Sharing a border with a legal cannabis state has proven to be a conversation starter in slower moving states. Tennessee’s border with Arkansas, where medical cannabis was legalized in 2016, and where an adult use legalization ballot push is underway, was on Tennessee Senator Raumesh Akbari’s mind as she introduced SB 1849, a bill that would legalize and tax cannabis sales for adults in the state.
While the Midwest has been slowly following the east and west coast states on legalization, America’s South has been even slower. But, the way Akbari sees it, even if efforts to legalize fail, they spark conversations, forcing lawmakers and voters to consider the issue.
That’s why Cannabis Wire talked to Akbari about her legalization bill, where she thinks it’s headed, and why she’s so passionate about legalization that includes criminal justice reforms.
(This Q&A has been edited slightly for clarity.)
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: It looks like SB 1849 is modeled after Colorado, if I’m correct. I was curious how you came about that model when you were drafting.
Sen. Raumesh Akbari: We saw some of the really good things that were being done in other states, and went from there with the legislation.
Cannabis Wire: What specifically were some of the “good things” that you looked at in other bills?
Akbari: A lot of it has to do with the tax on it and how you can help fund a lot of the really important issues, like education and infrastructure development, in the state. So that for me was a big deal.
Cannabis Wire: How did you come to the 12 percent sales tax and where the revenue would be allocated?
Akbari: Education has historically been underfunded in our state, as has infrastructure. The only mechanism we have to fund our bridges is through our gas tax, which we raised a couple years ago. And they’re saying that still will not be enough. I mean, then the general fund, that’s always helpful to be able to give the state kind of discretion on how they want to spend those dollars specifically. So that’s why. I wanted to have the best possible chance of passing it by saying, ‘Hey, we are legalizing something, but we’re also giving this an opportunity to help fund some of the desperately needed things we have in our state.’ And those two are always big ones. Education, infrastructure, are always huge.
Cannabis Wire: How would you characterize support for legalization among your colleagues in the legislature, and also opposition? What are you hearing from people?
Akbari: Law enforcement has always consistently been against it. As far as some of our legislators, that has a big influence on them. I think the conversation has shifted a little bit because we’ve had Republican members, and not just those that are on the fringe, but actually those who are in prominent leadership positions, advocating for medicinal marijuana, like even our previous speaker of the House, when she ran for governor, opened that doorway. And you also saw companies actually engaging in hiring a lobbyist for it.
So, the medicinal marijuana conversation has already shifted from where it’s previously been, where they were saying, ‘No, this is not going to work. It’s not supported, and it’s just another way that people want to be able to smoke marijuana.’ I still think that opposition is high within the legislature for recreational use. It’s very split along partisan lines. But really, for me, when you’ve consistently had polls across the state — if you look at the one that Vanderbilt did fairly recently, they showed 65 percent of folks in the state support legalizing marijuana. That to me is a big deal because those are the folks that we answer to. And it was a statewide poll. Sometimes, though, I’ve noticed it usually takes a little bit more time for what people support to trickle up to the legislature. And that usually is when you’re talking about controversial policies.
Cannabis Wire: Sixty-five percent is generally considered above the “magic number” for polling. If it was a ballot initiative, it would almost certainly pass at that point. But you mentioned opposition. How would you characterize the root cause of the opposition? Is it a moral argument? Is it concerns about youth use or impaired driving?
Akbari: I think it’s a cultural thing. I’ve heard concerns all the way through impaired driving, they’re concerned about children. What I try and point out to them is that folks have access to it anyway. Depending on the household, kids can smoke cigarettes and they can use alcohol, both of which are illegal for children to use. So I think that this will not be such a slippery slope that’ll just have rampant use and children smoking marijuana. Another thing, I think the law enforcement plays a big role in it. And they have taken this approach: ‘We are anti, and primarily we will yield to federal drug laws, and we are going to continue to obey the federal law.’ So I think that plays a big role in influencing how legislators feel. And then just old school, like, ‘Pot is illegal. You don’t want potheads walking around.’ Which I think really harkens back to a different time. There’ve been so many innovations in study related to marijuana, and its lack of addictiveness compared to a product that is legal, like alcohol. And I think people are also concerned about driving under the influence. But again, that’s something that would still be illegal. You would not be allowed to drive under the influence of any substance.
Cannabis Wire: Are you talking to any neighboring states? And if so, can you characterize those conversations?
Akbari: The way Tennessee is set up, I mean, my district, all you have to do is go across the Mississippi River, one bridge, and you are in Arkansas. So I’ve talked to some legislators there because they had a ballot initiative that led to medicinal marijuana being legalized. They’ve established their commission and they’re ready to go. And then you see with Illinois, that state actually legalized recreational and they’re online. And they are going to expunge all these folks. I’ve talked to my colleagues in those states.
Cannabis Wire: Is the language of the bill finalized at this point? And if not, are there any focus areas that are under negotiation or consideration for tweaks?
Akbari: Legislation, for me, it’s not ever really final until it gets to the floor, quite frankly, because as it goes through the committee process, you just never know what type of negotiations will take place. Also, we haven’t really had an opportunity to convene. Once we start to move the bill, then I think more of the folks who are opposed to it will come out. But I mean, for the most part, this is the final version of the bill. And I think it’ll end up really sparking more of a conversation than anything. I still don’t think this General Assembly is ready for it. All of our monumental legislation has taken a while to pass. I mean, it took years of negotiations to get wine in grocery stores. It took 30 years for us to be able to have a lottery to help fund our higher education and scholarships. So this is just a continuation of the conversation. But I’ve noticed more and more that it seems to be more bipartisan than it’s ever been.
Cannabis Wire: Why are you sponsoring this bill?
Akbari: For me, it’s really about looking at how much it’s wanted by folks in this state. And then also looking at the impact of the criminalization of marijuana. That, to me, is a big deal, that folks are going to jail for engaging with a plant, a natural plant, that is legal in some capacity in 33 other states. So I’m really big on criminal justice reform. That’s a big part of the legislation that I work on. And I think that this is really a part of that. You have folks who are going to jail and spending significant time there. It’s costing not only their communities and their families, but it’s also costing the state money.
And then also, I just think it’s a great way to generate revenue. We are not an income tax state. So we rely on property tax on a local level and we rely on sales tax revenue and then business taxes. So for me, it checks all those boxes. And the bottom line is people want it. It’d be different if they polled it, and they said, ‘You know what? The majority of Tennesseeans don’t want this.’ OK, well, then we don’t do it because our job is to truly represent what our constituents want. It’s something the community wants..
Cannabis Wire: What are constituents telling you about legalization, one way or the other?
Akbari: Well, I was actually on a call-in show recently, and we got twenty seven calls, which, they said, normally it’s never that many. And it was overwhelmingly like, ‘Listen, I use this. It helps me not to have to rely on opioids or stuff dangerous to my system.’ Or they highlighted that when they have chronic pain, it helps. It also helps with anxiety so they can stay off these prescription drugs that potentially have so many other harmful side effects. And then also, really, folks that I’ve heard from, specifically in my district, it has to do with jail time. Like, ‘He just had a little bit of this, and he had to go to jail for that, and, you know, it’s kind of ruined his life.’
And then you swing more towards the ultra liberal community where they’re like, ‘Listen, this is a plant and it’s legal in other states. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be legal in Tennessee.’
Cannabis Wire: You mentioned that you expected a bit of an uphill discussion among your colleagues. Why is now the time for Tennessee to legalize?
Akbari: I think the poll was fairly recent. And then also the big thing with legalization in Illinois, and helping to expunge records. That to me was why I want to push it now.
And it’s almost like states around us, it’s getting closer and closer. You have Missouri, you have Arkansas. And we are a state that borders eight other states. So I just think it’s important in our conversation. First it was hemp, then it was CBD oil. So I just feel like this is a natural progression.
I’ve never carried legislation like this before. But I could not deny the interest of the people on that. We at least need to let them know that we’re fighting for it. We might be taking small steps, but if we don’t try, we’ll never get there.
We’re just working on trying to build bipartisan support and to build a coalition. This general assembly will probably adjourn in mid-April. So if it’s not something that we can move forward with this year, we’ll definitely bring it back next year, and work on it over the summer to try and bring in more stakeholders and people that are interested.