NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A measure to legalize medical marijuana has failed this session despite testimony from supporters that the legislation would benefit hundreds of chronically ill people and generate roughly an added $34 million for the state.
The Government Operations Committee voted 5-4 Wednesday to send the proposal to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which has closed for the year unless its chairman decides to reopen it.
Later in the day, the House sponsor of the companion bill withdrew it from consideration in the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
Rep. Jeanne Richardson said she knew before the meeting that she didn't have the votes to pass the proposal, but she wanted members of the panel to hear testimony from individuals using marijuana for medical reasons.
"By not passing this, we have failed a lot of people," the Memphis Democrat said after the meeting. "If my colleagues ... talk to their constituents, they're going to find out that lots of people are doing this illegally and would like us to legalize it."
The proposal would create a program for people with severe and chronic illnesses — such as cancer — to be able to get the marijuana.
One person who testified Wednesday in support of the proposal was Constance Gee, the ex-wife of former Vanderbilt University Chancellor Gordon Gee, who is now president of Ohio State University.
Constance Gee said she started using marijuana in 2004 to cope with severe nausea that resulted from an inner-ear disease. She made headlines in 2006 when the Wall Street Journal reported that anonymous sources said she had smoked marijuana at the university-owned mansion where the couple lived.
"After a hit or two, my nausea would go away within a minute," she told the committee. "And best of all, I was able to eat something."
Currently, 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar legislation. Senate sponsor Beverly Marrero said Tennessee should also want to pass the bill, not only because of the people it will help, but because of the millions of dollars that will be generated by legalizing marijuana.
"I think it's a good thing for the economy of Tennessee to not have our medical patients have to go to other surrounding states in order to be able to get some relief and still be legal," the Memphis Democrat said outside the Government Operations Committee.
Sponsors say the measure would create the toughest access standards among the states that have enacted similar laws.
But Republican Sen. Bo Watson of Hixson said he opposes the bill because there's still a chance for abuse despite the heavy regulation.
"We have a significant prescription drug abuse problem," he said. "And at this point and time, I cannot support adding to that potential problem."
Cathy Jolley is director of a company that tracks the marijuana from when it's grown to its acquisition by a patient. She told the committee the legislation can be effective if properly regulated, such as making sure the marijuana isn't tainted with black mold, which she said is deadly.
"Right now, patients are getting the marijuana on the streets," she said. "We're talking about bringing mainstream controls to this product. There is a public safety issue; there are ways to help track it."
The sponsors of the legislation say they're not giving up and plan to revisit the issue during the next session.
"We will eventually pass it, you ... just have to decide how many people will suffer before we do it," Richardson told the committee.