One cannabis cousin may have a better chance of being legalized in TN than another

When he began promoting legalization of hemp, jokes state Sen. Frank Niceley, most people “thought I was crazy;” now they consider him “merely foolish.”

Actually, Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, and Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, have come a lot further than indicated by the quip adapted from an old comedy routine. The state’s top legislative leaders said last week that — after initial misgivings — they now support the proposal filed by the East Tennessee lawmakers (HB1392).

“I’m in,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell in an interview. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he is “100 percent” in favor of the effort to make Tennessee the 11th state to legalize the cultivation and sale of hemp even though it is still classified as an illegal narcotic under federal law.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has raised concerns about the hemp legalization hampering prosecution of those possessing or selling marijuana, a cousin plant that is classified in the same genus, cannabis. But TBI officials met with Faison and Niceley last week and suggested some revisions that they pledged to incorporate into the bill. With that, the legislators say, they anticipate TBI will not be opposing their bill.

Other legislators, however, still need convincing — along with Gov. Bill Haslam, who says he will be listening but so far is not committing one way or the other.

House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, who recalls that his grandfather once raised hemp in Kentucky, said he can see “an upside” economic benefit in hemp legalization, but is concerned there would be a “downside,” too.

“The downside would be that we grow it on Tennessee farms and young people come and harvest it and dry it and smoke it and get high and drive and kill innocent people,” Casada said.

Faison says that, a year or so ago, his thinking on hemp was in tune with Casada’s concerns. But after research, Faison says the federal government made a mistake in the 1930s by lumping hemp and marijuana together in drug laws when there are major differences.

“We’ve got to overcome 80 years of bad thinking,” he said.

“Yes, it’s a cousin to marijuana. But everybody’s got a cousin they’re not proud of,” said Niceley.

At the federal level, rethinking is well underway, the legislators say. A provision in the “farm bill” that is nearing passage in Congress authorizes universities to conduct research on hemp and its cultivation, which some see as the first step toward changing the federal law.

And the U.S. Department of Justice has recently declared it does not intend to prosecute hemp growers under drug laws — a move that coincides with a move to back off marijuana prosecution in states like Colorado that have legalized it.

Current federal law, the sponsors say, effectively bans growing hemp but not selling it. In fact, hemp grown in other nations is bought and sold in substantial quantities in the United States, then used in an increasing array of products. Hemp fiber is used in manufacture of clothing, rope, upholstery and the like while its resin goes to making plastic substitutes. It can also be used in producing ethanol for fuel. For the latter purpose, Niceley says, “It’s a lot better than switch grass,” a plant that has been the subject of past state government investment and research.

The chemical in cannabis that causes intoxication is Tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. Hemp has less than three-tenths of one percent THC, the legislators say, compared to 5 to 10 percent for marijuana — more than that in some plants bred to enhance THC.

“You can smoke hemp all day long and not get high,” said Faison.

Further, they point to research indicating that, when hemp and marijuana are grown near each other, they can hybridize, but the result is a plant that is useless for those seeking intoxicating effects. The hemp’s lack of THC overcomes marijuana’s generation of the chemical, they say, and the seeds produced from hybridization are sterile.

A analogy from Niceley aide Mike Alder: The two plants are like different varieties of the poppy flower. While one variety, the “opium poppy,” can be used to produce heroin, other varieties cannot, and one is widely planted along Tennessee roadways as part of the state’s “highway beautification” program.

TBI Director Mark Gwyn, interviewed before the meeting between TBI officials and the bill sponsors, said the agency’s concerns revolved around marijuana peddlers using hemp as a legal shield. He envisions situations wherein a suspect caught with a bag of green leafy material would declare it to be legal hemp, not illegal marijuana.

At the least, he said, that would require testing of the substance — a task that would fall to TBI’s labs, which already have ample work to do while trying to deal with a tight budget. At worst, more complications in marijuana prosecutions could occur, Gwyn said, adding that TBI is “working with the sponsors” to resolve concerns.

To avoid such situations, Niceley and Faison say, TBI officials suggested amendments that would require every hemp grower to be licensed by the state Department of Agriculture and subject to inspections. Anyone found with a suspect substance — and without a license to grow hemp — would be presumed to be possessing marijuana with no test at state expense required.

Faison and Niceley praised TBI officials for their suggestions and said they will be amended into the bill. In an email Friday, TBI Executive Officer Illana T. Tate said the agency is now “neutral” on the bill.

David Smith, spokesman for Haslam, said the governor’s chief of staff, Mark Cate, last week “did hear the arguments for the bill (from Niceley and Faison), but we still haven’t taken a position on it.”

Legislation to allow the use of hemp’s cannabis cousin for medicinal purposes appears to face a decidedly uphill battle in the Legislature, though some members of the Legislature’s Republican supermajority — including Harwell and Ramsey — express sympathy for advocates of the bill, pointing to people suffering severe medical conditions that, advocates say, could benefit.

Harwell said she is keeping “an open mind” on the proposal (HB1835), filed by Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, but thinks the matter is one that may require legislative study until next year to properly assess the pros and cons and the appropriate restrictions. Jones’ bill lays out medical conditions that could trigger a prescription of medical marijuana — a list that Harwell said may be too broad. Ramsey said he is skeptical of legalizing marijuana for any purpose, but willing to give the idea further consideration.

So far, advocates of medical marijuana have yet to find a senator to sponsor the bill — a situation that guarantees the measure cannot pass this year. Bernie Ellis, a leading advocate for medical marijuana, said he is optimistic that a senator will step forward before Wednesday, the deadline for filing legislation to be considered this year.

Meanwhile, Harwell said she thinks a proposal floated by Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah — but not yet introduced — is worthy of consideration. The idea is to legalize “cannabis oil,” said to be beneficial for treatment of some ailments. Ellis said that would benefit some people, especially children suffering from a condition known as “Charlotte’s Web,” but not as many as would be helped by a broader medical marijuana bill.

Note: For More on Carter’s proposal, see Andy Sher’s story. An excerpt:
State Rep. Mike Carter said he is continuing to explore introducing legislation amending Tennessee’s strict anti-marijuana laws to allow possession of a cannabis-derived oil seemingly effective in treating a rare form of epilepsy.

“I am considering and looking at filing a bill that allows a parent to have cannabidiol oils in their possession for the use with a person of intractable seizures as determined by a doctor,” the Ooltewah Republican and former judge said. “And you can’t get high on it.”

Top House Republican leaders say they’re open to considering such a bill.

The lawmaker opposes a more comprehensive medical marijuana law introduced by Democratic state Rep. Sherry Jones, of Nashville.

“This is not medical marijuana,” Carter said of his approach.

Cannabidiol oil comes from specially cross-bred marijuana plants that advocates say contain only minuscule amounts of the psychoactive ingredient THC, which delivers the plant’s “high.”

The cannabidiol is produced in Colorado, where medical marijuana is legal, and distributed at low cost by the Colorado-based nonprofit group Realm of Caring. But Carter said there is a problem: It still runs afoul of federal laws that prohibit cannabis products from crossing state lines.

Carter said he might introduce a separate resolution urging President Barack Obama to allow interstate transport of low-THC cannabidiol. Whether that will move the president is anyone’s guess, he said.