Medical Marijuana Proposal Debated in TN Legislative Committee

November 12, 2007

Kristin M. Hall, Associated Press

Tennessee lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana, although the idea has failed in the General Assembly before and its future is uncertain.

A bill sponsored by former state Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, was rejected by a Senate committee last year before being pushed off to a summer study committee.

Members of the House Health and Human Resources Committee heard testimony on a similar bill sponsored by Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat.

Opponents of the bill, including law enforcement and family advocates, say current research does not show that marijuana is an effective and safe drug for treating symptoms of chronic illnesses.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports decriminalizing the drug, 26 legislatures are considering similar bills.

But William Benson, assistant director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said the bill could present complications for law enforcement because Tennessee is a leading producer of marijuana.

Dr. Kent Shih with the Tennessee Oncology Association said marijuana is an impractical drug that does not have sustained effects and cancer patients have other legal medications that are as effective.

"I believe there are safer drugs," he said.

Opponents such as David Fowler, a former state senator who is president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said organizations that support the use of medical marijuana could use the legislation to open the door to overall legalization.

But Jones, the bill's sponsor, denied that argument.

"This is not about making marijuana legal across the state. This is strictly for medical reasons, only to help people feel better," Jones said. "Any suggestion that there might be something hidden in the legislation is absurd."

Jones said that the bill would restrict medical use to terminal patients and the production and distribution of marijuana to those patients would be regulated.

Dr. David Murray, chief scientist with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said lawmakers shouldn't sidestep the Food and Drug Administration, which has safeguards in place to ensure safe and effective medications.

"My concern is we're doing more harm than good with these measures," he said.

Nathan Miller, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said 12 states now have medical marijuana laws and said there is no evidence that it sends the wrong message to young people.

Miller said studies of 11 states with medical marijuana laws showed that all but one had a decrease in marijuana use by teenagers. Federal reports indicate marijuana use by teenagers has decreased nationwide in recent years.

The committee also heard testimony from Bernie Ellis, who is currently serving federal probation for growing marijuana after his Maury County farm was raided in 2002.

Ellis, who has a public health background, said marijuana was once a major component of medicine before its prohibition and shared testimonials from cancer and AIDS/HIV patients who said marijuana helped them control nausea, increase appetite and ease pain.

"We would not be here urging you to make medical marijuana legal again in the state if it were not safe and effective," Ellis said.

Jones said she was not sure where the bill would go after the study committee but was open to input on changes that would make the bill more likely to advance for consideration in next year's session.

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