Sen. Bo Watson has been in the Tennessee Legislature for about 11 years, and during his tenure, there has been some discussion about legalization of medical and recreational marijuana, he said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the state is ready to legalize it, although some restrictions have been loosened lately. For example, Gov. Bill Haslam recently signed a law that makes it legal to use cannabis oil for some medicinal purposes.
And in the past couple of years, the cause has gained momentum in other areas, with states such as Colorado and Oregon decriminalizing the drug.
“What I think states like Tennessee will probably do is continue to encourage research into the effects of both medical and recreational marijuana,” Watson said. “A lot of us are looking at Colorado.”
The topic of legalization has several components.
Some advocates argue that there are fiscal benefits for states that legalize marijuana and then tax it; some say that it has powerful medicinal potential. Proponents also argue that legalization could lessen the burden on the criminal justice system.
But opponents worry about the potential for it to be a “gateway drug” and about the health risks associated with it. They also question whether legalizing and taxing it will create other problems.
And then there’s the stigma associated with the drug, which both advocates and proponents acknowledge as a hurdle.
High Times magazine Editor-in-Chief Dan Skye said that if all 50 states legalized marijuana, the country could amass $3 billion in tax revenue.
Colorado began allowing the sale of recreational marijuana to anyone older than 21 in January 2014 and has since taken in millions in tax revenue.
“It’s really simple economics,” Skye said.
In addition to the tax revenue, there is also an economic boost from ancillary businesses spawned by legalization, Skye said.
From glass products to greenhouses, an array of products and services are being sold in a ripple effect of legalization.
“Food industry professionals are now taking hold of the edibles industry,” Skye said. ”There’s an influx of people from outside industries coming to the cannabis industry.”
But Watson and Skye both pointed out a potential problem if there is overtaxation.
There are similar problems with the tobacco tax, Watson also said. People think that officials can just raise the taxes and people will stop smoking, he said. But that’s not necessarily how it works.
“If you tax a product too high, then people go to the black market, and that promotes crime and other things,” Watson said.
And if marijuana remains against federal law, some banks won’t accept the money businesses make, Watson said. That means distributors might be holding large amounts of cash.
Marijuana reform organization Tennessee NORML President Doak Patton has seen the medical benefits of marijuana, he said. He has friends who have a 22-month-old child who has a severe seizure disorder. With the use of CBD oil, her seizures are in remission, Patton, a former criminal prosecutor, said.
“She was able to stand for the first time last week,” he said. “She’s smiling. It’s a total turnaround.”
Patton took over the organization a few years ago and helped revive it. The organization supports full legalization.
The meetings often look like hospital waiting rooms because they are filled with so many sick people, he said. Meeting leaders take up donations to go to someone in the group who is suffering.
But Watson, who is also a physical therapist, pointed to recent research that questioned the medical benefits of the drug and said that enthusiasm for marijuana has outpaced research, so more evidence is needed before decisions are made.
“Use can be addictive and there’s still a lot of unanswered questions,” Watson said.
Criminal justice system
In his role as a prosecutor, Patton helped send people for jail for marijuana possession, but that creates more problems, he said.
“There’s nothing good to say about making [marijuana] a part of the criminal justice system,” he said.
And Skye called it an “American tragedy” that millions of people have been arrested for marijuana possession. Some people serve massive jail sentences, which breaks up families, he said.
But if marijuana is overtaxed and a black market develops, that creates a whole new set of law enforcement issues, Watson said.
Is Tennessee ready?
Skye, Watson and Patton all discussed the stigma surrounding marijuana.
But four states and Washington, D.C., have legalized it for recreational use, and at least 20 states and D.C. have legalized it for medicinal purposes.
With those changes, some people like Skye and Patton see the negative perceptions shifting.
“I think it’s changing,” Patton said. “People are being more open. Several years ago when we talked to lawmakers, there was a lot of disconnect.”
But there are more people taking a serious look at the possibilities surrounding legalization now, he said.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, has started to advocate for loosening restrictions. For example, he recently said that people with small amounts of pot shouldn’t serve jail time.
Patton said he expects Parkinson to propose a bill that allows people caught with anything less than an ounce to avoid jail time.
But Watson isn’t sure Tennessee is ready. He acknowledged that cigarettes and alcohol are legal even though they have harmful effects but said the public sees those products differently.
“Those have been culturally accepted,” he said of cigarettes and alcohol. “At this point, I don’t think we are there yet culturally [regarding marijuana]. People still see marijuana … as a gateway drug to more illicit drugs.”