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VOL. 38 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 21, 2014

Medical marijuana's uphill fight: Polls show support, patients show human toll. Is this the year legislators finally come around?

By Hollie Deese

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HB 1385, the Koozer-Kuhn Medical Cannabis Act, is apparently dead for this legislative session. “It's over,” Bernie Ellis has posted on Facebook. “At least for now. 

"I just got off the phone with Rep Jones. She received a notice this morning that, due to no action in the Senate and no possibility for action there, now that several Senate committees have closed for the session, our bill has ground to a halt.

"Since our bill can go nowhere in the Senate, they are likely to drop our bill from further consideration in Health sub next week without a vote.”

The following package is offered as it ran in this week's print edition of the Nashville Ledger, before Ellis proclaimed the fight to be over for the year:

Bernie Ellis is getting tired of fighting. He has been pushing for the legalization of medical marijuana in Tennessee for a very long time, and this legislative session’s HB 1385 Koozer-Kuhn Medical Cannabis Act is the closest he has ever come.

The bill, written by Ellis and Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville), failed to come to a vote in the House Health Subcommittee on Tuesday after Rep. Mike Turner urged a delay to narrow the its focus. If it fails in the coming week, it will be another year – at least – before Tennessee joins D.C. and the other 20 states that have already legalized some form of medical cannabis.

Ellis and Jones even performed last-minute edits to help ensure the bill’s passage, which is named for Piper Koozer, a child with a seizure disorder, and Jeanne Kuhn, late wife of Paul Kuhn, a medical marijuana advocate.

Bernie Ellis strategizes with Rep. Sherry Jones in her office prior to the House Health subcommittee vote that delayed Jones’ bill legalizing medical marijuana.

-- Leigh Singleton | Nashville Ledger

“For folks who say they are laser focused on jobs, I’d like to fix their laser,” Ellis says.

Ellis’ battle has already cost him plenty. After he was busted in 2002 for growing small amounts of marijuana on his farm in Santa Fe, about 10 miles northwest of Columbia, he received four years of probation, spent 18 months in a halfway house, lost his 30-year career as a public health epidemiologist, and 25 acres of his 185-acre farm along Natchez Trace, which were seized by the government and sold at auction for $35,000.

The marijuana he was growing was for himself and four terminally-ill patients.

“Medical cannabis should have never been taken out of our pharmacopeia,” Ellis says. “The evidence is more than in, with 22,000 studies and ample rigorous clinical trial work done. And frankly, we have been living through a 40-year natural experiment in the sense of cannabis being available recreationally.

“Our own experience shows that we have the potential to return something of great medical benefit that will allow us to tone down some of our other pharmacologic responses. To keep that away from patients no longer makes any sense at all.”

Jones has been fighting for the legalization of medical marijuana for more than a decade, first sponsoring a House bill for the legalization 11 years.

But it really hit home after her brother died from Crohn’s disease a few years ago.

“He asked for it,” Jones says of medical marijuana. “He wanted to have it, but of course I couldn’t do anything about it. And then you have to watch people suffer the way they do for no reason.”

Medical marijuana can be smoked, vaporized, eaten or taken as an oil extract. Ellis and Jones were asked to edit the bill so that only oil would be included, but they were not interested in excluding the thousands of patients who need to take cannabis in its raw, unprocessed form.

The qualifying medical conditions covered in the bill were limited to 14 and include cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, ALS, Alzheimer’s disease, and chronic conditions that procures seizures, wasting condition, chronic pain, severe nausea, and for hospice patients.

“This is a safe and effective substance for a number of conditions,” Ellis explains. “Our goal is to make it safer and more effective and reliable and inexpensive. We want to take 60,000 or more eligible patients or more off the streets as soon as we can.

“By year three (if implemented), I easily could see a program like this growing to serve multiple hundreds of thousands of patients.

“I have done one estimate that said by year three we could serve a range as wide as 150,000-300,000.”

Once the program starts, Ellis adds, more conditions could be added, including Fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis.

And despite the fact marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin and ecstasy, anyone who takes a Schedule II drug like meth or cocaine can use it as an exit drug.

“What we have learned in the 16-18 years this program has been operating (in other states where medical marijuana is legal), is that a sizeable number of people who enrolled in a medical cannabis program are using it as an exit drug,” Ellis says. “They are fighting alcoholism or prescription drugs abuse. They are using meth, or cocaine and they exit through cannabis. As many as a third of the dispensaries in California are reporting that exit drug use.”

Ellis and Jones think the biggest thing holding back medical marijuana legalization in Tennessee is fear.

Ellis says one in 10 Tennesseans already use marijuana, so regulating it will only make it safer for patients who have to currently go to the street to get cannabis that could range greatly in quality.

“They are scared,” Jones says. “All they have to do is a quick robo call in their district to poll this issue – Are you for medical marijuana or not?

You are going to get 60 percent favorable at the very least, and in some areas it is more like 75 percent.”

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