After years of failure, legislation that would make one form of medical cannabis legal is moving through the state House of Representatives, after a panel voted narrowly Tuesday to push the issue forward.
It was a major leap for state lawmakers, but the measure still has a long road ahead before becoming law.
House Bill 1749 was approved by the Criminal Justice Subcommittee after a 90-minute debate that featured testimony from prosecutors, law enforcement and health officials — all aligned against medical marijuana — as well a few people who testified in favor of the proposal, often on behalf of loved ones who might benefit.
The measure's sponsor, East Tennessee Republican Jeremy Faison, stood by. For four years, he's pushed for medical cannabis. The hurdle has always been people who fear it'll eventually lead to full legalization.
"This has nothing to de-stigmatizing marijuana," he said. "This has everything to do with some sick people who can greatly benefit from this plant."
The testimony left the panel evenly divided — a better result than in previous years, when medical cannabis legislation has been stifled.
That caused House Speaker Beth Harwell to exercise her power to break the tie. Days ago, she announced her support for medical cannabis — in part because her own sister, a resident of Colorado, where marijuana is legal — has used it to manage pain.
The 4-3 vote means the measure will be heard at least once more, by the full Criminal Justice Committee. Faison is optimistic it will pass there as well.
"The more you expose those lies that have been brought to us since the 1930s, eventually you can finally get through to somebody," he said.
The proposal would allow patients with an assortment of conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, Lou Gehrig's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder, to obtain cards allowing them to buy cannabis from licensed dispensaries. Tennessee would be only the third state in the South, after Florida and Arkansas, to allow medicinal cannabis.
But the plan is controversial, even among marijuana supporters, because it would allow only the sale of cannabis oil, which can be vaped but not smoked. The level of THC would also be limited. That's the chemical that causes a high.
Some backers of medical cannabis hope to loosen those restrictions as the debate moves along, and they'll get several chances if the legislation continues to survive.
The measure has to get through at least two committees on the way to the House floor, as well as the Senate.