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Tennessee Medical Marijuana Bill Moves to State Senate

Look at a United States map that shows states with cannabis legalization laws on the books, and you may immediately notice a trend. Deep red Southern states are among the last in the country to officially legalize medicinal or recreational marijuana use. States like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky have not passed any meaningful legislation legalizing cannabis.

Tennessee is also one of those states. However, things may be changing in the Volunteer State.

A slew of legislative proposals is hitting the Tennessee General Assembly this session, many aimed at decriminalizing marijuana in the state. However, the measure with potentially the most promise is Senate Bill 1461/House Bill 0172. The proposal, called the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act, seeks to legalize medical marijuana use in the state. While unofficial Twitter polls conducted by local news organizations seem to signal overwhelming support among state residents for the measure, many red states like Tennessee have been reluctant to legalize any form of cannabis use.

Does SB1461 stand a chance? The state legislators who drafted the measure are hopeful their efforts to push marijuana legalization forward in the state can pay off with a win this session.

What Is the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act?  

The Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act was introduced in the Tennessee House by Rep. Jesse Chism (D-Memphis-D85). A similar measure has been brought to the Senate by Sen. London Lamar (D-Memphis-D33). The overarching goal of the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act is to legalize marijuana for medical use in the state. Tennessee is one of only a handful of states left in the U.S. without a medical cannabis program. Possession of only ½ ounce of marijuana or less can earn an individual a fine of up to $2,500 and one year in jail.

If passed, the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act would legalize the sale and possession of medicinal cannabis. Medical cardholders could purchase and possess up to 2.5 ounces. However, cannabis products cannot contain more than 2,000 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive chemical in cannabis. In addition to legalizing cannabis use for medical cardholders, the measure would allow some patients to maintain up to six cannabis plants on their property.

Limits apply to medical conditions potentially covered under the new measure. Only patients diagnosed with cancer, autism, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, Alzheimer’s disease, seizures, wasting syndrome, chronic muscle spasms, and severe nausea would be eligible for medical marijuana cards.

Overall, the measure seems to have support from residents and Democratic lawmakers in the House and the Senate. However, mustering support from state Republicans may prove problematic. One Republican, Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), is interested in introducing her own measure, but historically Republican support for legalization efforts has been thin.

Tennessee’s History with Cannabis 

This session is not the first time marijuana legislation has made its way to the halls of the state legislature. In 2022, several bills attempted to legalize medical cannabis and decriminalize marijuana. At the time, local polls indicated that an overwhelming number of Tennessee residents, 81 percent, supported some form of cannabis legalization. Unfortunately, none of the cannabis legalization bills advanced beyond committee hearings.

Whether the new cannabis measures have a chance of advancing beyond subcommittee hearings largely depends on the makeup of the 113th Tennessee General Assembly. Currently, the 113th General Assembly contains 75 Republicans, 23 Democrats, and one vacancy. Traditionally, Republicans in Tennessee have opposed any form of marijuana legalization, both medical and recreational.

Tennessee lawmakers against all forms of cannabis have even introduced a measure of their own in this legislative session that aims to regulate Delta-8 products in Tennessee. These are products made from the hemp plant, a legal crop in the United States. Hemp contains smaller amounts of psychoactive compounds than its cannabis cousins.

Medical Applications for Cannabis Use 

Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. Since it is technically a federally illegal drug, it has been challenging for legitimate medical researchers to study marijuana’s pain-relieving and disease-fighting capabilities. However, some studies indicate cannabis can help improve the symptoms associated with certain medical conditions.

Some studies suggest medical cannabis and CBD may benefit people with uncontrolled seizures and seizures that don’t respond to traditional medical intervention. Other medical research indicates that children with epilepsy, in particular, may benefit from treatment with cannabis and CBD.

Compounds in cannabis may also help cancer patients cope with the disease. Cannabis can increase appetite, which can help patients progressing through chemotherapy manage the side effects of treatment. Cannabis use may also help ease nausea and vomiting, control pain, and ease insomnia.

In small studies, the compounds in cannabis were found to also help reduce inflammation in the gut, easing the symptoms of Crohn’s disease and colitis. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are medical conditions that affect the gastrointestinal tract causing pain, urgent bowel movements, and other distressing symptoms. Early research suggests that patients using cannabis report less abdominal pain, improved sleep, and reduced incidents of diarrhea.

Small-scale studies are promising, but as more states move to legalize cannabis, there is hope that large-scale studies can help uncover more medicinal benefits from cannabis consumption. Since cannabis is a federally illegal drug, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration limits medical research except in agency-approved circumstances. However, anecdotal evidence is clear. People suffering from debilitating medical conditions seem to receive some benefits from cannabis consumption.

In the meantime, Tennessee patients looking for more treatment options must wait and see if the 113th General Assembly will rally around legalizing medical marijuana in the state. If the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act passes, Tennessee will finally follow in the footsteps of the 37 other U.S. states that give patients with debilitating conditions the option to use medicinal marijuana.

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