More than a dozen bills up for debate

At least 17 pieces of legislation related to marijuana have been introduced this year in Tennessee. Many of those bills pertain to medical cannabis, while others seek to reduce penalties for marijuana possession.

Neither approach is likely to succeed this year, largely due to top Republican officials’ resistance to permitting the drug even in medicinal form.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who presides over the Senate, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton both reiterated last week they won’t support a change in law until the federal government reclassifies marijuana from its current status as Schedule I, which the Drug Enforcement Administration considers the most dangerous.

That means efforts to enact medical marijuana in Tennessee will likely fall flat for the foreseeable future, despite a growing number of Republican state legislators — including those in rural communities — speaking out in favor of the change in law.

“In order to be consistent, it needs to come off that Schedule I and go anywhere from II to V or even off, and then we can have that debate,” Sexton said Thursday. “It’s very hard, even though other states are doing it, to break federal law.”

Two of the state’s previous top GOP champions of enacting medical marijuana are no longer taking part in the conversation at the legislature. One, former Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville, lost his reelection bid in November.

A second, current House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison of Cosby, became quiet on the issue after he was elected to his leadership role in 2019.

“Since I’ve come in leadership, my job is to make sure I’m helping the body as a whole,” Faison said. “Obviously, it’s not a secret where I am with the medical use of that plant.”

Nearby states like Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, West Virginia and Missouri have all allowed medical cannabis, joining a total of 36 states that have done so.

Illinois, a short drive from the Tennessee border, has legalized recreational use of marijuana. 

And then, of course, there is the proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin, to ensure recreational marijuana use is never legal in the state.

McNally on Thursday said he is inclined to back the measure.

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“I would vote for it,” he said. “I think I’d support it, to make sure that you couldn’t go into Walmart and just buy a pack of marijuana or a bag of marijuana or however they sell it. I’m not that familiar with it.”

The lieutenant governor confirmed he has never smoked a “marijuana cigarette” or consumed “marijuana brownies,” to his knowledge.

The following are cannabis-related bills filed during this year’s legislative session.

Resolution to reclassify marijuana on federal drug scale

A resolution introduced by Rep. Sabi Kumar, R-Springfield, acknowledges “certain medical benefits” offered by marijuana and urges the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to reclassify marijuana, which top legislative officials say must happen before changing state law.

Kumar is a surgeon.

Currently, the DEA says as a Schedule I drug, marijuana has no acceptable medical use. That puts it in the same category as heroin, LSD and ecstasy.

Nearby states like Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, West Virginia and Missouri have all allowed medical cannabis, joining a total of 36 states that have done so. Illinois, a short drive from the Tennessee border, has legalized recreational use of marijuana.

The resolution would have no direct effect on any laws in Tennessee, but signals support for future medical marijuana legislation if the federal government makes a change in classification.

House Joint Resolution 85 has passed the Health committee and subcommittee and will soon head to the House floor.

Creating a commission to study medical marijuana

Another measure from Republicans doesn’t call for any changes to Tennessee’s marijuana laws, but would establish a group to study medical marijuana.

The legislation from Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, and Rep. Bryan Terry, R-Murfreesboro, would establish a “medical cannabis commission” consisting of multiple doctors and pharmacists. 

Senate Bill 118/House Bill 490 would require the commission to “study laws and legislation regarding the medical use of cannabis” and report their findings and recommendations, including proposed legislation on setting up an “effective, patient-focused medical cannabis program in this state.”

The nine-member panel would meet at least every two months.

The legislation would also prevent the state from taking any action on medical marijuana until the drug is reclassified at the federal level.

The bill was referred by the Senate government operations committee to the judiciary committee with a negative recommendation, but could still be taken up.

Another Republican backed bill, House Bill 880/Senate Bill 667, would require the Tennessee Department of Health to study surrounding states’ medical marijuana programs. That legislation was introduced by Terry, a physician, and Sen. Becky Massey, R-Knoxville.

Allowing some marijuana as medication

A bill filed by two Republicans, Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Sen. Page Walley of Bolivar, would exclude from the state’s definition of marijuana “a product approved as a prescription medication” by the FDA. It’s unclear what products would fit that description.

Currently, state law just excludes from the definition CBD-specific products approved by the FDA.

House Bill 976/Senate Bill 706, which has passed out of the House criminal justice committee, would not establish a medical marijuana program in the state.

Regulated medical marijuana

Two rural Republicans, including outspoken medical marijuana proponent Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, and Rep. Iris Rudder of Winchester, have filed legislation that would enact a full-fledged medical marijuana program in the state.

Senate Bill 854/House Bill 621, called the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act, cleared the Senate government operations committee in early March but has not been taken up in the House.

It’s unlikely to advance very far this year, given Republican leadership’s hesitation about the issue.

Allowing some cancer patients to use cannabis oil

Another Republican-introduced initiative would allow certain cancer patients to legally use cannabis oil.

A bill filed by two Republicans, Rep. Ryan Williams of Cookeville and Sen. Page Walley of Bolivar, would exclude from the state's definition of marijuana

Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, successfully presented the bill in the House Health subcommittee last week, explaining the relief that could be offered for some patients if passed. Sen. Art Swann, also from Maryville, is the other sponsor.

House Bill 239/Senate Bill 1209 would allow patients to use the oil if they have life-threatening cancer and their doctors attest that all conventional treatment methods have been tried.

Allowing paralyzed veterans to use cannabis oil

Despite being a measure filed by Democrats, House Bill 666/Senate Bill 1493 was approved by the House health committee last week. The bill, introduced by Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, and Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, would allow veterans with quadriplegia to legally use cannabis oil.

The veteran must have sustained quadriplegia as a result of their service in the military.

Windle, a colonel in the Tennessee National Guard, said in committee he believed starting with wounded veterans would be a more palatable way to approach the subject of medical cannabis in the legislature.

Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory, is quadriplegic and said he thinks being able to try cannabis oil could be beneficial for him. 

Other marijuana bills

Most of these bills have not been heard in any committees, but would be unlikely to advance.

Prohibiting police searches based only on marijuana odor: HB 1568/SB 1045 from Faison and Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, would prevent police from being authorized to conduct a search based solely on smelling cannabis. It also specifies most hemp products cannot be seized.Tennessee Marijuana Regulation Act: SB 697/HB 1099 is a bipartisan proposal from Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, that appears to delete various portions of state law making marijuana possession a crime.Tax on retail sale of marijuana: SB 1477/HB 1587 by Akbari and House Minority Leader Karen Camper, both Memphis Democrats, would allow for the retail sale of marijuana with a 12% tax.Decriminalizing small possession: SB 1439/HB 413 is another effort by Memphis Democrats, this time Akbari and Rep. London Lamar, to remove consequences for marijuana. This bill would decriminalize the possession and exchange of less than one ounce of marijuana.Recognizing other states’ medical marijuana cards: SB 25/HB 601 is an effort led by Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, and Rep. Jason Hodges, D-Clarksville to allow someone who holds a valid medical marijuana card from another state to have up to half an ounce of marijuana in Tennessee.Judicial diversion for marijuana: SB 1475/HB 221 requires a court to grant judicial diversion for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, regardless of a defendant’s prior criminal convictions. Bill is from Akbari and Rep. Jesse Chism, D-Memphis.Drug testing: SB 1359/HB 1330 prevents employers from taking adverse action against certain job applicants and employees if a drug test shows they have used marijuana. Bill is from Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Torrey Harris, D-Memphis.Reducing marijuana possession offense: SB 1476/HB 972 reduces from a Class A to a Class C misdemeanor the offenses of possession, casual exchange and distribution of small amounts of marijuana. It also establishes early release eligibility for nonviolent offenders previously convicted of Class A misdemeanor marijuana offenses. Bill is from Akbari and Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville.Increasing amount of casual exchange: SB 1480/HB 1480 increases the amount of marijuana possessed or exchanged under the offenses of simple possession or casual exchange from less than one-half ounce to less than one ounce. Bill is from Akbari and Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis.

Reach Natalie Allison at Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.

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