By JAMES DOWD
Growing up in Memphis in the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Autry Parker developed a keen sense of personal discipline and enthusiastically focused on his academic and musical studies, while some of his peers did not. The future anesthesiologist remembered that, although he took note of how some classmates and acquaintances experimented with various substances, his interest was clinical rather than personal.
“I was never caught up in the whole reefer madness movement. It seemed stupid to me, and of course I saw people who smoked too much and weren’t much good for anything because it adversely affected them,” Parker said. “Science has proven that our brains are still developing during the teenage years and overuse of cannabis can have a detrimental effect on adolescents. That’s why we need to keep it away from kids, but the situation is quite different for adults who may benefit from medical cannabis to help ease suffering.”
A former president of the Memphis Medical Society, Autry serves on the board of directors for the Tennessee Pain Society and the Tennessee Society of Interventional Pain. He is a board-certified, fellowship-trained anesthesiologist specializing in the interventional treatment of severe spinal and neuromuscular pain. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Howard University, a Master of Public Health and a Doctor of Medicine from Yale University and completed his residency and fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Today, Parker serves as the director of interventional pain services at the Memphis VA Hospital. He is also an associate professor at the University of Tennessee Center of Health Sciences.
As a leading pain management specialist and advocate for controlled usage of medical cannabis, Parker continues to observe and record how the substance affects the human body and how it may be used to benefit patients. And he agrees that strict safeguards must be in place to protect patients and prevent young people from experimenting with recreational usage.
“It’s more important than ever before to keep this away from kids because Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the compound in cannabis that affects a user’s mental state, is more potent than ever. When I was growing up it may have been around 6 percent, but now it may be 30 percent or higher,” Parker said. “From a policy standpoint, we must proceed carefully and protect our young people while providing avenues for pain management. I believe both are doable.”
Parker understands his perspective is controversial to many, although according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) more than three dozen states – including the Tennessee border states of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Virginia – regulate cannabis for medical use by patients who qualify for those programs. States such as Arkansas have already opened dispensaries that sell cannabis for medical use, whereas others like Mississippi are still in the stages of safety testing, registration and licensing.
“Although more than 30 states have some form of legalized therapy, as a doctor working in a prohibition state, I’m required to walk a very delicate line with regard to educating patients about medical cannabis,” Parker said. “The U.S. doesn’t allow physicians to prescribe it, but in states where it is regulated, they can recommend its usage or indicate that a patient has a qualifying condition that will allow them to buy it.”
According to the NCSL, Tennessee is one of 10 states that permit the use of ‘low THC, high cannabidiol (CBD) products for “medical reasons in limited situations or as a legal defense,” along with border states Georgia, Kentucky and North Carolina.
And while medical cannabis is not available for patients in Tennessee, Parker said the proximity of the state to those that do offer regulated programs will likely result in an eventual shift in policy.
“Someone could legally purchase medical cannabis in Arkansas, but be put in jail for bringing it across the Mississippi River into Tennessee. This is simply untenable and needs to change and we need to move toward the medicalization of cannabis,” Parker said. “That being said, I don’t think it will happen anytime soon. I think there are some – not all, but some – in our electorate who will take pride in Tennessee being the last state to legalize medical cannabis.”
Some surveys support Parker’s claim.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national organization dedicated to legalizing cannabis, Tennessee is one of 13 states that do not offer a medical cannabis program, and it is one of 19 states that criminalize possession with imprisonment. The organization cites a 2018 poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University that reported 81 percent of voters in Tennessee favor legalization of marijuana to some extent, while 44 percent would like to see it made legal for medical use.
As Parker sees it, the question is not if, but when Tennessee will legalize cannabis for medical use. He believes that when it does happen, great effort must be made to educate medical personnel, patients and the public. He argues that physicians should do more than recommend medical cannabis for patients as a pain management therapy and conduct regular follow-up visits to determine if the therapy is effective or not and what, if any side effects it produces. He believes cannabis therapy should be taught in medical schools, as well as in programs training pharmacists and other medical personnel. And he feels strongly that medical cannabis should never be marketed to young people.
“We need to move toward making medical cannabis a viable treatment option, but we must be responsible and thoughtful in the way we do that,” Parker said. “I firmly believe that Tennessee can study the issue and learn from the best practices as well as the mistakes that other states have made and become the model for how medical cannabis should be regulated and made available.”