A plan to legalize medical cannabis in Tennessee is dead for the year after stalling out Tuesday in the state Senate.
Supporters of the measure had hoped to win over conservatives by stressing evidence that suggests using marijuana might cut opioid abuse. But the idea ran into a headwind of conservatives.
The decision to kill the bill came suddenly. House Bill 1749/Senate Bill 1710 seemed to gathering momentum last week, when it passed the House Criminal Justice Committee on a 9-2 vote, despite tough questioning from committee members and repeated attacks by law enforcement, prosecutors and Gov. Bill Haslam's administration.
But getting it over that hurdle required making massive changes to the measure. Instead of legalizing medical cannabis outright and regulating production within Tennessee, supporters proposed turning a blind eye to users who bought marijuana out of state.
That was an approach the proposal's main supporter in the state Senate, Nashville Republican Steve Dickerson, said he's not comfortable with. He says, as a practicing physician, he's convinced of cannabis' medicinal benefits, and would not settle for a plan that would make it difficult to obtain.
But he knows he hasn't been able to win over enough of his colleagues.
"Whether that's my fault, whether it's bad karma, whether it's lobbying on the other side, I don't know, but I do not have the votes," Dickerson told the Senate Judiciary Committee shortly before requesting that his measure be sent to a summer study committee, rather than put to a vote.
Those skeptics include the Senate leadership, including Speaker Randy McNally. They believe medical cannabis is simply a step toward legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Shortly after the vote, McNally denied working to kill the measure.
“While my opposition to the bill is well known, I made a commitment to give the bill a fair hearing in the Senate," he said in a prepared statement. "Senator Dickerson is a worthy advocate for his cause. The bill's various changes and amendments as it moved through the House left Senator Dickerson with limited options on how to proceed."
McNally called for addressing the issue at the federal level.
But Dickerson says he remains confident Tennessee lawmakers can be convinced to act first. He points to more new research released this week that showed "substantial reductions in opiate use" in states that allow medical marijuana.
"I'm committed to the proposition that cannabis is a medication, and it can be substituted for other medications that are much more dangerous," he says. "Unfortunately, I do not have the votes to pass that bill through the Senate."