state to allow medical marijuana. “No doubt about it in my mind,” he said, citing polls, including one released by Vanderbilt University in May.

The poll found 47 percent of those surveyed support medical marijuana, up from 42 percent in November.

In January, a poll from Tennesseans for Conservative Action found 52 percent of those surveyed supported medical marijuana while 31 percent opposed it.

Despite such polling, Holt remains skeptical that the newly formed committee will lead to any major shift in the legislature.

“We’re not breaking into new ground here," he said. "This is nothing but a political ploy."

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