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VOL. 39 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 20, 2015

Jones still battling for medical marijuana

By Sam Stockard

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State Rep. Sherry Jones is continuing her push for legalization of medical marijuana in Tennessee after taking it further than ever in the legislative process last year.

“The driving force behind medical marijuana is simply people who have the serious diseases and injuries and would like to be able to use that so they can get through all of those issues feeling a little bit better,” says Jones, a Nashville Democrat.

Jones

The legislation grabbed state lawmakers’ attention in 2014, getting a House health subcommittee hearing in which Tennesseans coping with disease and pain testified about their struggles.

It is scheduled for discussion March 24 in the House Civil Justice Subcommittee after being rolled forward on Tuesday.

Cancer patients, parents of children plagued by seizures and a former police officer, now wheelchair-bound and afflicted with seizures, told their stories.

“Medical marijuana doesn’t make people go out and kill people or go crazy and break into stores. That’s not what it does, and that’s not what it’s for,” Jones says.

Once legal in Tennessee, medical marijuana is gaining momentum because of legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington and medical marijuana in California.

But Jones concedes it’s going to be quite a battle because of a conservative, Republican-controlled Legislature.

“They’re OK with using man-made drugs that make people kill other people, rob and get in their car and drive and kill people,” Jones says.

“They’re OK with those, but they don’t want to use something that, I guess, they associate with peace and love to come back into use. It does have what some people would call that hippie sort of stigma.”

Gov. Bill Haslam, for instance, isn’t sold on the idea.

Dreyzehner

He points to Tennessee Department of Health Director Dr. John Dreyzehner’s assessment that there is a clear difference between medical marijuana and cannabis oil, a low-THC derivative with potential for medical use.

“I think our department has some real concerns about medical marijuana vs. the cannabis oil,” Haslam says.

In an interview at the state Capitol, Dreyzehner notes the nation has a “tremendous natural experiment” going on with medical marijuana, but he is leery about jumping into legalization too soon. He also questions legislating medical practice.

Dreyzehner points toward the prescription drug epidemic and the deaths of tens of thousands of people who got addicted to opiod-based pain relievers as good reason to move slowly with medical marijuana.

“Medical marijuana is an analogous natural experiment,” he says. “However, with medical marijuana, we’re in a similar place now with regard to data and the understanding of how the various compounds that make up that plant will impact human health.”

Some of those are approved and regulated by the Federal Drug Administration, but Dreyzehner contends there’s too much “missing information” on the subject for a decision affecting the entire state and nation.

Tennessee is “gleaning data” from states that have been more aggressive with marijuana, he says.

“Frankly, we’re not really going to know the things we need to know now for another decade or so,” Dreyzehner says.

The proponents

Columbia resident Beverly Turner is already convinced marijuana will help her deal with the pain she suffers from a terrible back injury.

The mother of three understands medical marijuana will be plagued by the “stoner thing.”

But, she points out, “It’s a plant. It’s a weed, literally a weed. If you grow it, you’re not doing harm to anybody.”

Thousands of Tennesseans could benefit from the drug and get off even harder pharmaceuticals, she contends, adding doctors want to prescribe medication for her back pain, but that proves counter-productive because she can’t function on painkillers.

Dana Arvidson, founder of the National Cannabis Patients Wall, which started last year in Tennessee, has nearly 1,000 patients in this state and expanded to more than 30 countries with a membership of about 17,000.

“Far too many here need the health benefits that whole cannabis therapies can provide, without the harsh side effects, and often life-ending consequences of pharmaceuticals,” she says.

Susan Penn, a 45-year-old mother of three and grandmother of two in southern Middle Tennessee, says cannabis would make it easier for her to deal with major anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, atrial fibrillation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, irritable bowel syndrome and being bipolar.

“Cannabis calms my anxiety better than any meds that my doctor ever prescribed, keeps my mood swings evened (and) does wonders for my depression and PTSD,” she says.

Penn, who says she is free of prescription drugs after trying marijuana, says she inherited all of her medical problems except for COPD, which she got from smoking cigarettes and operating a chicken farm for 14 years.

She contends the General Assembly is loath to pass the legislation because it “cares more about money than the people.’’ She plans to move soon to a state where marijuana is legal.

Turner, however, says the potential for profit should be a driving force for medical marijuana. The state could benefit from growing or taxing the plant and bring much-needed revenue into Tennessee’s coffers.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com

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