News » Cover Feature

Blunt Assessment

As more states consider loosened pot laws, Tennessee's medical marijuana bill moves forward.

by

13 comments
feature-2.jpg

Fifty-year-old Midtowner Stan Green contracted HIV in 1993, and he now relies on a daily cocktail of medications to keep him healthy. But despite all the drugs he's been prescribed, Green continues to suffer from a lack of appetite and chronic pain from neuropathy in his legs and stomach. That is, unless he smokes marijuana.

"Without pot, I don't want to eat. I have to force myself to eat, and then it tears up my stomach," said Green, whose name has been changed here to protect his identity.

Though Green's mother is now aware of his marijuana use, he hid it from her for years. Once, while visiting her, he went a week without pot and lost 11 pounds.

If medical marijuana were legal in Tennessee, Green would be a prime candidate for a prescription. Even Green's physician, who has known about his pot habit since 2003, supports his use of marijuana to treat his lack of appetite and pain.

Though medical marijuana in Tennessee is still a long shot, the state's Safe Access to Medical Cannabis Act — co-sponsored by state representative Jeanne Richardson and state senator Beverly Marrero, both of Memphis — recently saw the most movement it's had since some form of medical pot legislation was proposed years ago.

In late April, the House Committee on Health and Human Resources unanimously voted to establish a task force to study the issue of legalizing medical marijuana. The task force must report back to the legislature with recommendations by or before February 2011.

"All the advocates are very excited, because we've never had anything go even that far," Richardson said.

Included in the task force are members of the state Board of Pharmacy, the Board of Medical Examiners, the Department of Health, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee Sheriff's Association, and the Department of Agriculture.

"This is very important. If we use a geographical line, like the Mason-Dixon Line, there are not many examples of movement [in the South] with medical marijuana bills despite years of their introduction," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Since 1996, 14 states — most of them in the West — have legalized marijuana for medical use. In California and Colorado, where medical pot was approved by ballot initiatives rather than legislation, laws are fairly lax. Patients are prescribed medical marijuana for anything from cancer and HIV to anxiety or a bum knee.

Tennessee's model is strict by comparison. If passed, qualifying patients would need to be diagnosed with specific serious illnesses, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, and Hepatitis C. Consideration also would be given to people with severe nausea, seizures, wasting syndrome, and other chronic conditions. Those approved for the program would be issued an identification card.

"It's very tightly controlled in terms of the growing, the production, the processing, and the distribution," Richardson said. "In crafting the bill, we tried to avoid all of the obvious abuses of California and Colorado. Those places are now passing bills to regulate after the fact. It really was sort of the wild, wild West."

St. Pierre says the stricter Tennessee model is the norm for pending legislation these days.

"Access for patients to whole, smoked marijuana probably hit its zenith in the second week of January this year," St. Pierre said. "After New Jersey passed medical marijuana laws not allowing home cultivation and restricting who can access it, almost every state that didn't have legislation in the hopper is attracted to the restricted model."

"States will go from allowing people to use marijuana for chronic pain and mental illness, which is a big catch-all, to restricting them down to the big five — cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis," St. Pierre said.

Though St. Pierre says the more restrictive model isn't ideal for all patients, he admits that more conservative states, like Tennessee, may stand a better chance at passing stricter legislation.

"It has to be so restrictive that many of us are not exactly keen on it, but we recognize the need for political expediency to at least establish some baseline of legal protection for patients," St. Pierre said.

Although medical marijuana has been legal in some states for 14 years, the federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it's been determined to have no medical value. During the Bush years, federal raids on state-approved growers were common, but the Obama administration has stated publicly that it will not seek to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers, as long as they conform to state guidelines.

"That has allowed for the promulgation and explosion at the state level, because states no longer fear the federal government coming in," St. Pierre said.

A prime example is Denver. Though Colorado voters passed an amendment allowing medical marijuana use in 2000, the medical pot dispensary business didn't explode until the past year. The boom is attributed to both the Obama administration's policy and a Colorado state ruling allowing medical marijuana care-givers to have more patients.

"We did a big story on the [medical marijuana] industry in February 2009, when there were maybe a dozen dispensaries [in Denver]," said Patricia Calhoun, editor of Denver's alt-weekly newspaper, Westword. "By July, they were exploding so fast. The city of Denver has at least 250 dispensaries."

That change has translated into a boom in advertising revenue for Westword, a free ad-supported newsweekly similar to the Memphis Flyer. A recent issue of Westword had nine pages of advertisements for local cannabis clubs. The paper's website even features weekly reviews of pot dispensaries in its "Mile Highs and Lows" blog, with one reporter solely dedicated to trying out different strains of medical-grade pot.

The economic impact of medical marijuana legislation also is a factor in its revival by state legislators. Denver's dispensary boom came during one of the worst national recessions in history.

"In the last several years, we've had empty storefronts [in Denver], and no one was moving in," Calhoun said. "Then all of a sudden, real estate agents were discovering they could lease [to dispensaries]."

Earlier this month, the Oakland East Bay Express newspaper reported that California's Board of Equalization has collected between $50 million and $100 million in sales taxes per year from medical cannabis dispensaries.

"During these wrenching economic times, this is definitely catching the bean counters' and the politicians' attention," St. Pierre said.

Regardless of the economic impact, seriously ill patients like Green would love to see legal medical marijuana become a reality in Tennessee. Green says he's tired of worrying about being caught with an illegal drug that he considers essential medicine.

Though Richardson doubts the bill will pass anytime soon, she thinks the legislature is inching closer, and she has noticed an overall change in attitude toward medical pot.

"Most reasonable people think medical marijuana is fine," Richardson said. "You almost never hear anyone talking about marijuana being a gateway drug anymore, because it's not. A lot of the old-fashioned rhetoric is dying off."

The Hook-Up

Q&A with a Pot Dealer

To quote an over-used phrase, these are tough economic times, and a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do. We interviewed a female pot dealer — who for obvious reasons didn't want her name revealed — on the ins and outs of the business.

Why did you start selling marijuana?

About five years ago, I was having trouble paying bills, even though I was working about 30 hours a week at my job. I was going to college, and an opportunity arose where I could sell.

At the time, I had credit card bills, so it was about the money. Plus, I smoked weed too, and I couldn't afford to buy it. This way I had weed for free and, in turn, I'd make a little profit.

Now you're out of college and working a corporate day job. How does selling pot affect your income these days? Would you be able to live the life you want without that extra income?

Now the money that I make from my day job pays my bills. Without the extra money that I make from selling, I wouldn't have any money for gas or lunch or going out for drinks.

Tennessee has pretty strict pot laws. Do you ever worry about the risk?

There are the obvious concerns with not wanting to get caught. I don't want to go to jail or have to pay any fines. I don't like to have to worry about picking it up and having to drive it back to my house. Anytime I have it in my car, there's a concern. But I don't ever have that much on me at one time.

Do you think you'd lose your job if you were busted?

When I first started, I had a bullshit job, and it really didn't matter. The people who worked with me all smoked, and I didn't have any concerns, because those people knew what was up and it didn't matter. But now I definitely can't let on to anyone at work that I do this as a side job.

Have you ever had customers who bought pot from you for medical reasons?

Yes, I had one who was HIV positive and needed it to have an appetite. Other people use it for anxiety and stress, even if that's not technically a medical issue.

What's it like being a female pot dealer in a male-dominated workforce?

I never put myself in a situation where I feel like there's going to be physical danger. I'm friends with the people I get it from. You have to keep a trusted network.

Does being a female pot dealer make you feel hardcore?

I always feel hardcore. But there's a little bit of celebrity associated with it. You have what people need, and you're cool. You're definitely popular. A friend with weed is a friend indeed.

Rocky Pot

Tennessee state laws against recreational use remain strict.

Rhodes College graduate Jeff Carney had hopes of using his psychology degree to pursue a career as a youth counselor, but a misdemeanor pot charge from 2006 is holding him back.

Carney was busted breaking up a small amount of marijuana — a couple of grams — to smoke in a park in his hometown of Smyrna, Tennessee.

"It was right before school started, so I was back home. I had to go back to Smyrna after school started for the court date, and they gave me 11 months and 29 days of probation," Carney said.

After graduation, Carney moved to Nashville, where he applied for a job with Youth Villages. Though he failed to mention the drug charge on his application, he felt mentioning it during his job interview was the responsible thing to do. He was then told Youth Villages would not be able to hire him.

Had Carney been busted in Mississippi, where 30 grams or less has essentially been decriminalized for first-time possession, he would have gotten off with a ticket. Such a charge in Mississippi is treated like a minor traffic violation.

Unfortunately for Carney, Tennessee boasts stricter marijuana laws, with a first-time conviction for any amount of marijuana resulting in a mandatory minimum fine of $250. Convictions cannot be expunged in Tennessee without a dismissal, meaning even a small misdemeanor pot possession can remain on one's record for life. Carney was told his record could not be expunged.

Delivery or sale of more than half an ounce (that's two quarter bags of marijuana) is considered a felony in Tennessee.

"I'd say Tennessee is probably average, compared to what's around us. Some states are a little better, and some are worse," said criminal defense attorney T. Clifton Harviel, who often represents marijuana offenders in federal court. "We are not one of the more progressive states."

Tennessee is 11th in the nation for marijuana arrests and 19th in the nation in overall severity of maximum sentences for marijuana possession, according to a 2009 report from the Bulletin of Cannabis Reform. That report also states that marijuana arrests cost $148 million in Tennessee in 2006, the most recent statistics available.

From 2005 to July 2009, Tennessee was one of several states with laws requiring drug dealers to purchase drug tax stamps from the Department of Revenue. The law was declared unconstitutional last year, but until then, dealers who had not paid their Unauthorized Substance Tax could be charged not only for possessing and distributing an illegal substance but also for violating state tax laws.

Recently, the Memphis Police Department (MPD) has been cracking down on marijuana, though police spokesperson Alyssa Moore said it's not a concentrated effort. Last week, the MPD seized approximately 200 pot plants and more than 47 pounds of cultivated marijuana in a raid at the Continental Apartments in Midtown.

In the first five months of 2010, the MPD seized nearly 950,000 grams of marijuana compared to 175,000 grams seized in all of 2009. They've also confiscated 272 plants to date this year, while they only seized 52 plants in 2009.

"At the moment, I'd wager I've got more pot cases than other drug cases right now," Harviel said.

Memphis police even put a damper on the city's unofficial "4:20 Festival" in Overton Park in April, discouraging open marijuana use by posting officers and cameras in the park. In years past, police have largely ignored recreational pot smokers during the annual gathering.

Meanwhile, California is looking at decriminalization of pot for recreational use. The state has allowed legal medical pot since 1996, and, in November, voters in California will decide whether pot should be legalized, taxed, and regulated for adults ages 21 and older.

Such a move is still inconceivable for Tennessee, but Carney's future could have certainly benefited from more lax marijuana laws. Not only has he had trouble finding a professional counseling job with the conviction on his record, he's struggled finding a job at all.

"I just recently found a job as a temporary worker in a machine shop, but I have a college degree," Carney said. "There are people out there with [marijuana] charges who really want to help people, but they can't because of one little incident that happened years ago."

Marijuana Possession Laws for the Tri-State Area

(information courtesy of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws)

Tennessee

• Possession of any amount — misdemeanor (fines and incarceration time increase depending on how many times a person has been convicted)

• Delivery or sale of one-half ounce or more — felony Arkansas

• Possession of one ounce or less ­— misdemeanor on first conviction (becomes a felony after subsequent convictions)

• Possession of more than one ounce — felony (any amount over an ounce is presumed to be for sale and subject to felony charges)

Mississippi

• Possession of 30 grams or less — misdemeanor (summons only, no arrest, no criminal record for first-time conviction)

• Possession of more than 30 grams — felony

feature-3.jpg

A Conversation With Shea Flinn by Jackson Baker

For a few months in 2007, Shea Flinn, now a member of the Memphis City Council, served as an interim appointee to the Tennessee state Senate, occupying the former seat of newly elected 9th District congressman Steve Cohen.

Like his predecessor, Flinn sponsored a bill to legalize medical marijuana, but, as Flinn puts it, "The bill did not hit committee before my Cinderella moment was up." Now that a similar bill is receiving serious attention in the legislature, Flinn reflected on the issue in a Q&A with the Flyer.

Flyer: Medical marijuana has been decriminalized in California and Colorado, and there are recreational prescription shops all over those states. Might the same thing happen in Tennessee?

Shea Flinn: This is the problem with this issue and a lot of issues in politics. Which is, we immediately go to the slippery slope. Does the legalization of medical marijuana mean that people could get marijuana and use it recreationally? News flash: People are doing that anyway. What we are doing by not allowing it to be used as a medicine is criminalizing the alleviation of human suffering. And that is morally objectionable and morally wrong.

So the perceived "harm" is a complete fallacy, because there isn't a person in the city of Memphis who wants to go out and buy marijuana for recreational use who can't right now.

Yes, but they can still be prosecuted for that, can't they?

And if you get a false prescription, you would also be breaking the law. The number-one growth rate in drug use is for prescription drugs that are bought illegally. There is already a huge black market. You've seen it with OxyContin, "hillbilly heroin." You see it with Lortab. You see it with all sorts of pharmaceuticals. At one point, in the late 1960s, there was something like $2.2 billion of theft attributed to drug addicts. The problem was, in the entire United States that year, there was only $2 billion worth of theft crimes reported. President Nixon had a study done as to whether it should be legalized. And it came back and said it should. In the 1970s! Just like cigarettes or beer or alcohol, you don't want this stuff targeted to kids. But young people can go and buy illegal drugs. There isn't a drug dealer alive who asks for an I.D.

Is there a legitimate economic future for marijuana farmers

in Tennessee?

You can get into monetary arguments on that issue, as to whether Tennessee should try to tax marijuana as a legal cash crop or how that would affect farm subsidies in the future. California, I know, is looking at it. And that's going to be the domino. They're five years ahead of the curve. If you couldn't grow marijuana in the ground, if you had to develop it in a laboratory and spend millions of dollars on R and D and turn it into a pill, so that a pharmaceutical company could make money off of it, it would be legal. It would be prescribable.

Should marijuana use be fully legalized?

There are a lot of advocates who are for legalizing marijuana and treating it like beer or anything like that. And while I don't disagree with them, I think that is a much lower priority. The medical marijuana issue, at its core, is that people are suffering with chronic disease, chronic pain, and we have a cheap, effective way to treat it. And the government is saying no, you will go to jail for alleviating your pain. How can we live with ourselves as a society on this, how can we rationalize this?

Will marijuana eventually be fully legalized?

You have to get to the Voltairean point that "nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come." I don't think we're quite there yet, but it is a war of attrition, because generationally marijuana is viewed so differently than in the "reefer madness" days of the 1930s. At some point there will be a majority in favor of legalization. Will it happen? Yes.

Comments (13)

Showing 1-13 of 13

Add a comment
 

Add a comment