NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The treatment of her sister's back injury has caused Republican gubernatorial candidate Beth Harwell to reevaluate Tennessee's ban on medical marijuana.
Harwell, who is speaker of the state House of Representatives, told a Republican gathering earlier in August that allowing medical marijuana has come up as part of a discussion about how to tackle the state's opioid crisis.
The longtime Nashville representative said her sister was recently prescribed opioids after breaking her back.
"She was in a yoga class and came down out of a shoulder stand the wrong way," Harwell said. "And she was, of course, in a great deal of pain."
But after the initial doses, she wanted to stop taking the painkillers.
"She called me and said, 'I want you to know that if I continue this opioid regimen I will become addicted to opioids,"' Harwell said. "She said, 'There was no doubt in my mind."'
Harwell's sister lives in Colorado where marijuana has been legalized, so she decided to send her husband out to buy her some of the drug, which she consumed mixed with coconut oil for four or five days until she felt better.
"So I have some personal interest in this now," Harwell said.
Harwell says she hopes medical marijuana could help those who are sick or hurting here in Tennessee as well.
"I think people who are in chronic pain. I think people who have real medical necessities should have this as an option. It's like any other drug. You don't want to abuse it. You don't want to treat it lightly. It is a drug, but I think we can harness it for the good that's there and that's what I'm open to exploring," she said.
One of those people it could help is Matt Walczyk, the director of Veterans Outreach for Safe Access Tennessee, but also a veteran with PTSD himself.
"I tried to go to the VA having some sleep issues," Walczyk said. "Pretty serious sleep issues, they were taking affect on my academic performances at Middle State Tennesssee. I reached out for help, was prescribed Ambien and Trazodone and a bunch of other medications at various points in time and they all caused hallucinations. That's where I kind of switched and went over to the medical cannabis side of everything and sure enough eating one edible every night was enough to put me to sleep for the night."
Walczyk said Harwell's support is huge for the cause.
"Half of our issue is beating the stigma of marijuana. Because as soon as we start talking about cannabis, people automatically think hippies sitting around smoking joints. There are actual medicinal applications to this and to have someone as prominent as the speaker of the house step out and say hey I want to know more, at least show us the research, that's the opportunity we've been looking for," he said.
Harwell said she still opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana, citing her experience visiting her daughter when she attended the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"If you visit Boulder, you won't be for the recreational use of marijuana," she said.
Harwell earlier in 2017 formed a House task force to work on proposals to address opioid and prescription drug abuse in Tennessee. She said the panel will evaluate medical marijuana as part of that process.
"We're open to that, we're looking at that," said Harwell, though she cautioned that the Republican group of state lawmakers has remained wary about the issue.
Harwell is running for the Republican nomination to succeed term-limited Governor Bill Haslam. Her Republican rivals include state Senator Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, U.S. Representative Diane Black, and businessmen Randy Boyd of Knoxville and Bill Lee of Franklin.
The state's gubernatorial primary will be held on August 2, 2018.