“Pot by Prescription” in Tennessee?

As each legislative session comes and goes, two Tennessee legislators’ quest to legalize cannabis for medical use seems less and less quixotic.

State Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville Republican, has been pushing the medical cannabis legislation for three years. The anesthesiologist is currently conducting hearings along with co-sponsor Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, in anticipation of introducing a bill once again for the 2018 session.

“I’ll keep sponsoring it until it passes,” Dickerson says, echoing a statement he first made three years ago. “It continues to look more and more likely every year. But at this point, it’s still a flip of the coin.”

The two tout cannabis as a safer alternative to opioids, but they’re facing pushback from fellow Republicans in the legislature, state health officials and representatives from law enforcement agencies.

“We’re having to break some really longstanding, firmly and fervently held beliefs, and those things don’t change overnight,” Dickerson says.

Their efforts could get a boost from a more mainstream wing of the ruling party. Beth Harwell, a fellow Nashville Republican who is a candidate for governor and serves as speaker of the House of Representatives, convened a special task force earlier this year to consider opioid abuse in the state. The group’s recommendations, published in September, include encouraging health care providers to consider “alternative pain management options.”

Though the task force recommendations did not specifically mention medical cannabis, Harwell earlier this year said she was open to the prospect of legalizing the drug in Tennessee, in part because her sister, who lives in Colorado, successfully used cannabis to treat her back pain.

Meanwhile, on Dickerson and Faison’s special committee, several Republicans with medical backgrounds pushed back, claiming cannabis should face the same federal Food and Drug Administration scrutiny that other prescription medicines face. Among the skeptics were Joey Hensley, Rusty Crowe and Richard Briggs.

Michael Warren, deputy commissioner for population health at the Tennessee Department of Health, espoused some of the same concerns when testifying before the committee.

“We really think that the FDA approval process and pharmaceutical-grade manufacturing assures that medications that Tennesseans or anybody else has access to are safe and effective,” he said at the time.

For reasons articulated by a Vanderbilt University law professor at the hearing, there are unique challenges facing those attempting to gain FDA approval for medical cannabis.

There was one thing medical cannabis advocates and Department of Health officials could agree on: The FDA should reschedule marijuana.

Because it is part of the FDA’s most serious scheduling regime, cannabis can be extremely difficult to study. Dickerson says a rescheduling would be “a game changer,” while David Reagan, chief medical officer at the Department of Health, says the agency has advocated for rescheduling the drug.

But Faison argues the harm caused by opioids in Tennessee every year is enough to warrant unique accommodation for cannabis.

“I want us to realize that in 2016 in Tennessee, opioid abuse deaths [were] right at 2,000,” he says. “If we’re going to hold marijuana use for medical use to a standard, then compare it to what’s going on right now that’s legal and that’s encouraged by a lot of doctors.”

Original article found in the  Nashville Post.

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