published Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Tennessee Senate OKs study for pot oil as seizure treatment

Full extract cannabis oil
Full extract cannabis oil
Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Senate on Wednesday took a historic step and approved legislation allowing a limited hospital study of whether cannabis oil is effective in treating certain types of intractable seizures.

Senators voted 23-4 for the bill, sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. The House bill is set for a floor vote today.

Gardenhire said the bill will be restricted to an oil produced from marijuana with very low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). That's the ingredient that gives pot smokers their "high." The plant will be bred by Tennessee Tech and will have less than 0.01 percent THC.

Someone would have to "drink gallons" of it to get a buzz, the senator said.

The four-year study will be conducted by physicians at two university-affiliated hospitals -- Vanderbilt Medical Center and East Tennessee Children's Hospital, Gardenhire said.

Gardenhire and the House sponsor, Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, introduced the bill after hearing complaints from a former Hamilton County couple who moved to Colorado to gain legal access to the oil.

In a Legislature that has repeatedly rejected medical marijuana bills, the limited cannabis bill has drawn support from a number of lawmakers including all three of the Senate's physician members.

One of them, Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, said a number of families in "very desperate straits who have sick children, sick grandchildren" had reached out to him on medical marijuana.

What Dickerson liked about this bill, he said, it is "well crafted."

"It will give us data," he said. "One thing we've been lacking is a good study to support the use of these oils. And I think this really does give us some medical substantiation -- or not. We'll see how the studies turn out."

Lawmakers on Wednesday tackled other major bills as they rush toward adjournment of their annual session, projected for Tuesday at this point.

In other legislative action:

• A bill authorizing prosecution of women who use illegal drugs while pregnant is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam after the House approved it on a 64-30 vote. Senators approved the measure last week.

The bill generated a lengthy debate. As amended, it allows pregnant women who abuse drugs to be prosecuted on a misdemeanor assault charge. Previous versions made it a felony.

A woman can avoid prosecution if she agrees to enroll in a rehabilitation program and completes it. The sponsor, Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, described the bill as a "velvet hammer" aimed at getting the women to get treatment.

• The House voted 80-17 on compromise legislation limiting amounts of pseudoephedrine-based cold medicines consumers can buy. The bill is an effort to curb production of methamphetamine.

The bill passed after spirited discussions, with some advocating for tougher limits and others resisting any limits at all.

"Yes, we have other drug problems," acknowledged sponsor Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, to critics who questioned why meth is getting so much prominence. "But this legislation specifically goes to the fumes and the fires and the physical degradation that folks are seeing from meth production."

Senators, meanwhile, are still considering a bill that reflects Haslam's original call for stricter limits.

What passed the House reflected a compromise between Haslam, who advocated a tougher approach, and a group of House members who wanted looser limits, saying they wanted to protect law-abiding constituents with allergies.

Under the House-passed bill, consumers would be limited to purchasing no more than 5.76 grams, or about 48 tablets of pseudoephedrine-based products, every 30 days. The annual limit is 28.8 grams per year.

Anything beyond that would require a doctor's prescription.

Senators are more in tune with Haslam's original proposal. Their bill calls for 40 tablets of pseudoephedrine a month or 4.8 grams and 120 tablets or 14.4 grams a year.

Law enforcement officials want even tougher approaches. But powerful drug manufacturers have heavily lobbied against the bill and have run ads attacking limits.

If senators pass their own version and both sides refuse to retreat, the measure could end up in a House and Senate conference committee.

• A bill giving county commissions power to stop school boards from hiring legislative lobbyists got only 47 votes in the House. It needed 50 to pass. There were 49 no votes.

Critics lambasted the bill sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin. Critics argued it would leave public school systems defenseless against well-heeled interest groups seeking tax dollars for charter schools, vouchers and other proposals.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have hired lobbyists, critics pointed out.

The bill originally would have given county commissions a line-item veto on school board budgets pertaining solely to hiring lobbyists through association dues or going it alone. Durham, who said he brought the bill at the request of an unnamed constituent, said the extra oversight is necessary.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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