Lost in the Weeds: Tennessee Just Says No 

A bill that would have allowed medical marijuana in certain forms was abandoned last week by Tennessee lawmakers. Tennessee was poised to join the 33 other states where residents can legally use marijuana for medical purposes. The Tennessee Agriculture Medicine Act would have created a legal medical marijuana system, allowing 75 licensed businesses around the state to sell or grow cannabis, and registered Tennesseeans to buy and consume cannabis.

But, like most could have predicted, the measure hadn't garnered enough support as of last week, and its sponsor, Senator Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) withdrew the bill. The senator does, however, promise to bring it back for consideration next year.

The bill would have allowed Tennessee residents diagnosed with "debilitating conditions" to be legal medical marijuana users. That means those with cancer, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and a laundry list of other ailments will now have to wait at least another two years before marijuana could be legally available to them.

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I applaud Dickerson because it's high time the state opens its eyes to the pay-offs of the cannabis industry and the real benefits marijuana has been shown to have for those with certain ailments.

If people are already using the drug, which has largely been shown to be not harmful, why not streamline the process? Instead of treating the cannabis business like a back-room industry, it should be embraced and regulated for both medical and recreational use.

Another bill, SB0256 sponsored by Senator Sara Kyle (D-Memphis), would have helped to do just that by decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. No action has been taken in the Senate on that one since January, and it's unlikely to pass this year.

With a legal system in place for growing and selling the plant, there'd be fewer sketchy drug deals in empty parking lots, fewer arrests, fewer drug convictions, and less violence. A legal network to dispense marijuana would phase out the cannabis black markets and cripple cartels, street gangs, and other organized crime groups who use violence to conduct their marijuana business.

Legalizing cannabis would also be beneficial to theTennesseans who are arrested and convicted for selling or possessing the drug. ProCon.org, a nonprofit organization that researches and reports on controversial issues, found that nearly 600,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year. That's a little more than one person every minute. In Tennessee, it's estimated that there are about 18,690 convictions for possession each year.

The average fine a person pays for a simple possession charge is about $250, but it can range up to $2,500, depending on the circumstances. Those convicted face up to 11 months and 29 days imprisonment, though the average sentence is 15 days. It seems ridiculous that in one state you can be fined or incarcerated for possessing something that is completely legal in 33 other states.

ProCon recently compiled a report highlighting the pros and cons of recreational marijuana. One of the biggest pluses is the effect the cannabis industry has on the economy, with additional tax revenue, newly created jobs, and freed-up police resources. State lawmakers recently stated that local governments in Tennessee could save $1,794,240 a year in incarceration expenditures if possession of less than an ounce of pot were decriminalized.

Aside from saving money, the state could bring in additional millions of dollars each year by legalizing recreational or medical cannabis. In Colorado, a trailblazing state for legalizing marijuana, ProCon reports that the cannabis industry brings in three times more tax revenue than alcohol. Colorado took in $78 million during the first year of legal sales and $129 million the second year.

Imagine what Tennessee could do with those kinds of funds.

If any pro-cannabis bills are passed this year or in the next three years, the biggest challenge might be getting them approved by Governor Bill Lee, who has spoken against medical marijuana in the past. During a gubernatorial debate last year, he stated that the "data is not substantive enough to show that medical marijuana is the right approach right now" and that he would "pursue other options first." Lee also said at the time that he doesn't support the decriminalization of small amounts of pot.

Thirty-three states have legalized either medical or recreational marijuana, or both. Will Tennessee ever follow suit? At the current rate, Tennessee probably won't see any form of marijuana legalized soon, which is too bad, considering all the financial benefits it could bring to the state. But even more important, the state is denying help to all of the Tennesseeans who could benefit from the legitimate medical benefits of cannabis.

Maya Smith is a Flyer staff writer.

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