Updated on December 9, 2017. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
2017 will not be the year that medical marijuana becomes legal in Tennessee. The legislature ended their 2017 session for the summer without voting on the proposed legislation. Instead, they plan to establish a task force to look into the matter further. Tennessee also tried and failed to bring a medical marijuana bill to a vote in 2015.
One of the concerns voiced against legalizing medical marijuana in any form is the federal law. Highly conservative lawmakers in Tennessee are afraid of a backlash from the federal government if they make it legal to use or possess pot in any capacity in their state.
Many other states have passed medical marijuana laws despite the federal ban on the substance. Actions taken at the federal level suggest states would not receive interference if they choose to legalize marijuana for medical purposes, yet the FDA refuses to reclassify the drug and make it available, even by prescription.
The pending medical marijuana legislation in Tennessee, if enacted, would be one of the strictest medical marijuana laws in the country. While it grants use to patients with certain medical conditions, the law clearly does not leave room for any recreational use or possession by anyone other than a registered marijuana patient.
The Tennessee medical marijuana legislation would attempt to track cannabis from seed to patient, controlling every step of the process. Similar to medical marijuana programs in other states, this one would require patients to register with the state and cultivators and dispensaries to be licensed.
Unlike in other states, though, Tennessee would allow patients to grow their own cannabis plants for personal use. However, they would prohibit smoking marijuana. All marijuana products used for medical purposes would have to be smoke-free.
The smoke-free approach is used in Florida where, by law, all cannabis products look like medicine rather than weed. There are many more efficient ways to consume marijuana and reap the medical benefits than smoking, so this restriction is not overly limiting. Additionally, by not allowing smoking, state laws are protecting people, including children, from casual exposure to second-hand smoke.
According to a 2015 law passed in Tennessee, certain cannabis products obtained legally in other states may be brought into Tennessee. Only the possession of these products is legal. There is no provision in the law for distribution.
To be protected by state law, you can only be in possession of cannabis oil that is predominantly CBD and only contains trace amounts of THC. The oil must be in a bottle bearing the manufacturers label, and that label must clearly show that the oil contains only 0.9% or less THC.
To be in compliance with this highly restrictive medical marijuana possession exception, you must also prove you are a qualified medical marijuana patient in the state where the cannabis oil was obtained. Most states limit their medical marijuana programs to their own residents, which means residents of Tennessee may not possess medical marijuana legally.
Low THC cannabis products are limited in their medical usefulness. The CBD concentrated strains can be effective in reducing seizures, but some balance of THC is needed to accomplish many of the other benefits that medical marijuana is good for.
The first medical marijuana program that was proposed in Tennessee was similar to the pilot program in North Carolina. It was set up as a research study to allow several universities to conduct clinical trials on patients with intractable seizures. The legislation was passed, but no research ever took place.
The legislation included a clause that referenced FDA approval of marijuana use. Since the FDA maintains a ban on marijuana for any purpose, no research study would receive approval. Tennessee tried again a year later but did not remove the FDA clause, so marijuana clinical trials never happened in Tennessee.