The scene early August at what would have been Congresswoman Diane Black’s victory party was bleak, with the candidate having lost the bid for the gubernatorial race to Republican Bill Lee in the state’s primary elections. Endorsed by the National Rifle Association, Vice President Mike Pence and the American Conservative Union, most Republicans in the state expected Black to win by a landslide. Political analysts site infighting in her campaign, Black’s focus on national rather than state issues while on the campaign trail, and negative responses to her costly plan to improve congestion and infrastructure as the reasons behind her failed governor bid.
However, many voters believe it also had a lot to do with her hardline stance against allowing Tennessee patients safe access to medical marijuana.
“Nothing from the National Institutes of Health has shown that smoking marijuana is beneficial,” Black said while on the campaign trail, according to the Tennessean. “I support FDA-approved cannabinoid medications like Marinol and Cesamet because they are safe for consumption. I will veto any bill that legalizes a substance without clinical trials that prove the substance is safe and effective.”
This past legislative session, Black ensured the Medical Cannabis Only Act — the state bill that was introduced by Republican Steve Dickerson in January and which would have established safe access to medicine for patients — was thrown out in committee. Indeed, medical marijuana patients in Tennessee have never approved of Diana Black.
The state of Tennessee has some of the most stringent restrictions in its medical marijuana laws. Senate Bill 2531 was signed into law in May 2014. It allowed qualified patients with severe seizure disorders the possession of limited amounts of cannabis oil containing less than .9 percent THC as part of a registered clinical research study affiliated with a hospital or state university with a school of medicine.
Essentially, the bill is more of a decriminalization bill and ultimately proved unworkable due to federal government prohibitions and lack of grants to hospitals and universities. As a consequence, no program was established, forcing most Tennessee patients to travel outside the state to bring back cannabis medicines from areas with established retail systems, thus risking a violation of federal law by transporting cannabis over state lines. The law does not afford arrest protection.
Tennessee does not allow any form of direct democracy, so lobbyists and activists have to work with legislators to get them to write, sponsor and champion any medical marijuana bills. Patients in Tennessee are constantly fighting for safe access to cannabis medicines. They have been present every legislative session with amendments to improve the original bill.
Progress to Tennessee’s proposed medical marijuana legislation was made in 2016 when any local university was permitted to participate, and added “cancer and other diseases” to the list of qualifying conditions. However, this provision was only added by reducing the amount of THC permitted in university-cultivated cannabis from 0.9 percent to 0.6 percent. This last legislative session, lobbyists and activists rallied behind the first bill to outline cultivation and distribution outside of the perimeters of research facilities.
This regulatory bill would have expanded the list of qualifying conditions to include HIV/AIDS patients, and those suffering with severe arthritis, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and autoimmune diseases, as well as creating the Tennessee Medical Cannabis Commission composed of physicians, pharmacists, law enforcement representatives, state legislators and patient advocates to implement a licensing programs for cultivation, processing, transport and distribution.
State registration cards would be issued for qualified medical marijuana patients for easy identification by law enforcement, one step closer to arrest protections. The program would be funded through licensing and application fees to avoid negative impacts to state budgets, while also conducting continuing education and establishing dosing standards.
Patients, activists, lobbyists and supportive legislators all believed this bill would pass, moving Tennessee closer to safe access. Entrepreneurs were in the middle of preparing business plans to seek investment equity as soon as the application process began. Investors were beginning to partner with local businesses in anticipation for a sustainable system of safe access for patients. The bill made it through to the House Health Committee before being thrown out at the very end of last legislative session. Activists are reintroducing new bills in January when the 2019 Tennessee General Assembly session begins and they can essentially start over.
Diane Black and her husband rallied heavily against the bill, employing several lobbyists through David Black’s consulting firm Phoenix Sciences Group. Diane Black spoke out against cannabis in campaign speeches right up to the primary election, with reports claiming she often referred to it as a gateway drug.
Speaking to daily newspaper the Commercial Appeal, Black said of medical marijuana:
There is an industry push today for medical marijuana similar to the push for opioids a decade ago. Just as no one predicted that opioid prescriptions would lead to heroin overdoses, we don’t know what legalizing marijuana could lead to. No scientific research supports this marketing effort and neither does the National Institute of Health or the Food and Drug Administration. Finally, I would urge every parent to search “vape cannabis oil” and look at the results. Vaping cannabis oil is a dangerous trend that is growing in popularity among young people. As governor, I promise to fight this trend and those who peddle it to Tennesseans.
As of April 2018, public support for regulated cannabis in Tennessee is at 81 percent, according to a Middle Tennessee State University poll. Of those canvassed, 37 percent said cannabis should be legal for personal use, while 44 percent believe in cannabis for medical purposes. Many believed that if Black was elected governor of Tennessee, chances of reintroducing another medical marijuana bill would be reduced substantially. Although Bill Lee has publicly stated he would veto the Medical Cannabis Only Act as it’s written now, he is open to researching the issue moving forward, giving cannabis activists a greater sense of hope for future access. Black losing the gubernatorial race shows that even in red states, support for cannabis is a crucial component to winning legislative campaigns.
In the meantime, activists are already prepared for January, with the Tennessee Responsible Use of Medicinal Plants (TRUMP) Act set to be introduced by two Republicans, Rep. Bryan Terry and Sen. Steve Dickerson. Lobbyists are hopeful that this time around, the bill will pass.