Sen. Marrero on Medical Marijuana Bill: "The Courage to Do the Right Thing"

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This week's Scene cover story talks about the Safe Access to Medical Cannabis Act, a bill introduced in the Tennessee legislature that if passed -- a longshot, to be sure -- would create the state's first medical-marijuana program since 1992.

Under the terms of the bill, the state would license Tennessee farmers as growers, provide for strict oversight by local law enforcement, and sell doctor-prescribed doses of medical marijuana through pharmacies -- to anyone either in a hospice program or diagnosed with any of 12 serious or life-threatening conditions.

We asked the bill's sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis), to explain her support for the issue and the bill's merits. Regrettably, we didn't have space in the story for more of her remarks, but we print the full text of her responses here.

Scene: Why did you decide to sponsor the legislation, both last year and now?

Sen. Marrero: As a matter of fact, I sponsored another medical marijuana bill as a member of the House in 2007 as well. But to your question, I didn't need any convincing that this the right thing to do, but the issue became personal for me when my son-in-law had to go through chemo and radiation therapy for cancer several years ago. He simply could not keep food down, and had to have a feeding tube installed so he wouldn't lose anymore weight (he was already a lanky guy). His friends finally stepped up and helped him in a way that the medical community couldn't.

Have you had any response from constituents about the issue?

Sen. Marrero: The response has been overwhelmingly positive, from not only my constituents but those of other legislators. I can honestly say that this bill has generated more positive feedback than any other I have sponsored.

Do you consider the current bill stronger than the legislation proposed last year? If so, what are the improvements?

Sen. Marrero: Oh yes, the bill is much improved, otherwise we would just go with the one from last year. For one thing, the bill is clear in establishing pharmacies as the only avenue for purchase. We're going to learn from the mistakes of places like California and Colorado, where dispensaries have become more prevalent than Starbucks. The new bill also clarifies that the cannabis will be grown in Tennessee under the auspices of the Dept. of Agriculture, creating a source of revenue for the state (it's not the reason for the bill, but it certainly doesn't hurt).

Last year's bill put the emphasis solely on terminal patients, which, in retrospect, may have slighted people who suffer from chronic pain and other serious but non-terminal conditions. The current version of the bill allows the Health Department to determine guidelines as to who should be considered, and the ultimate responsibility rests with individual doctors to determine which patients qualify.

Is medical marijuana a partisan issue?

Sen. Marrero: It certainly shouldn't be. The Conservative movement these days has a strong libertarian streak, and I think there is room for common ground there. Just look at all the fuss over health care. All you hear about is the fear that some bureaucrat wll come between you and your doctor -- well, this is a pretty clear case of that. Our bill specifies that the medicine would only be available with a doctor's prescription and can only be purchased in a pharmacy, but for some reason some people think the government knows better than the doctors and pharmacists. Frankly, passing this bill is going to require legislators of both parties with the courage to do the right thing.

Are there signs that legislators may be more or less receptive to the bill than they might have been last year?

Sen. Marrero: I don't think it would be responsible to comment on any of my colleagues specifically, but several developments over the past year have created a more hospitable environment for the bill. First, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has stated unequivocally that the Federal government will not interfere with individual states' programs. Second, more states have instituted programs of their own (I believe we're up to 14 now). Third, the American Medical Association has recommended that the FDA take the long-overdue step of reclassifying marijuana away from its current status as a Schedule I drug.

In general, I think that as time goes by, more and more people accept the idea, whether because they see it working in other states, or because someone they know would benefit from it. It's sad that for some people it takes something like seeing a loved one suffer through chemotherapy, but it's hard to be against something that brings relief after you've seen that up close. Eventually everyone will know someone who would benefit from this bill.

What are the biggest obstacles facing the bill? On the other side of the coin, what do you think are the most persuasive arguments in favor of it?

Sen. Marrero: The stigma associated with marijuana. It's a cultural issue that has nothing to do with the medical use of the drug (which can be abused like any other). It's so strange; you'll be talking to an otherwise rational and compassionate person, but when this subject comes up they'll begin smirking or even giggling. Are people really letting Cheech and Chong movies determine their view on this medical issue?

I think most folks could be persuaded by the arguments that this bill would relieve suffering, raise revenue for the state, and establish Tennessee's leadership on an important issue. In my mind, these things carry a great deal more weight than the arguments from the opposition, which amount to a derisive smirk. I think some people expect the social stigma alone to be enough of an argument to kill this idea, but it's not going away that easily. The evidence is on our side, public opinion is on our side, and as with any progressive initiative, time is on our side.

Where do you expect the most opposition to come from?

Sen. Marrero: The status quo is always a powerful force. People tend to resist change, even if they can't pinpoint why. We're seeing a lot of that. As far as monied interests, we have yet to see much organized opposition, I think because people expect the idea to just go away. You could say that they expect the social stigma to do their work for them.

What path awaits the bill now?

Sen. Marrero: It's about time for a committee hearing. We have yet to determine whether it will be Rep. Richardson in the House or myself in the Senate that will move the bill first, but we are working together on this as we have for the past year. When the bill is scheduled in committee, it will be time for interested citizens to call and write their Senators and Representatives (particularly if they are on the relevant committees) to encourage their support of the bill.

Is sponsoring the legislation a risky move politically?

Sen. Marrero: I am fortunate to represent a very intelligent and progressive district in Midtown Memphis, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive, so I certainly don't feel as if I am taking a risk. But as I said, we get emails and phone calls from folks throughout the state who want this done. Eventually, it's going to be a bigger risk to stand in the way of a program that would not only help sick people, but one that would generate a good deal of revenue for our cash-strapped state. The country is clearly headed in this direction; the question is do we want to be the last ones on board, or do we want to seize the opportunity to take the lead on this? Senate Bill 2511 is a unique program that could easily serve as a model for other states, so as I said, I believe there is a larger political risk in obstructing progress.

Have you heard from people who have either used or had loved ones who used medical marijuana?

Sen. Marrero: I've heard stories that would break your heart. People suffering from MS, from hepatitis C, and of course cancers requiring chemotherapy have all reached out to me. I've heard from many people that suffer from chronic pain who are sick of all the medication they must take. Their stories all have a common theme. They are going broke paying for medicine that makes them feel sicker when a medicine that provides relief is not legally available. What comes through in every one of these emails and phone calls is the frustration these otherwise law-abiding people feel after being made to feel like criminals for pursuing what they insist is the only medication that works for them. To compound their suffering with an indignity like this is not something most people expect from their government, even in this cynical age.

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