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Republicans Introduce Bill to Allow Medical Marijuana in Tennessee

Two Republicans introduced a bill Thursday that would make Tennessee the latest state to allow medical marijuana.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, would only allow oil-based manufactured products, such as pills or lotions, and would not permit the sale of raw cannabis, also known as marijuana, as is common in other states.

As many as 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico, have laws permitting the use of cannabis for medical purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But the approaches used in each state vastly differ, ranging from allowing home cultivation to only permitting cannabis-infused products.

Eight states currently allow recreational marijuana. Vermont will become the ninth state when Gov. Phil Scott gives a bill his approval, as he has indicated.

The new Faison-Dickerson legislation would not permit any recreational use of marijuana.

“Now is the time for the General Assembly to embrace thoughtful, medically responsible legislation to help Tennessee’s sickest residents,” Dickerson said in a statement.

Republicans estimate at least 65,000 Tennesseans would benefit from legislation

Under the Faison and Dickerson legislation, patients wanting to receive any cannabis oil-based products would have to have one of the following medical conditions:

  • cancer

  • HIV and AIDS

  • hepatitis C

  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS

  • post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD

  • Alzheimer's disease

  • severe arthritis

  • inflammatory bowel disease

  • Crohn's disease

  • ulcerative colitis

  • multiple sclerosis

  • Parkinson's disease

  • schizophrenia

  • or a number of chronic or debilitating diseases.

Qualifying patients would be required to get a registration card from the state. Registration cards would be equipped with chip readers that allow law enforcement to see details about a patient's purchase, including how much was bought.

The two Republicans estimated at least 65,000 Tennesseans would benefit from the legislation.

The chip reader would also prevent continued purchases after a patient reaches their dosage each month.

The legislation would also require any doctor wishing to participate in the program to obtain a license from the state. Participation is not mandatory.

State board would provide oversight

General oversight would be provided by a new state board — dubbed the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Commission — which would include doctors, pharmacists, law enforcement officials, educators and advocates for patients. The commission would also regulate the amount that could be purchased.

The Faison-Dickerson bill also allows local governments to hold referendums on whether to allow dispensaries. Counties that do not want to participate could opt out with a majority vote of the county commission.

“Some of our sickest Tennesseans desperately want the freedom to choose what is best for their own health, and they want to be able to make that decision with their doctor,” Faison said in the statement.

“Now is the time for a safe and healthy alternative to opiates, psychotropics and anti-inflammatories.”

The legislation is separate from a measure the two lawmakers sponsored during the 2017 session, which would have also created a medical marijuana program. That bill was shelved, with Faison blaming the Senate for being "scared to death of their voters."

Since then, Faison and Dickerson, who is an anesthesiologist, were among several lawmakers to serve on a special medical marijuana committee that formed earlier this year. The committee held meetings throughout the state while working to come up with a new approach to the topic.

Senate Republican leaders on Thursday were quick to dismiss the measure.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said he remained opposed to any form of marijuana in Tennessee, whether recreational or medical.

McNally cited a number of factors, noting the marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The federal government lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug.

"In my opinion it's a gateway drug," McNally said, referring to the oft-espoused idea that cannabis can lead people to other harder drugs.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration no longer lists marijuana on its list of gateway drugs on the agency's website.

Can medical marijuana combat ongoing opioid crisis?

While some advocates say medical marijuana can help combat the ongoing opioid crisis plaguing the state and nation, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, pushed back on that idea.

"We have heard this conversation before," Watson said, alluding to the insistence that opioids also were once deemed safe.

In the early 2000s, some drug companies downplayed the addictive qualities of opioids, which they said were safe, even providing such testimony to Congress, according to a joint investigation by 60 Minutes and The Washington Post published earlier this year.

"I think we are wise to learn from previous experience and so that's what we're doing around marijuana and it's various utilizations," Watson said. "We're going to be perhaps a little bit slower than others."

Some big drug companies are among those opposed to medical marijuana, according to multiple media reports, including from The Guardian.

Despite opposition from McNally and Watson, the bill could garner some support from Republican leadership in the House.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, who is running for governor, previously saidshe was open to medical marijuana.

Although the potential that a majority of Tennessee lawmakers could embrace any form of marijuana may seem slim — especially in a state that has somewhat stringent laws regarding alcohol sales — the fact that so many legislators are not seeking re-election this year could bolster the bill's chances.

The embrace of medical marijuana among some Republicans comes as public support has been increasing in recent years. A May 2017 Vanderbilt University poll found 47 percent of respondents supported medical marijuana, up from 42 percent in 2016.

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