A measure that would shield users of medical marijuana from criminal prosecution is advancing in the state legislature.
The House Criminal Justice Committee set aside opposition from law enforcement, doctors and Governor Bill Haslam's administration Wednesday and overwhelmingly approved a measure that both sides see as a step toward legalizing medical cannabis.
The vote on House Bill 1749 came after members heard from representatives from those groups, as well as patients like Andrea Houser of Lawrenceburg. She's suffered from epileptic seizures for decades, but she told legislators she found relief for about five years by using marijuana illegally.
Her story seemed to make an impression on state Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville.
"So you're telling me, in front of this committee, truthfully — you're not under oath, technically — that your seizures stopped for five years?" he asked. "And then once you went back to traditional prescriptions, they came back?"
Houser now uses cannabis oil with low amounts of THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a high. Tennessee lawmakers made that product legal in 2014 and have expanded access in the years since then.
But Houser says she still has seizures using low-THC oil. Others also told lawmakers it does not work as well as cannabis with THC.
HB 1749 now needs to get through the House Health Committee — another tough hurdle. One member of that committee, Springfield physician and state Rep. Sabi Kumar, has already testified against the legislation.
But lawmakers on that panel will have at least two options to choose from. They could go forward with this plan, which keeps medical marijuana users from being jailed but still forces them to go out of state to buy it. Or, they could choose an alternative proposal that would allow a handful of companies to grow, distribute and sell cannabis oil in Tennessee under tight regulations.
Houser says either idea would be helpful to her.
The state Senate is yet to take up the legislation. It's not clear if they will before the legislative session ends, likely next month.