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VOL. 39 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 8, 2015

Cannabis oil bill could lead to more ‘evil weed’ wins

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Logan and Stacie Mathes were on “pins and needles” as they waited for Gov. Bill Haslam to sign legislation into law allowing cannabis oil to be used to treat seizures and similar medical problems in Tennessee.

Getting the cannabis oil bill to the governor’s desk, where it was signed earlier this week, was difficult, and despite other defeats for the use of medical marijuana, there’s growing optimism among advocates.

Murfreesboro attorney Ted LaRoche is an investor with Ten Can Grow, LLC, which is ready to apply for a state license to grow marijuana if the measure becomes law.

“It’s legal in 24 states,” says LaRoche, but for years its use has been stigmatized by illicit marijuana used recreationally.

When the active ingredients are combined correctly, however, marijuana can be used medicinally to treat people with serious diseases, he adds.

Hope for Josie Mae

The Mathes’ 1-year-old daughter, Josie Mae, suffers from childhood epilepsy and infantile spasms, and most of the time she’s so lethargic from prescriptions medications she can’t grow and develop the way she should.

“We don’t need to stay on those any longer,” Stacie says of her daughter’s prescription medications.

Instead, she and Logan hope cannabis oil will help slow the seizures and avert related brain damage, enabling them to wean their young child off ineffective medicines.

The Mathes family, which lives in Mohawk, about 60 miles northeast of Knoxville, has traveled to Colorado to obtain a physician-approved red card allowing Josie Mae to use the low-THC cannabis oil, which is legal in Colorado but not federally approved.


State Rep. Jeremy Faison, who initiated legislation in the House of Representatives to exempt cannabis oil from Tennessee’s controlled-substance laws, calls the breakthrough “a big deal.”

“We’ve done something very good for people in Tennessee, and I’m excited,” says Faison, a Cosby Republican.

‘Evil’ weed

Marijuana has been “demonized” for decades as an “evil” weed, a mind-altering hallucinogenic drug, but “this is a testament for using this plant correctly,” Faison says, explaining 40 to 50 percent of people suffering from epilepsy say the oil works for them.

Still, Faison says: “There’s a lot of people still scared of the cannabis plant,” an attitude that forced him to draw the legislation narrowly.

Only those diagnosed with epilepsy or other illnesses that cause seizures will be allowed to use cannabis oil, but only with a physician’s recommendation.

They’ll also have to order the substance from other states in which it’s legal to process marijuana for medicinal purposes. The Mathes family says it is lined up to get cannabis oil from a supplier as soon as the law takes effect.

Faison says he got involved with the effort when he found out the Matheses were ready to move to Colorado, if necessary, for Josie to use cannabis oil legally.

“I said this is an area I’m willing to lose political capital over,” Faison notes.

No doubt the Mathes family is happy he was willing to take that risk.

Under study

Separate legislation allowing medical marijuana in Tennessee for treatment of other debilitating diseases didn’t fare quite as well this year.


Rep. Ryan Williams grew emotional when he introduced the bill this session in the House Health Subcommittee he chairs.

The Cookeville Republican told committee members he grew interested in the measure as he watched his father-in-law, a Vietnam veteran, suffer the ravages of cancer.

“I saw in him the onslaught of pain medication that we gave to him, and we thought [it] would extend and prolong his life and improve his quality of life,” Williams explains.

The prescription medication did little to help, Williams says.

The legislation would have allowed for “narrow delivery” of medical cannabis, mainly in nebulizers, gel tabs and time-release patches for people with stage 2, 3 and 4 cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epileptic seizures, Huntington’s disease and serious spinal cord damage.

Marijuana would be grown under strict conditions and go through medical certification, including testing for controlled dosages.

It also would be overseen by a panel of eight doctors to be appointed by the governor to research legal medical uses.

Patients would have to receive written certification from a physician and Department of Health cards for medicines to be dispensed.

Two grow facilities would be licensed in each of the state’s three grand divisions, along with 33 dispensaries statewide. “Seed-to-sale” technology would be used, as well, to track the medication, according to Williams.

House Speaker Beth Harwell put the bill on hold, citing concerns from the Tennessee Department of Health. It will go through study this summer before coming back in 2016.

Investment on the horizon?

LaRoche is part of a group investing in the Southeast’s largest USDA-approved and Florida Department of Health-certified hydroponic organic farm, at which vegetables are grown.

His group is awaiting regulatory approval of a medical marijuana law there before applying for a license to grow the crop, he says, and would do the same in Tennessee if legislation passes here.

Testimony and public hearings on the legislation and medical marijuana are set for September in a special session of House and Senate members, says LaRoche, who hopes to “neutralize” the Department of Health’s position on the matter. “It’ll be educational for everybody,” he says.

Tennessee Department of Health Director Dr. John Dreyzehner said early during the session the nation has a “tremendous natural experiment” going on with medical marijuana, but he is leery about jumping into legalization too soon.

Dreyzehner points to the prescription drug epidemic and the deaths of tens of thousands of people who got addicted to opiod-based pain relievers as good reason to move slowly with medical marijuana.

“Medical marijuana is an analogous natural experiment,” he says. “However, with medical marijuana we’re in a similar place now with regard to data and the understanding of how the various compounds that make up that plant will impact human health.”

Williams, meanwhile, says more than anecdotal evidence exists to show medical marijuana benefits some patients.

“I think some people who want to try this believe it to be a panacea, and it’s not that either. So we need to be honest with people about what it is,” Williams adds.

“But I think there is a path out there we could regulate it in such a way, better than we have opioids, quite frankly, for people who are terminally ill. Hopefully, the discussion hasn’t been deterred.”

Perennial push

Rep. Sherry Jones is likely to revive her annual bill next year for legalization of medical marijuana, a measure more liberal than Williams’ bill. She was ready to present it in a House Health Committee this session, as advocates filled the room. But she ran into opposition before she could bring the bill forward.

In fact, it made more progress in 2014, even getting a House Health Subcommittee hearing with Tennesseans testifying about their battles with cancer, seizures and pain from serious injuries.

“Medical marijuana doesn’t make people go out and kill people or go crazy and break into stores. That’s not what it does, and that’s not what it’s for,” Jones explains.

But look for Williams’ bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by Dr. Steven Dickerson, a Nashville anesthesiologist, to grab most of the attention next year on the marijuana front.

Republican backing gives it a much stronger chance in this GOP-dominated Legislature.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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