Tennessee may be a step closer to legalizing medical marijuana after a surprising vote in a House committee Tuesday.
The Health and Human Resources Committee approved a measure to authorize a study by the state Board of Pharmacy into the efficacy of making marijuana available by prescription.
Last week, the same committee voted down a similar measure 12-9. This time only four members — Reps. Curtis Halford, Debra Maggart, Barrett Rich and Tony Shipley, all Republicans — voted no.
Supporters hope the study will grease the wheels for future consideration of a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeanne Richardson and Sen. Beverly Marrero, both Memphis Democrats. Under the proposal, the state would license farmers to grow cannabis at tightly restricted compounds, then sell prescribed doses through pharmacies.
Bernie Ellis, an advocate for medical pot, described the change on the Health Committee as "an amazing turnaround."
Ellis pointed to the newfound support of Rep. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), who is an MD, as a major factor in the committee's reversal. Hensley met with John Donovan, a Red Bank man who uses marijuana to relieve pain caused by juvenile rheumatoid athritis. Donovan spent "hours," according to Ellis, walking the halls of Legislative Plaza lobbying lawmakers.
"Probably his most meaningful conversation was with Dr. Hensley. His voice is so influential on that committee and last week, he led the opposition," Ellis said. "This was a totally unexpected result, and I didn't put anywhere on my scope."
The study group will include representatives of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state's sheriffs, and is required to report back to the General Assembly in late January 2011.
While Ellis and other supporters were pleased with Tuesday's result in the House, things are not going as smoothly in the Senate. The bill was referred to the Government Operations Committee in January and has not advanced.