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Medical Marijuana: Where Tennessee stands

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JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) - While there is a clear split from those that support and oppose legalizing medical marijuana in Tennessee, there are people who say they would use the substance to treat an ongoing illness or medical issue.

It's a bill that's sat in the General Assembly for the past six years - a push from State Representative Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) to legalize medical marijuana in the Volunteer state, drawing criticism from both sides of the aisle.

This year though, the legislation is gaining for traction and is a contender for consideration more than ever before.

Aside from the State of Washington, and Colorado, which just legalized the use of recreational marijuana this year, 20 states and the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana. Currently, Tennessee is one of 9 states with pending legislation to follow suit.

News Channel 11 spent time with everyone from state lawmakers, to local medical experts, to those who say they'd benefit from marijuana's medical effects here in the Tri-Cities. It's a conversation that's undoubtedly being taking more seriously, given what's happening nationally when it comes to marijuana's place in society.

Aside from the complexities of the issue, the question that remains is simple: Is Tennessee ready?

"You can't see it from the outside, and that's why when I talk about it a lot of people are like, 'You don't need that you look fine,'" Kayla Byrd said.

But, as 23-year-old Byrd knows firsthand, looks can be deceiving.

"There are days that I use canes, there are days that I can't shower myself or dress myself."

She's battled the effects of rheumatoid arthritis since she was 12-years-old.

"Right now, I'm not able to work and go to school and live the life I want to live because of the pain that I'm in. And obviously, around here, we have a massive problem with prescription pain pills. So I've never been one to really want to take prescription pain pills - and my doctors don't want to prescribe prescription pain pills," Byrd said. "I have a pill tray that I fill up once a week to keep all my prescriptions straight. I take 115 pills a week. And an ENBREL injection to help control my RA. And none of that is pain relief. It's all controlling my disease and the side effects from all the drugs that I'm on."

Byrd is one of many in Tennessee, who find relief in the the hope, the possibility, of legalized medical marijuana.

"It's just a constant building of more prescription pills and more prescription pills to control all these side effects. When I could probably, if I had access to medical marijuana, just be able to control my pain as I feel necessary, without having to worry about all that stuff," Byrd said.

Dr. Kenneth Ferslew, Professor and Director in the Section of Toxicology at the James H. Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University, says, like any drug, there are pluses and minuses.

"There's a risk/benefit that you have to balance. Marijuana can become a drug a person thinks they need, they "become addicted to" - it's not the same as an opiate. You don't have the same kind of withdrawal, you don't have the same kind of addition potential. BUT it is a drug of abuse," Ferslew said.

"Like all drugs, we need to have physicians making decisions of what drugs are good for treating our patients. And we do know from clinical studies, things that have been done in Europe and other countries in the world, that marijuana has a medicinal use. Now the questions that become, to our lawmakers, to our society, is how do we want to control that so it's properly used - and not abused," Ferslew said. "What we're having a problem with is matching our laws, matching our ways of dispensing drugs, controlling drugs, and using it in a medical manner. It's what the whole conflict is about."

It's a conflict that has lawmakers split. But, bill sponsor, Rep. Jones told News Channel 11, some of it may be a smoke screen.

"There are a lot of Republican members who are simply afraid. They're afraid to say yes they're for - in private, might tell you they're okay with it. But they will not step out in public and say they are, and vote for it," Jones said.

Those that are publicly opposing the legislation include Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey.

"I think the only reason you spoke pot is to get high! Period! So there is a difference with that and alcohol. I don't think the time has come. When we're looking at ways to put more restrictions on meth production, on prescription drugs, we don't need to be legalizing something else," Ramsey said.

Congressman Phil Roe says more studies are needed.

"I think you need to study it like you would anything else. Certainly we aren't - understood during the 20s, the prohibition on alcohol didn't work. Marijuana's a little different drug and we don't know the long term - we're beginning to see - we'll find out the long term effects. We KNOW the long term effects of alcohol, and certainly I can see the logic of people saying, well you let people buy alcohol legally. Why can't you buy - and people get drunk illegally and drive cars and it creates lots of problems. I understand the argument. The fact that we've done that doesn't make the other right," Roe said.

But for people like Jones, alcohol and marijuana are two different conversations.

"It's the right thing to do for people that are suffering, for people that are in pain, for people that have seizures daily, for people that are terminal."

The right thing for people, she said, and the state.

"We will tax it at the end at 20 percent. 20 percent tax on medical marijuana will raise the state a substantial amount of money," Jones said, "What we would like to do is pass a bill that is very strictly regulated. It will have oversight from the State of Tennessee, The Health Department and the Department of Agriculture. To be a marijuana grower, you will have to have an organic farm. We're not just gonna open this up to someone with 300 acres that's gonna grow 300 acres of medical marijuana."

For lawmakers, it's about finding the right fit for Tennessee. For those in Byrd's shoes, simply feeling better.

"I don't want to take pills for the rest of my life," Byrd said, "I would just like to have a natural option that is healthier for me and isn't going to cause as many crazy symptoms as these prescription pills can cause."

"People across the United States see the value, and are passing it every single day. And I hope we can do it here in Tennessee," Jones said.

"Because you can do something, doesn't mean you should," Roe said.

You may recall earlier this month, News Channel 11 sat down with Seth Green. who has cerebral palsy and is a proponent of legalizing medical marijuana. He organized the Smoky Mountain Medical Marijuana Rally. which will meet at the Farmer's Market in Johnson City at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. Nearly 750 people have already confirmed their attendance on Facebook.


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  • Support for medical marijuana is growing in the US. Do you think a doctor should be able to prescribe small amounts of marijuana for patients suffering from serious illnesses?

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