Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate finally found something they could rally behind: cowardice. A Senate health committee on Tuesday wouldn't touch the issue of medical marijuana, denying the anticipated hearing for the Safe Access to Medical Cannabis Act. After Democrats failed to show up for the committee at all, present Republicans refused to even call a motion allowing for discussion on the bill.
Up to that final disappointment, proponents of the bill had been touting its unprecedented advancement this session, in a climate not exactly friendly to progressive causes. After the proposal surprisingly made it out of a House subcommittee, it was granted a full committee hearing despite earlier actions by a Senate committee that effectively killed the bill for the year. Supporters were looking at the Senate hearing — required by Senate rules — as a final chance to argue for the merits of medical marijuana, even if the idea wouldn't be going any further.
The hearing would have made history, according to medical-cannabis activist and former public health epidemiologist Bernie Ellis, as the first of its kind in the Senate in some 30 years. Ellis, aka the "Marijuana Martyr," was busted several years ago by authorities for growing marijuana and providing it free of charge to cancer patients.
After introducing the bill to the committee, the sponsor, Memphis Democrat Beverly Marrero, intended to invite activists and patients to share their views and experiences with legislators. But as the only Democrat in the room, when she asked for a motion and a second on the bill — the procedural requirements for the bill to be formally taken up by the committee — she heard only silence from the Republicans on the panel.
"I've been up at this legislature for eight years," Ellis said as activists and patients who had come to testify milled around after the meeting. "The quietest I've ever seen it was when she asked for a motion or a second. I mean, a pin could have dropped in there."
Marrero, who said she was disappointed by the absence of committee Democrats who apparently took a walk to avoid the bill, is running for re-election and says she'll bring the bill again if she's back next year. As for Republicans who refused to even hear testimony from citizens who had traveled to give it, she's disappointed in them too.
"I think that they were really wanting the bill to disappear and that was the best way to make it disappear, just not be able to get a motion and second on it," Marrero told the Scene. "I would really like for people to at least open their minds and listen to the arguments and let us at least make our case. I would think in a democracy that we would at least try to hear all sides before we made up our mind, but unfortunately they seem to have all made up their mind before hearing any of the evidence we had to present."
The committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Rusty Crowe, says he tried to stall to give members time to get there. He even told the Scene he had the sergeant-at-arms out looking for Democrats. When one did finally show up, several minutes after the committee had adjourned, it was Memphis Sen. Ophelia Ford. She likely would have called for a motion on the bill, but that still wouldn't have been enough without a friendly second from the other side.
Republican silence, Crowe said, was just due to the "political realities of the situation." Apparently, nobody on the committee wants suspicious residue on their record.
"Because politically, if you make a motion then there can be a mailpiece when you run," said Crowe, who noted that he's not up for election this year. "There can be a mailpiece or some other political motivation to be put out there that you were in favor."
Though he says he's not open to it at this point, Crowe says cannabis pills or nebulizers might be better received than "the thought of shops opening up all around Tennessee selling marijuana to be smoked."
But despite legislators' decades-long avoidance of the issue, Ellis says momentum is growing with every public figure who comes out in favor of the idea — most recently Constance Gee, ex-wife of former Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee. Among those who had come to testify Tuesday was a Methodist minister from Clarksville whose congregation is made up largely of military servicemen, many of whom have used medical marijuana to relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
When the bill returns in January — and Ellis, along with the bill's sponsors, says it will — he says proponents will likely have two Vanderbilt medical professors in their number to testify. In the interim, he says they will make better use of the legislative off-season than they have in years past. The last time he says they were particularly active was in 2007 when a summer study committee — generally seen as a sort of legislative purgatory — heard testimony on the issue. This time they plan on pressing their advantage on the proposal, which they argue would not only have medicinal benefits for ailing patients, but also financial benefits for the state.
"I think we need to talk to the governor's office and say, 'If you have any concerns about a bill that could generate $30 to $50 million a year in revenue to the state, please explain to us what your concerns are,' " Ellis said. "Since this is likely one of the few bills that passed anyone's desk this year with a positive fiscal note on it."
All evidence to the contrary, Ellis envisions Tennessee as a progressive leader for medical marijuana, which has been legalized in various forms in 18 states and Washington D.C. If anyone will listen, he wants to work through concerns and establish a program he believes would be a boon for the state.
"If they had let me speak today, what I would have said was: I don't want Tennessee to back into a medical marijuana program," he said. "I don't want us to do it half-heartedly or with reservations. I want to deal with all those concerns ahead of time, because the program we envision should be a model for how to truly integrate this back into the medical pharmacopoeia.
"And with the funding base that we'll have — 20 cents out of every dollar in sales — Tennessee ought to have a cannabis research institute. Tennessee ought to define the state of the art for agricultural production. Tennessee should set the pace, should set the model."
Supportive legislators have argued for weeks that medical marijuana is inevitable, and that as Ellis says, Tennessee can either get on board now or be dragged along later. But for now anyway, legislators seem inclined to continue avoiding the issue. Asked about it after the bill's surprise escape from subcommittee, Gov. Bill Haslam laughed off its progress as if it were more of a happy accident than a genuine idea (though, in fairness, he was not the only one laughing). If he's not taking the issue seriously, that might be because legislators aren't in a hurry to give it due attention, let alone send it to his desk. For sponsor Marrero, that's a source of more disappointment.
"I just think it's a bad thing for Tennessee that we can't have an open discussion," Marrero said. "In 2012, we should be able to have an open discussion on the merits. We're not talking about legalizing marijuana. We're talking about the use of cannabis for people that have serious and life-threatening illness. As far as I'm concerned, things that alleviate pain and suffering of people that have terminal illnesses — that's something that we should all be mindful of."
But if appeals to humanity and progress continue to find plugged ears, activists are open to sheer persistence.
"There's a point at which they have to listen. And we're reaching that point," Ellis says.
After the failed hearing Tuesday, the large group of citizen activists, patients and other proponents were planning to meet with the legislators who refused to hear them in committee — assuming Democrats were in their offices at all, and Republicans didn't just lock their doors.