VOL. 42 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 02, 2018
Harwell: Tennesseans 'deserve' medical marijuana option
By Sam Stockard
House Speaker Beth Harwell is supporting medical marijuana legislation, saying she believes Tennesseans “deserve” an option to dangerous opioids.
The Nashville Republican who is running for governor after some 30 years in the House of Representative said she plans to back a bill by Rep. Jeremy Faison legalizing medical marijuana.
Faison wants Tennessee to join 30 states that allow medical marijuana. The Virginia General Assembly, for instance, recently passed legislation allowing doctors to cannabis oils to patients and in 2017 adopted legislation allowing the cultivation and manufacturing of cannabis oils for people suffering from epilepsy.
“I think Tennesseans deserve it,” Harwell said as she finished touring the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research at MTSU. “I think without a doubt those states that have this as an option their opioids are down 25 percent, pain prescriptions are down 23 percent. It’s not the cure-all, it’s not the complete answer, but I think it’s a part of it.”
The House speaker’s support for Faison’s legislation is critical for its passage, and Harwell said she is keeping an “open mind” about pain treatment alternatives, even though medical marijuana is not a part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to combat opioid-related overdoses and deaths.
Harwell noted she is impressed with the research being done at MTSU through its partnership with the Guangxi Botanical Garden of Medicinal Plants in China and encouraged the university “to lead the nation” in finding alternatives for pain management.
The Guangxi Botanical Garden developed a process to isolate the compounds from plants used in traditional Chinese medicine, and the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research at MTSU came up with a method to rapidly screen compounds for anticancer, antiviral, antimicrobial and other medicinal uses from plants.
Biology professor Elliot Altman explained how MTSU’s research led to six products extracted from ginseng and hemp during the tour by Harwell and several other state legislators, university leaders and supporters of medical marijuana. Livestock feed is among those.
“Tennessee is quickly becoming one of the states to be reckoned with that’s doing the state-of-the-art hemp research,” Altman said, shortly before lawmakers took a look at the building’s greenhouse and vivarium where it grows the plants used for non-psychotropic drug research.
The university has invested more than $1 million in the research facility enabling it to develop a new product at MTSU’s Science Building, a $146 million project considered the most expensive college building ever funded by the state.
The MTSU center has been focusing its research on the non-psychotropic cannabinoids found in hemp, which has a lower concentration of THC than marijuana.
“Cannabis really is a smorgasbord,” said Altman, as a picture of a 10-acre field of hemp flashed on a screen in the MTSU Science Building classroom where he spoke. The field was near the Embassy Suites Conference Center & Hotel in Murfreesboro near I-24.
In addition, Greenway Herbal Products, managed by Murfreesboro resident Ted LaRoche and Ed Chiles, gave a $2.5 million grant to the research program to bolster its hemp research.
LaRoche said his company is taking the research done by the MTSU center and continuing research in other areas, including a partnership with a Chinese physician who is supplying ginseng for a new product.
“We take it and mix it with a formula developed by the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research. We will encapsulate it here in Rutherford County, and it will be sold in China and America,” LaRoche said.
The product will go out as a product of MTSU and the research center, giving the world a look at the effort under way at the university, he said.
Asked by Faison about the need to expand cannabis research, Altman said he would like the MTSU center to be able to research marijuana as well.
“Physicians should be able to prescribe marijuana to patients” with debilitating diseases,” Altman said.
A look at the bill
Faison’s legislation, which is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville Republican and anesthesiologist, contains a research component but is designed to enter Tennessee into the world of cannabis medical treatment.
The bill would create a statewide commission to oversee the growing, manufacturing and dispensing of medical marijuana products. Prescriptions would have to be written by physicians for people suffering from a number of debilitating illnesses, ranging from cancer to HIV and AIDS, severe arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and severe chronic pain and nausea.
Allowable products would be oils and extracts in capsules, pills, transdermal patches, ointments, lotions, lozenges and liquids. Smoking marijuana would not be allowed, according to Faison, who has said his bill would be the “strictest in America.” It also has numerous restrictions on growing facilities, dispensaries and the people who run them.
Faison’s legislation has run into opposition from some Senate members leery of conflict with the federal government. Others believe it is an effort to introduce recreational marijuana in Tennessee as in Colorado, California and Washington.
If medical marijuana were to be approved by the state Legislature, Faison’s bill would be permissive legislation, requiring counties to hold referendums for approval of growing and dispensing.
Faison told the group touring MTSU’s research facility marijuana use for medicinal purposes goes back 2,500 to 3,000 years to the Assyrians and not until the last 80 years in America was it frowned on.
“There’s this perception in America right now that there’s something inherently evil about the plant,” Faison said.
Most notably, the federal government classifies it as a narcotic in the same vein as cocaine and heroin. But Faison encouraged people to look at research done on medical marijuana and come to understand how it attacks inflammation, the cause of most diseases.
At ground zero
Memphis resident Matt Slutz wants Tennessee to loosen its restrictions on medical marijuana and cannabidiol so his 5-year-old son who suffers from epilepsy could receive treatment from cannabis oil products made in Tennessee.
“I would just like to see some exploration, some science behind a plant and the derivative of a plant that has a non-psychoactive element that helps kids like my kid and adults worldwide. You can’t deny it,” said Slutz, who visited the Legislature earlier this year to lobby for the legislation.
Slutz said he’s seen medical marijuana “work wonders” for his son, but because there’s little, if any, acceptance in medical arenas in Tennessee, he had to obtain the medication from a South Carolina company, which manufactured the derivative from hemp grown in Kentucky.
David Hairston, of Americans for Safe Access, said a number of mothers on his board of directors also have epileptic children and face the same situation.
“We do have some very limited access if you have the diagnosis of epilepsy. But there are still restraints on the amount of THC, that as a child grows further into maturity, particularly into their teenage years, that are not adequate to serve the needs of these babies,” Hairston said.
He points out Tennessee has 5,000 children and 70,000 adults stricken with epilepsy, 300,000 cancer victims, 100,000 people with Alzheimer’s disease and 100,000 with ALS.
“These are just desperately debilitating diseases, and we’re just looking for some relief,” Hairston said.
Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.