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VOL. 42 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 13, 2018

Unpopular bill? Just rebrand it with TRUMP attached

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Using what could be the political acronym of the year, two Republican state lawmakers with expertise in pain treatment are playing on the popularity of President Donald Trump to pass medical pot legislation.

Rep. Bryan Terry of Murfreesboro and Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville, both anesthesiologists, are planning to sponsor legislation in 2019 dubbed the Tennessee Responsible Use of Medicinal Plants (TRUMP) Act for medical use of cannabis.

But don’t call it hokey.

Dickerson and Terry, who is up for re-election, say they’re working on a bill to expand medical research and treatment options for cannabis and cannabis extracts with medical supervision.

Terry, who rarely emits a smile, shies away from the bill’s political implications, saying the concept hues to “the right to research and responsibly use agricultural medicine.”

He points out President Trump recently advocated for use of medical cannabis while signing the Right to Try Act, similar to a law Tennessee passed in 2015 enabling people on the verge of death to use experimental drugs.

In doing so, the president indicated states should be allowed to determine the use of cannabis.

“Unfortunately, medical use of cannabis has been a political matter for decades, which has hindered research and development of treatments, as well as harmed patients by restricting patient and physician options. I’m not making it political. Instead, I’m trying to make it personal for the benefit of patients,” Terry explains.

Admittedly a sarcastic guy and a quick wit, Dickerson wouldn’t describe the name of the pending bill as “hokey,” especially on a subject such as this. Yet he acknowledges they want some bounce from Trump’s popularity and support for the matter, and they’re even willing to use that to put pressure on lawmakers.

“I think it’s sort of creative branding, and I say that for a couple of reasons and very specifically, the people that we need to pick up to win this vote are rural Republicans,” says Dickerson, who is not up for re-election this year.

The old light bulb clicked on for Dickerson and Terry when Trump voiced some support for medical cannabis. And understanding his support base lies in rural Tennessee, they decided to grab people’s attention and let them know where the president stands on the issue and use it to their benefit.

“So, one man’s hokey is another man’s clever marketing,” Dickerson adds.

Taking one more step

Marinol and Syndros, both synthetic THC – the stuff that produces the marijuana high – and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are legal in all states, and the FDA recently approved Epidiolex, an epilepsy drug stemming from cannabis, according to Dickerson.

He and Terry contend Tennessee universities and medical research centers should be able to develop medical cannabis products for patients to participate in research and treatment under medical supervision.

A good deal of the opposition lawmakers face when they try to pass medical cannabis bills comes from those who say more research is needed. Another stumbling block is the federal government’s drug schedule, which places cannabis in the same category as hard drugs such as heroin.

“We envision our universities, as well as our life science and agricultural industries participating in the research and benefiting from the data while helping develop long term medical modalities for patients,” Terry explains. “For instance, MTSU, with the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medical Research, would benefit by having expanded capabilities for research opportunities.”

Both lawmakers hope the feds will reschedule marijuana, and they say their coming plan could help curtail the opioid epidemic in Tennessee by offering patients alternatives to those addictive and debilitating drugs. Research is showing cannabinoids can help patients suffering from pain and symptoms driven by inflammation or neuropathic dysfunction, according to Terry.

Dickerson also points out many patients are “going to the streets” to buy illicit opioids or marijuana that could contain deadly chemical combinations, leaving them to play Russian roulette with their lives.

A seismic shift?

Dickerson went to war with Rep. Jeremy Faison in 2018 pushing legislation designed to create a system for growing and dispensing medical cannabis. But too many lawmakers saw it as the formation of a massive bureaucracy for a multi-million-dollar industry.

Key opponents of Faison’s bill also claimed it would open the door to recreational use, and some accused him of being overly interested in sponsoring legislation for burning vegetation, even though the Faison/Dickerson bill didn’t allow cannabis for smoking.

With Faison playing all the angles in his quest for passage, some wondered if he needed a marijuana cigarette – also known as a doobie – to sooth his nerves.

Ultimately, Faison turned his version of the bill into a decriminalization measure and pushed it through the House Criminal Justice Committee – further than marijuana legislation had ever gone – despite the whining of law enforcement officials that it would lead to more deaths on Tennessee highways.

Dickerson, however, felt an ill wind blowing in the Senate and took his bill off notice, killing it for the year and allowing members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to escape without having to cast a vote on medical pot.

Faison, a Republican from Cosby in East Tennessee, was not fazed afterward, saying, “Medical marijuana’s coming to a state near you. It’s going to be everywhere in the next two years. I believe it’ll pass overwhelmingly next year in Tennessee. As a matter of fact, there are senators who are wishing to God they would have voted for it. The ones who are in general elections, they’re just wishing they would have spoken out for it or voted for it now. It’s what the people want.”

No matter who is elected governor in November, Faison predicts Tennessee will see a change in medical cannabis laws, with 80 percent of Tennesseans backing its use.

Yet for possibly the first time in years, Faison is keeping his bong dry – oops, I mean his powder dry. (He says he doesn’t smoke weed and doesn’t back recreational use.)

While he’ll be tickled if Dickerson and Terry pass their legislation in 2019, he won’t be a part of it. Instead, he says he’ll file a caption bill, if re-elected, enabling him to see how their measure is faring as the session progresses and to file a more “patient-oriented and freedom-oriented” language.

The bill Dickerson and Terry are planning won’t be a huge shift from the measure that fell short in the 2018 session. In fact, Dickerson notes he was happy with most of the bill he and Faison sponsored, and he says part of the bill he and Terry are planning will allow patients to use medical cannabis.

“So, what I anticipate is growing it, refining it and then dispensing within Tennessee. I think that will be there,” he adds.

Dickerson also hopes to involve the Department of Agriculture in the economic side of the legislation, possibly making it “slightly more expansive’’ and a “new and improved version.”

The analysis

Matt Ferry, the Democrat running against Terry this November, applauds him for being one of the few Republicans to support medical marijuana, but he says this type of bill would be only a “baby step in the right direction.”

“It is time for us to stop playing politics and start taking the health and welfare of Tennesseans seriously. Medical marijuana has been shown to have a variety of benefits, including the ability to help fight opioid addiction. Health care is one of the largest industries in Middle Tennessee and Nashville’s health care industry is one of the fastest growing in the nation.

“Tennessee should be on the cutting edge of health care, not playing catch-up. Let’s be the 31st state to legalize medical marijuana, not the 50th,” Ferry says.

Truth be told, since polls show overwhelming support for medical weed, playing politics is probably the only way to make medical marijuana legal in Tennessee.

Republican lawmakers – who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate – can say they’re doing the will of the people until they’re blue in the face when, in reality, they’re only doing the will of their Sunday school class.

Dickerson makes no mistake about his motivation.

“I do think if it’s named the TRUMP Act, it will cause some people pause before they vote against it reflexively,” he explains.

Considered the most liberal of the Senate Republican Caucus because of his Davidson County constituency, Dickerson understands some people will never vote with him and Terry. On the other hand, he says he believes nearly every Democrat in the House and Senate, as well as a number of Republicans, will side with them if he and Terry bring a “reasonably good bill.”

“It’s the people in the middle. We want to give them every reason to vote with us. We want to have good policy. We want the bill to be thoughtful, reasonable, very Tennessee specific: medical cannabis for sick Tennesseans,” Dickerson continues. “But also, if we need some creative marketing, let’s do that too.”

With Trump support holding fast in Tennessee after he won 65 percent of the vote here two years ago, their strategy makes sense – even if the name is a little goofy.

Consider this: If the TRUMP Act for medical use of cannabis were to fail, it might be the first direct defeat for the president in Tennessee, maybe even a harbinger of things to come.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the state Legislature for the Nashville Ledger, Memphis Daily News, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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