Marijuana is still illegal in Tennessee for both medical and adult use. So what’s a state senator to do when they want a little weed?
One answer, apparently: Take a road trip to Illinois.
A photo posted to Twitter over the weekend shows what appears to be a Tennessee state Senate vehicle parked in front of a cannabis retail store in Illinois, which began legal recreational marijuana sales in January. While it’s perfectly legal in Illinois for anyone over 21 to purchase and consume cannabis products in the state, those protections end at the state line.
If you guys are going to partake, and you can’t even make medical marijuana legal to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients, then your hypocrisy knows no bounds.
— David Macias (@dmacias37206) June 28, 2020
The photo has sparked frustration and some amusement among legalization supporters in Tennessee, who noted the irony of a lawmaker apparently taking a three-hour drive to a nearby state to obtain marijuana despite the legislature rejecting efforts to enact reform at home.
“If you guys are going to partake, and you can’t even make medical marijuana legal to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients, then your hypocrisy knows no bounds,” tweeted David Macias, a Nashville resident who initially posted the photo, which he said was taken by a friend.
“Come on,” Macias added, tagging the Tennessee Senate, House of Representatives, and Gov. Bill Lee. “It’s time to at least pass medical marijuana for Tennessee.”
— David Macias (@dmacias37206) June 28, 2020
Recent efforts to reform Tennessee marijuana laws have mostly fizzled. A state Senate committee passed a limited medical marijuana bill in March, but the measure failed to advance further than that.
Tennessee House Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D), who supports legalization, retweeted the license plate photo on Sunday. “Given that a cabal of old men haunting our State Senate has been our biggest hurdle to legalizing #marijuana in #TN,” he wrote, “this pic is particularly amusing.”
Keeping cannabis illegal in Tennessee, Clemmons argued, hurts medical patients, limits farmers and rural areas from capitalizing on economic opportunities and sends millions in potential revenue to nearby states, like Illinois, where cannabis is taxed and regulated.
Given that a cabal of old men haunting our State Senate has been our biggest hurdle to legalizing #marijuana in #TN, this pic is particularly amusing. We’re losing lots of💰to nearby states, failing to allow alt medical treatment & holding back family farmers & rural economies. https://t.co/XZcTRmF0T0
— John Ray Clemmons (@JRClemmons) June 28, 2020
Despite the hullabaloo over the weekend’s photo, it’s not exactly clear who from the Tennessee Senate may have traveled to the Illinois cannabis store—or whether it was a Senate vehicle at all.
“The decorative Tennessee Senate front plates are not official license plates. They have been given out frequently and liberally to staff, constituents and visitors over a period of many years,” Adam Kleinheider, communications director for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R), who also serves as the speaker of the Senate, told Marijuana Moment in an email. “Possession of a plate does not indicate membership in the Tennessee Senate in any way, shape or form. The plates are designed as souvenirs and can be obtained by any Senate member. Official Senate license plates that are affixed to the back of a vehicle are distinct and different from these souvenir items.”
Some commenters on Twitter also noted that the vanity plate seen on the vehicle isn’t strictly limited to senators’ rides. The plates are also sometimes given as gifts by lawmakers, and they can even be found for sale on auction sites such as eBay.
Others on Twitter, however, observed that the SUV appears to have flag mounts installed, allowing small ornamental flags to be mounted on the vehicle. “The combo of the two definitely leans in a particular direction,” one person observed, suggesting it was an official Senate vehicle.
Do you also have flag mounts installed on your car? The combo of the two definitely leans in a particular direction.
— Mindy (@mindydaile) June 28, 2020
In a separate interview on Tuesday about his newly filed resolution calling for an impeachment inquiry into Attorney General William Barr’s direction of investigations of marijuana companies and other alleged misconduct, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), a former Tennessee state senator, said that the practice of giving out Senate license plates has been reined in during recent years and is actually quite rare.
“They’ve gotten a lot stricter on that since I was there,” Cohen told Marijuana Moment. “And they even got stricter on them when I was there. I was in the Senate for 24 years, and generally those plates do belong to the legislative members or their family.”
Regardless of who was in the vehicle from Tennessee, Illinois’s legal marijuana law has drawn visitors from across the Midwest. Macias, who first posted the photo on Twitter, said that “most of the plates” in the parking lot that day were from Tennessee, with other cars sporting license plates from nearby states such as Missouri and Kentucky. “We are subsidizing IL by not doing what 42 other states have done and making marijuana legal,” Macias wrote.
I do feel like I need to let everyone know that these license plates are common and given out by Senators as a gift to supporters. I did not know this until after I had sent the first tweet. But I absolutely stand by my thoughts about legalizing AT LEAST medical marijuana.
— David Macias (@dmacias37206) June 29, 2020
Tax revenue from legal marijuana sales has poured millions into state budgets in recent years. In his State of the State speech this January, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) said the newly launched Illinois marijuana market would boost tourism, benefit social equity, and give the state “a chance to collect tax revenue from the residents of Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa and Indiana,” where, along with Tennessee, cannabis still remains illegal for adult use. In March, state-licensed cannabis stores in Illinois sold nearly $36 million in cannabis products.
Earlier this month, a Tennessee lawmaker blocked a resolution to honor murdered teen Ashanti Posey because she was allegedly involved in a low-level cannabis sale the day she was killed.
“I simply cannot honor this young lady’s life, given what she was involved in,” Rep. William Lamberth (R) said just prior to the vote.
This story was updated to include comment from the lieutenant governor’s office.
Photo courtesy of David Macias.