Tennesseans who want to curb their nausea, seizures or chronic pain with marijuana instead of medication are hoping a cultural shift makes the prospect of passing a state measure move from laughable to possible.
Past medical marijuana bills gained little traction, and House and Senate sponsors of the last bill, proposed in 2012, lost re-election bids.
But five states have joined the ranks of those offering medical marijuana since then, the most recent being New York, whose governor this month launched a policy by executive order. That brings the total to 21 states — including traditionally conservative Arizona — and the District of Columbia, all with different fee structures and possession limits.
Tennessee's bill, introduced by Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat, lists diseases from glaucoma to post-traumatic stress disorder as qualifying conditions and includes the catch-all "any other medical condition or its treatment as certified or prescribed by practitioners and approved by the health department." It names the medical marijuana program Safe Access and outlines processes for setting up growing operations and approving dispensaries.
It's tough to get Tennessee doctors to comment on whether there's any value to offering marijuana — botanically named cannabis — as a treatment here. That's probably because so little is known about what in marijuana is making patients feel better, said Laura Borgelt, a clinical pharmacy specialist at the University of Colorado.
"There are so many strains, you can't keep count anymore," Borgelt said. "How Tennessee decides to proceed can make a big difference in what's available. And every single person is going to have a different response."
All diseases have treatment options other than marijuana, says Casey Laizure, a professor in the department of clinical pharmacy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. He's comfortable with marijuana being decriminalized, but legalizing it goes a step too far, he said.
"With increased availability, it's going to get into other populations," said Laizure, who's also a clinical pharmacist in the chemical dependency center at the Memphis VA Medical Center. "It can be another prescription drug children can abuse, and it has effects on brain development. That's the risk we're opening up."
A move for Millie
But one couple is counting on what medical marijuana can do for their 22-month-old daughter, who has been on several seizure medications practically since she was born. They say they can't stick around to see what Tennessee does with its bill.
Millie Mattison's life is spent sleeping, her parents feeding her smoothies of chicken, avocado, carrots and lactose-free organic milk through a stomach tube, another tube delivering oxygen through her nose, a heart monitor jerking the family into action when something goes wrong. They've seen at least 40 doctors, none of them able to say why Millie's brain stays in a constant state of chaos, seizing nearly all the time.
So Penn and Nicole Mattison have sold their landscaping business and, last week, moved Millie and her two older brothers from West Nashville to Colorado Springs, Colo. Medical marijuana is legal there, and they've found a doctor willing to treat Millie with Realm Oil, extracted from a strain of cannabis low in psychoactive THC — the intoxicating compound recreational users seek — and high in cannabidiol, which initial research shows may be a potent anti-epileptic compound.
Penn Mattison said he got the idea from Dr. Sanjay Gupta's CNN special report, Weed. Mattison and his wife had just come from a discouraging October appointment during which a pediatric neurologist suggested increasing Millie's already large dose of Sabril, used to treat babies diagnosed with infantile spasms "if you and your doctor decide that the possible benefits of SABRIL are more important than the possible risk of vision loss," the drug's website reads.
"We want to give her every chance that these guys had," Nicole Mattison said, gesturing to her healthy sons. "The meds knock her out, as they do with most children on them. They can't progress developmentally because they are unconscious the whole time. But do you knock them unconscious with the medication, or do you allow them to possibly die from a seizure?"
Bills impossible to pass in one period may be popular in another because of political and cultural shifts, said Sekou Franklin, an associate professor in Middle Tennessee State University's political science department. He points to the 2006 success of an American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee-supported bill to streamline the process for restoring voting rights to ex-felons.
"Think about the attempt by Governor Frank Clement to abolish the death penalty" in 1965, Franklin said. "It fell one vote short, but it was potentially transformative and garnered national attention."
So far, no Republicans in Tennessee's GOP-controlled legislature are stepping up to support the bill. Answering a question last month about Colorado legalizing recreational marijuana for adults, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told a group of reporters to expect problems in that state.
But Jones is undeterred. She points out medical marijuana once was legal in Tennessee. In the early 1980s, it was one of a handful of states that joined the federal Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research program but repealed the measure in 1989.
Her personal inspiration is a brother who died in 2010 from Crohn's disease, one of the conditions approved for medical marijuana treatment in her bill.
"Some of the conservatives up here believe that it's not fair to keep these sort of remedies from people who need them," Jones said. "That makes me very hopeful for the legislation. If you look at a list of the diseases and sicknesses that medical marijuana can positively affect, it is a huge, long list of things."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.