"I feel like I'm in my spiritual center when I'm in the garden," says Ellis.
For over 20 years, Ellis has lived with Degenerative Joint Disease and Fibromyalgia. It helps explain why his love of gardening developed into a new pursuit: growing medical marijuana on his property.
"Being able to get a good night's sleep, cannabis really helped with that," says Ellis.
Ellis used marijuana to relieve his symptoms for years, and eventually supplied AIDS and cancer patients with the drug. Then came the day in 2002 when he was working on his farm and looked to the sky.
"I saw a helicopter flying very low," says Ellis.
State and federal agents raided his property, seized his plants and Ellis plead guilty. Suddenly, the respected Public Health Epidemiologist couldn't find a job. Now Ellis has a new public health passion: making marijuana a legal medicine.
"It certainly has quite a potential to help a number of sick and dying people, and we would make it available," says Ellis.
18 states and the District of Columbia now allow medical marijuana. 2 states, Washington and Colorado, have approved recreational use of the drug. While the South has resisted legalization, last November a referendum to permit medical marijuana in Arkansas failed by just 2 percentage points. Here in Tennessee, the issue has been debated on Capitol Hill for years, and even passed a House Subcommittee in 2012.
"I don't know why we would want people to suffer," says Representative Sherry Jones (D-Nashville).
Representative Jones supports legalization. She believes marijuana relieves pain and helps people with diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis and glaucoma. For Jones, the issue is also personal.
"My brother died 2 years ago, after about 8 months in the hospital with Crohn's Disease, and he wished that he had been able to have medical marijuana," says Representative Jones.
Any change in the law would include restrictions and oversight, but many believe, in the end, it's bad public policy.
"Introducing a drug that is overused and abused by so many people, I just don't think that's a good idea," says Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald).
Senator Hensley is also a board certified physician. He has a number of concerns and says not enough research has been done on medical cannabis.
"Doctors don't know how to prescribe it, you don't know how much to prescribe for what illnesses," says Senator Hensley.
This year, with Republicans in firm control on Capitol Hill, the issue may be dead on arrival.
"What's the chance of medical marijuana passing right now?" asks FOX17 NEWS' John Dunn.
"Well, I think 2 chances," says Senator Hensley. "Slim and none."
Bernie Ellis now takes 9 medications for his diseases. Before the raid, he only used marijuana.
"I really think this is the most, could be and should be the most politics free issue that the legislature faces this year," says Ellis.
For Ellis, it's about compassion, believing the plant he used to grow, the plant that changed his life, offers so much potential.
"The time is definitely now to move forward," says Ellis.
Last year the 2 lawmakers who sponsored a medical marijuana law in Tennessee were both voted out of office, making the prospects for this change even lower. Advocates have a strong voice in Tennessee. Tuesday on TENNESSEE MORNINGS you'll hear from the Chairman of a national organization fighting to reform marijuana laws, who happens to live in Nashville. You'll hear why his own personal experienced helped to strengthen his belief.
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