Tennessee Legislature Considering Medical Marijuana Legalization


Roshan Natarajan

A new bipartisan push for the legalization of medical marijuana has emerged within the Tennessee state legislature. Following the success of last year’s bill that legalized oil-based cannabis products, lawmakers are looking to bring the full medicinal benefits of the substance to the state’s residents.  

This week, Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) and Representative Ron Travis (R-Dayton) introduced comprehensive legislation on the issue into both legislative houses. The bill, dubbed the “Tennessee Medical Cannabis Act” (TMCA), would allow for patients 18 or older to purchase and use cannabis products, so long as they have an official diagnosis or medical record from a physician. Additionally, patients under the age of 18 can have their parents register on their behalf. The new law will allow those suffering from any of a list of qualifying conditions to purchase and consume any cannabis-based products.

Furthermore, Senator Sarah Kyle (D-Memphis) submitted two other pieces of legislation that deal with the possession of marijuana. The first bill, drafted with the help of Representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), would permit people with medical marijuana licenses from other states to legally carry half an ounce of the drug in Tennessee. With this legislation, patients using medicinal marijuana will not have to suspend their treatments if they want to visit Tennessee. This is especially important seeing as dispensaries in Arkansas will be open in April. The second bill would decriminalize the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. According to Kyle, this legislation would allow many with previous infractions to once again work and contribute to the economy.

Though lawmakers remain optimistic about this legislation, many others are skeptical. A 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University found that only 44 percent of Tennessee citizens support the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes only, while 34 percent support the legalization of recreational and medicinal use. Moreover, newly elected Republican Governor Bill Lee has expressed his doubts over the legalization of medical marijuana in the state. Previously, Governor Bill Haslam killed legislation in Nashville and Memphis that would have decriminalized cannabis possessions in those cities. Supporters of these bills were eager to discuss the issue with Governor Lee; however, recent reports suggest that his position remains ambiguous at best. If any legislation passes both houses of the Tennessee legislature, it would need Governor Lee’s approval to become law.

The prospect of the decriminalization of marijuana could have distinct effects on the Vanderbilt community. It is no secret that college campuses are hotspots for illicit drug consumption and Vanderbilt is no exception. Recreational use of many different types of drugs is prevalent on campus, but the consumption of marijuana is easily the most popular. Decriminalization may significantly erode apprehension students have about the possession of the drug and lead to an increase in consumption. However, it remains to be seen how the university will handle modifying their policies on the issue.

Within the student community, the reaction to the news has been generally positive. On campus, there is strong support for the passage of progressive drug laws. “I think this an overall good change,” one student said. “It makes me excited for more common-sense legislation in the future.”

Others are looking at how Vanderbilt can improve alongside the new legislation. “I hope Vanderbilt makes some changes too,” another student added. “This could be a great opportunity to reform small drug charges on campus.”

Although there is solid support for this legislation, some opponents persist. Many of those in opposition are worried about the potential effects that drug legalization may have on campus culture. One student mentioned, “I really feel that the marijuana legalization movement is misguided. I can see the medical benefits of the drug, but I am worried about the consequences of normalizing drug culture in our society.”

Colleges across the country are already wary of this possibility. In California, colleges continued to prohibit marijuana on their campuses even after recreational use was legalized. After Oregon legalized medical marijuana, a study from Addiction found that cannabis consumption among their students increased relative to other states. However, the increase was mainly observed in students who self-identified as heavy drinkers. The study concluded that the legalization of the drug did not significantly affect drug-averse students.

Though prospects on this issue seem promising, there are still many potential obstacles for this bill. The most obvious is Governor Bill Lee, whose support will be critical for passage of the law. Beyond that, the public are slowly warming to the issue of legal marijuana. The conservative nature of this state’s population has made it difficult to gather a strong statewide backing, though pockets of support do exist. In any case, legislators will face an uphill battle before Tennessee can join the 33 other states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana products in some capacity.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk