Kent Morrell, Knoxville, Tennessee

Today is bonus day 1,248. That’s what Kent Morrell would say if he was talking to you now. That’s how he always begins his story — with how many days it has been since cannabis rescued him from the crippling pain and despair that had him on the brink of suicide.

The turning point, the day Kent says he got his life back, was Memorial Day, 2019. That was also the day that set him on the path of political activism and running for elected office.

For nearly 20 years, Kent had been in what he calls the valley of suffering, ever since he and his family were involved in a serious car crash. Kent was driving and saw the accident coming. He instinctively clenched the steering wheel, bracing for impact as the other car t-boned them. His doctor would later tell him that was the worst thing he could have done. Tensing up transmitted the force of the crash through his torso, tearing loose muscle and connective tissue from his spine.

At first, the medical professionals said Kent should get better with time. He was sent to physical therapy, but that treatment only made things worse. After two years, Kent’s doctor told him that the nerve damage in his spine would not improve. His injury and the intense pain it produced would be permanent.

A small business owner, Kent faced hard choices. One of Kent’s employees, now a partner in the company, was able to step up and take over operations and keep things running, but Kent had lost about 80% of his income.  He and his wife, a stay-at-home mom, had a nice house, and their four children were in private school, but Kent’s return to work now appeared impossible.

We had to rearrange our whole life, Kent says. We pulled the kids out of school, sold the house and downsized to something we could afford and my wife got a job. For the next 18 years we operated under the assumption that I was not going to get better.

The pain associated with nerve damage that Kent experiences is the most difficult type of pain to treat. For more than a dozen years, Kent agreed to every surgery and treatment his doctors suggested. The amount of opioids he needed to manage his pain escalated until he was taking maximal doses.

By luck of the genetic draw, Kent metabolizes opioids more efficiently than the general population does, requiring him to take more than most to get pain relief. That was not too much of a problem until 2015, when a change to Tennessee state law meant he had to stop seeing his general practitioner and seek care from a certified pain specialist. It took seven months to find a physician whose office would see him. During that process he was screened by a series of nurse practitioners, all of whom wanted to decrease the amount of medicine he was receiving.

One told me that adding me to the practice would flag them for an audit because I would increase the average prescription amount by so much, Kent remembers. Most of them didn’t understand the significance of the genetic testing my primary care doctor had done, or they had never heard of it.

Once he found a pain specialist who would treat him, a battle over medication began. The doctor pressed Kent to reduce his opioid use and submit to invasive procedures such as epidurals. Kent had already tried those without success. Nonetheless, his doctor insisted he have a pain pump implanted in his back. After doing some research on risks and likely results, Kent decided against it. Kent had agreed to so many surgeries it was hard to keep count, but now he was done.

The pain specialist dropped Kent from his practice. As is typical of chronic pain patients, Kent had an emergency supply of pain medication he had saved, but he knew it would only last weeks, not months. He began rationing the pain killers and focused on getting past the weddings of his two daughters. As the pain increased, Kent sank deeper into despair. He was plagued by depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Suicide increasingly seemed to be the only solution.

What Kent knew then about cannabis was wrapped up in his Southern Baptist upbringing: it was the Devil’s lettuce that led to hell and death. He also didn’t want to break the law, no matter what he heard about the potential of cannabis to treat neuropathic pain. But he also didn’t want to abandon his wife and children.

Kent turned to cannabis when he didn’t have legal options. Cannabis broke the pain cycle and gave him the best sleep he had in years. He woke without pain on Memorial Day 2019, 14 months to the day since he’d lost access to pain management. Kent and his wife couldn’t believe it. They didn’t know how long cannabis would continue to work, so over the next two months they packed in five trips to the beach and as many other fun things as they could.

By August 2019, I decided that maybe this was going to last a while, Kent said. What can I do? I should go into politics.

Kent Morrell campaigning

His target was his incumbent state senator, Richard Briggs, a surgeon and retired Army colonel who was steadfastly opposed to medical cannabis. But Sen. Briggs’ four-year term would not be up for two more years.

Kent decided he could get some practice by running in Tennessee’s open U.S. Senate race to replace Lamar Alexander. As one of 15 candidates, he knew there was no chance of election, but it was a chance to talk about safe access and lobby Lamar’s likely replacement, Bill Haggerty.

I got so I could deliver a good pitch in 3 minutes, Kent said. In my first speech, 300 people in a very conservative area, I was so nervous, I didn’t mention cannabis. ‘Natural treatments’ was my code word, but I decided after that first speech, if I want to move the ball forward, I have got to talk openly about cannabis. So from that point forward, I did. I talked about cannabis saving my life.

Kent would tell audiences, No Tennessean should be forced to make a decision between suicide and an illegal treatment. Turns out, cannabis saved my life. Then he’d pause to see what reaction he got, if people were hissing or upset, but nobody cared. And after every speech people would come up to Kent and thank him for talking about it publicly. Many were law enforcement or in similar roles and told him similar stories about how cannabis was the only thing that works for them.

Bill Haggerty won that U.S. Senate race, but Kent was back this year, running for Tennessee state senate to replace the incumbent, Dr. Briggs. He also ran for the state Executive Committee of the Republican party. Kent lost the state senate election, but he won a seat on the Executive Committee, which he intends to use as a platform to advocate for cannabis reform.

When I realized what cannabis could do for me, that’s when the scales were lifted from my eyes, Kent said. I realized we’d been lied to for decades about the dangers of cannabis, and I don’t mean little lies. Huge lies!

Kent continues to campaign for safe access in Tennessee, along with ASA activist David Hairston and others. He hopes to convince more citizens to get involved.

In Tennessee, only 22% of those who could showed up to vote. If you’re not voting, I don’t want to hear you complain about what’s happening in this country, Kent said. Good governance is not a spectator sport.

Now that Kent has his life back, he is not about to be a spectator.

"I’m going to devote every dime I make to moving this issue forward," Kent said. "If I get a few more years, you better believe I’m going to be working on fixing this for people."


This profile was originally published in the October 2022 ASA Activist Newsletter