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By Kelly Fisher for the Nashville Tennessean
Mathew Binkley said a year and a half ago, it would have been “crazy” to think of himself going before a crowd and promoting medical marijuana.
Binkley, a senior systems administrator at the Vanderbilt Advanced Computing Center, attended Pleasant View Christian School for 12 years and served on its board of directors. He learned, “drugs are drugs, and drugs are bad, and that was all there was to it.”
But on Dec. 12, 2017, Binkley’s brother had a seizure and was diagnosed with brain cancer. Binkley said he went into “scientist mode” and started researching ways to help. Repeatedly, he found that medical marijuana showed “extraordinary” effects against brain cancer. But it’s not available in Tennessee.
“Eighty-one percent of Tennesseans support medical marijuana,” Binkley said. “Eighty-one percent of Tennesseans consider themselves Christian. So, supporting medical marijuana is about as politically risky as supporting church attendance. And yet, our legislature refuses to pass it.”
Binkley, whose brother died three months after his cancer diagnosis, was one of five panelists at a nonpartisan public forum on medical marijuana earlier this month, hosted by the Cheatham County Democrats at the Ashland City Senior Center.
Other panelists included David Hairston, State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, Vanderbilt University Medical Center Dr. James Powers and Cheatham County Sheriff Mike Breedlove.
By the numbers
Hairston is chairman of the Tennessee chapter of Americans for Safe Access, an organization that advocates for safe, legal access to medical marijuana.
“Passing medicinal cannabis reform is something near and dear to my heart," Hairston said, explaining that an autoimmune disease cut his accounting career short. "It’s something I need as a patient here in Tennessee.”
During the forum, Hairston shared data from Americans for Safe Access. It showed that 1,451 Tennesseans died in 2015 by prescription drugs. In states with medical cannabis laws, there is a 25-percent drop, on average, in opiate-related deaths.
There are 46 states with medical cannabis laws and more than 2 million patients in the country with more than 50 qualifying medical conditions in medical cannabis programs, according to Safe Access Tennessee. The organization also notes zero deaths have been caused by cannabis.
Medical marijuana and the opioid epidemic
When Breedlove decided to run for office, he was ready to combat the county’s problems with opioids, not caring “one bit” about marijuana, he said.
“There is not one person in this room — or even in law enforcement that I’ve discussed with — that have any problems or protests or disagreements about medical marijuana,” Breedlove said. “None of us, including myself, want a family member to go through any kind of suffering (that can be helped by marijuana)."
And there may be opportunities where marijuana can be substituted for other, more addictive pain medications, including opioids, Vanderbilt's Powers said.
“You’re not going to die from an overdose of cannabis,” he noted. “So, there may be a safety factor there.”
Patients can use medical cannabis in a variety of ways, including by inhalation, ingestion of edible products or capsules and the application of topical lotions or oils, depending on factors such as preference and medical condition, according to Americans for Safe Access.
Breedlove referred to four states — Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon — that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana, but pointed out that there has not been a decrease in opioid sales or usage in those states.
Often, he said, there is a correlation between heroin and marijuana use.
"We don’t see many people who have an opioid (addiction) in these states that they go back to marijuana,” he said, noting that cannabis isn't as strong as opioids.
For Binkley, the best way to combat opioid addiction is to never prescribe the patient an opioid in the first place, especially if another option is available. But Breedlove argued that many opioid addicts start with marijuana and escalate as they move on to the "next high."
However, not all marijuana users go on to use opioids.
“I wish there was a 100-percent solution to the opioid crisis,” Binkley said. “I lost my cousin to an opioid overdose.
“We have a 25-percent solution. Maybe one of these days we’ll get the extra 75 (percent). In states with medical marijuana, opioid overdoses are 25 percent lower. That’s not a statistic, that’s my cousin. That’s somebody else’s family member.”
Health and public safety concerns
Because marijuana hasn't legally been available for many years, there hasn't been much work done to look at the benefits of the compound, Powers said.
“We believe that it would be very helpful for folks with many different illnesses…It seems to relax muscles around the body…it also helps people with asthma, breathing problems, emphysema, so there could be some benefits there," he said.
“On the other hand, we haven’t studied the use of cannabis over time. Is this something that will be habituating, or will it lead to the use of other medications or drugs that might have other, serious consequences? But we just don’t know that at this point.”
Powers also noted that although CBD products are already legally available in Tennessee, it’s “of unknown strength.”
CBD, cannabidiol, products include a compound found in marijuana. But the hemp-derived products don’t produce a high. Based on user testimonies, CBD has been used to help with seizures, arthritis, anxiety, depression and health issues.
Still, there is some concern about effects on public health.
Although marijuana, itself, hasn’t killed anyone, “innocent people” have died either behind a wheel or a weapon operated by an individual with marijuana in their system, Breedlove said.
“Colorado probably has the best studied information since it passed its recreational marijuana legislation,” Powers said. “And there are increased number of traffic-related deaths. True, it is much less than alcohol. It’s about 25-percent of the proportions of deaths related to alcohol, but it does cause a lot of public health hazards.
“I think that it would be nice to have cannabis as one of the medications that could be helpful to many, many patients,” he added. “It would be nice to know more about the doses and effects and the benefits in different disease states, but I’m also very concerned that it likely will go on to progress to recreational marijuana, and I think the public health hazards are really unknown."
In the Tennessee legislature, Rep. Johnson has introduced House Bill 0234, which aims to ease problems for tourists who may hold medical marijuana cards from their home states, where the prescription is legal.
“What my bill does, if you come to Tennessee to visit and you have your card and your prescription from your physician, you should not be in danger of being arrested for having your medicine,” Johnson said.
As current law stands, she said, travelers can face crimes for possessing marijuana for medicinal purposes if they’re found with it in Tennessee.
Although Breedlove said he had nothing against medical marijuana, he also believes the drug is a "Trojan horse" for what's to come next
“Every state that has passed the law for medical marijuana is a stepping stone for the next level that we’re seeing,” he said. “The next step goes into the push for decriminalization. Then the next step goes to recreational, full legalization of use of marijuana.
“As law enforcement, this is where it really becomes murky,” he continued. “The number-one problem is the amount of adolescents who are in treatment for marijuana addiction has quadrupled (in four states that have legalized).”
Breedlove encouraged everyone to educate themselves, particularly looking at the effects in states that have legalized marijuana.
Some predicted that change could happen soon in Tennessee.
“I’m relatively confident the Tennessee General Assembly will move forward with something this legislative session,” Hairston said.