Resistant legislators deny Kentucky and Tennessee access to medical cannabis

There are now only 14 US states that have yet to implement a medical cannabis programme despite seemingly overwhelming support for such a move even in quite conservative states. CBD-Intel spoke to advocates and legislators in each of these states to examine the reasons behind the opposition. These tend to vary widely but some parallels can be found, particularly within a region. In this second of our series examining the reasoning, CBD-Intel puts the spotlight on Kentucky and Tennessee.


Kentucky and Tennessee are among a large number of Southeastern states that have not yet passed legislation for medical cannabis programs.

When we examined the reasons why Idaho and Wyoming in the US Northwest lag behind neighbours in the implementation of a medical cannabis regulation, we found the influence of the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints was one of the primary reasons for resistance. In Kentucky and Tennessee, the primary reason appears to be influence from law enforcement dubious of the impact of drug law liberalisation, coupled with no ability to make referendum ballot initiatives.

Advocates in the two states say most Republican lawmakers, who make up the overwhelming majority of the General Assemblies, are strongly opposed to legalising cannabis in any form. In both states, advocates said the opinions of law enforcement are considered strongly by legislators, and those groups routinely speak out against legalisation.

In Tennessee, advocates say the fight for cannabis legalisation bills has been an uphill battle that has lasted decades.

“We’re going to be the last state that actually changes the laws. I’ve been saying this for 50 years,” said Scott Burchfield, treasurer for Tennessee’s branch of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Tennessee’s system of government does not allow for ballot initiatives, so residents must rely solely on the General Assembly to change the law, and the majority of legislators oppose medical cannabis, advocates said.

 

Treated like children

 

Burchfield said Tennessee’s lack of ballot initiatives means the state essentially treats its residents like children. He added that NORML estimates about eight in ten Tennessee residents support medical cannabis and six to seven in ten support recreational cannabis.

“Usually, the rules our country has seemed to follow is as soon as you get 60%, the laws change, but in Tennessee that doesn’t seem to be the case,” Burchfield said.

Some Tennessee lawmakers have been creative in trying to push the issue. In July 2021, representative Bruce Griffey, a Republican, introduced a bill that would put three non-binding questions about cannabis legalisation on the November 2022 ballot.

Although the questions would have no legal effect, they could further the conversation among the electorate and potentially demonstrate the strong support behind the issue. However, this attempt may be futile, as the bill has not been assigned to a committee since its introduction.

Doak Patton, a criminal defence attorney in Nashville, said he served as the executive director of NORML Tennessee for ten years but left in 2020 after seeing little headway. He echoed Burchfield’s belief that Tennessee will be the last state to legalise medical cannabis.

“I’ve really given up hope that the Tennessee lawmakers will do anything decent,” he said. “I think we’re not having any impact in the state of Tennessee.”

 

No longer Cheech and Chong

 

Burchfield began advocating for cannabis legalisation in the 1970s, he said. “I even shaved my beard, cut my hair and started wearing suits,” he joked.

He said some legislators have slowly shifted their opinions since the 1970s after other states began adopting bills to legalise cannabis. “At least they don’t call us Cheech and Chong any more,” he said.

Burchfield added that speaking with Democrats in the state House and Senate has no effect, because they are overruled by the Republican majority in the state government. He said he and other advocates speak to the General Assembly about the ways medical cannabis can help them and “they just ignore us”.

Any time a legalisation bill is introduced, “They’ll say, ‘needs more study,’ and of course you won’t hear from it again. I’d like to say that next year’s gonna be the year, but we say that every year.”

Patton said: “I believe the public perception is that it’s a legitimate medication. Unfortunately, the people that are in public office listen to their special interests over the public. I think Tennessee will be the last state to take any action because of the special interest of law enforcement. They’d rather keep people incarcerated than serve the public interest.”

Both Burchfield and Patton said they also think the hesitancy among legislators comes down to money. “Republicans haven’t figured out they can make a lot of money on it,” Burchfield said.

 

Rooted in racism

 

Patton said lobbyists and special interest groups are making money from incarceration, drug testing and other income streams that would take a hit with any form of legalisation. “We joked years ago about the average amount of money it would take to buy a person, because that’s the reality, but it’s a shame,” Patton said.

He added that drug laws are rooted in racism, and that he often represents people of colour who have been charged with possession of small amounts of cannabis.

“Obviously there is a disparity between minorities and the majority. I think that’s part and parcel of the War on Drugs. It’s really a war on people,” he said.

He believe the only way the law will change is if the people of Tennessee hold protests, such as a “smoke-out” at the state capitol. And he said he would represent anyone who participates and faces charges.

“People are making money and people don’t want to change. Change is too dangerous and scary for them,” Patton said. “There’s always people making money off of people going to jail. We just don’t want to change the system that we have here. Unfortunately, too few people care until it effects them.”

 

A meeting that changed minds

 

Meanwhile in Kentucky, Republican state representative Jason Nemes of Louisville was staunchly opposed to medical cannabis until he met a group of his constituents face-to-face. He admitted that before the meeting, he thought people who used cannabis were “unambitious”. He agreed to meet the group of medical cannabis advocates believing they would not change his mind.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “This mother leaned forward, grabbed my hand and said, ‘Jason, just listen for a minute’.”

The group of eight people explained the reasons cannabis was medically necessary for themselves or their loved ones. His opinion of the people who used medical cannabis changed with that meeting but he said he still needed to do more research himself. That research changed him from an opposing force to one of Kentucky’s strongest advocates.

“I support it because I understand it helps people. Full stop. There’s no question about it. No one disagrees with that. It helps people, period,” he told CBD-Intel.

Nemes had concerns that changing his position four years ago would hurt him politically but nonetheless pushed forward. He quickly realised the overwhelming public support for medical cannabis and said it has only increased. “There’s not an area or borough in Kentucky that doesn’t support it,” he said.

While there are opponents, he said polling shows the majority of voters support medical cannabis in every demographic, including older populations, churchgoers, white voters and people of colour. His polling results showed 80% of people would support a medical cannabis program.

“You can’t get 80% of people to say they love their mama, so that’s how popular it is here,” he said.

 

Overwhelming public support

 

A February 2020 report from the Kentucky Health Issues Poll (KHIP) shows nine out of ten Kentucky adults support legalising cannabis for medical purposes, and nearly six out of ten support legalisation under any circumstances.

“Kentucky voters, like the majority of voters throughout the United States, overwhelmingly favour medical cannabis access,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML. He said Republican legislators are typically out of sync with their constituents on the issue.

“This voter support does not translate into political action because Republican leadership in the state largely ignores this issue or proactively takes steps to defeat legislation to provide for it,” Armentano said. “This is not unique to one or two states  based on voting records, GOP [Republican] members typically oppose legislative efforts to legalise cannabis for either medical or adult-use purposes.”

Nemes introduced medical cannabis legislation that passed the Kentucky House of Representatives two years ago. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed progress since then, but he said he plans to introduce the bill again in January.

He said many other legislators fear passing medical cannabis will open the door to recreational cannabis, or they do not want to pass state legislation that runs counter to federal law.

“I think a lot of legislators think it’s a foot in the door to recreational cannabis, which there’s hardly any support for in Kentucky. There’s also objections that it violates federal law,” Nemes said.

He said he, too, wants cannabis laws in Kentucky to be limited to medical use. Nemes noted that prosecutors and law enforcement have spoken out against marijuana legalisation, which has an impact on the opinions of legislators. But he said he had gathered more supporters among legislators over time and he was optimistic that a medical cannabis bill will pass. “As you educate people, they turn their positions,” he said.

  • The other US states without a medical cannabis program are Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi and Indiana.

Alyssa Choiniere CBD-Intel contributing writer

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