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Tennessee legislature approves low-THC oil in medical cannabis compromise

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 5/5/2021 Natalie Allison, Nashville Tennessean

After narrowly failing to pass a wider-ranging medical cannabis decriminalization bill, advocates for the legislation struck an agreement with opponents in the Tennessee legislature for a watered down version.

The bill flew through six specially called House committees and a Senate committee Tuesday, one of the final days of the legislative session, after members from both chambers who were for and against an earlier measure reached a deal.

It narrowly passed the Senate on a vote of 20-12, with some members who voted against arguing the legislation did not go far enough. Others remained strictly opposed to any form of marijuana legalization. 

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In the House, the bill passed much easier on Wednesday, 74-17. 

New law creates commission, allows low THC oil

The legislature is creating a commission — the nine members of which will be appointed by the House and Senate speakers and Gov. Bill Lee — to study the legalization of medical marijuana ahead of the federal government reclassifying marijuana on the Drug Enforcement Administration's drug schedule.

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"We pared that down as much as we could," said bill sponsor Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, referring to a small portion of a wider-ranging piece of legislation by Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro.

"Not everybody is happy with the compromise," Haile said during the Senate finance committee. But he said he felt strongly the state needed to go ahead and create a study commission to have a plan in place for when federal regulations change on marijuana, which most people following the issue expect to happen this year.

The bill also allows for patients with nine debilitating illnesses to possess cannabis oil that consists of 0.9% or less THC, the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. That amount constitutes a low dose of THC, slightly above the current legal amount of 0.3% for hemp oil.

The patients have to have a letter from a doctor — valid only for six months at a time — attesting that they have one of the conditions and that other conventional methods of treatment have already been tried.

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Haile said he had conversations with Terry, who also co-sponsored the current, less expansive bill. Terry informed him he would not be interested in moving forward with the commission bill unless Tennessee also offered some relief now for sick patients. Terry is a physician, who has explained his own research and conversations with patients eventually changed his mind on the medical marijuana legalization issue.

Bill outlines specific illnesses for medical cannabis oil

The illnesses listed in the bill include Alzheimer's disease; ALS; cancer diagnosed as end stage; inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis; epilepsy or seizures; multiple sclerosis; Parkinson's disease; HIV or AIDS; and sickle cell disease.

People with epilepsy are already permitted to possess the oil in Tennessee under a law previously passed by the legislature.

Patients falling in those categories would still have to obtain the oil out of state, as sale of any marijuana is still illegal in Tennessee. The new law would merely prevent them from being prosecuted for possession of the oil.

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Both House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who was previously for Terry's larger decriminalization bill, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who was against the other version, support the compromise legislation.

Gov. Bill Lee, who sent members of his administration to testify against Terry and Massey's decriminalization bill, which would have allowed other types of cannabis products, has stood down on the new version and "removed his philosophical flag," Terry told committees on Tuesday.

That means Lee is expected to sign the legislation into law.

Members express frustration on bill for different reasons

Multiple members from both chambers said the legislation wasn't going far enough.

Sen. Janice Bowling, whose bill to create a full medical marijuana legalization program failed earlier in the year, said she was in "total opposition" to Haile's bill and was disappointed Tennessee wasn't implementing a program like 36 other states. Alabama, she noted, was scheduled to have a House floor vote on a Republican-supported legalization plan Tuesday.

Bowling, R-Tullahoma, voted against Haile's bill.

Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, said in committee it was wrong Tennessee still wasn't allowing farmers to grow the product.

"It's simply unfair for young Israelis to be able to compete in the world market, and we're going to tell Tennesseans that they can't," Windle said. "It's wrong and it's anti-capitalist."

Rep. John Ray Clemmons and Sen. Heidi Campbell, both Nashville Democrats, made comments about how they feared the bill would make it more difficult to expand medical marijuana legalization in the future.

Terry and Massey said they agreed with many of the concerns raised by legislators who didn't think the bill did enough, but conceded the progress was better than nothing.

Meanwhile, Rep Chris Todd, R-Madison County, argued that states that implement medical marijuana would quickly legalize recreational marijuana. More than two dozen states allow medical marijuana but not recreational use of the drug.

Reach Natalie Allison at nallison@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee legislature approves low-THC oil in medical cannabis compromise

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