By Dan Bernath

This is a story about a Nov. 13 meeting in which advocates and opponents testified before the Tennessee House Health and Human Services Committee about a bill to legally protect patients who use medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.

This is also a story about how such a seemingly straightforward event can get mangled by biased media coverage.

Opponents – including Family Action Council of Tennessee's David Fowler, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's David Murray, Nashville oncologist Dr. Kent Shih and anti-marijuana activist Steve Steiner – argued that medical marijuana was unproven as a medicine, would lead to increases in drug abuse among youths, and would serve as a stepping stone for those who would legalize marijuana for all.

Those favoring HB 0486, sponsored by Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville), included Maury County epidemiologist and patient Bernie Ellis, NORML board member Paul Kuhn, Tennessee medical marijuana advocate Carol Hagen and Marijuana Policy Project legislative analyst Nathan Miller. The advocates presented scientific research supporting medical marijuana's safety and efficacy treating debilitating symptoms related to cancer chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis, among others.

After hearing testimony and asking follow-up questions, the committee did not vote on the bill but did agree to hold another hearing to explore the issue further.

...That's pretty much the entire story, in 250 words or less. It might not be the most interesting story, but it's verifiably accurate, complete and balanced.

And HIGH TIMES Online is about the only place you'll find it.

It's not that the event didn't get decent coverage. Medical marijuana doesn't get a serious look in Tennessee every day, and local TV, radio and print outlets came out for it.

But, with some exceptions, coverage – especially print – ranged from weak to unconscionable.

The Chattanoogan, an online publication that claims 500,000 weekly visitors, won "most unconscionable" hands down. Not only did this publication's story fail to represent medical marijuana advocates' arguments, it didn't even acknowledge their presence. So Chattanoogan readers didn't get to read about a medical marijuana debate; they read about an anti-medical marijuana pep rally that never occurred.

I don't know whether the omission was an act of incompetence or outright dishonesty. A letter asking the publication's editor, John Wilson (news@chattanoogan.com), for a correction or explanation yielded no response.

One thing seems clear, however: Open, honest, civil debate tends to favor marijuana policy reformers. Drug warriors – especially those who would deny marijuana's medical availability to patients – prefer forums in which their views go unchallenged and their opponents unheard.

You can read in the Chattanoogan that Mr. Fowler's mother died of cancer and fought the battle without the aid of medical marijuana, but you won't learn that Mr. Kuhn lost his wife to the same disease, and that though by the end she was as tired of taking medical marijuana as she was her other medications, it was the only thing that brought relief.

Chattanoogan readers read that Dr. Shih would not allow suffering cancer patients to use medical marijuana. But they didn't read that a scientifically valid, random survey in 1990 revealed 54 percent of his fellow oncologists disagreed, and that 44 percent had recommended it to their patients – even though it wasn't yet legal anywhere in the United States.

Chattanoogan readers also didn't get to decide for themselves whether Mr. Ellis' compassion should have outweighed respect for the law when he decided to grow medical marijuana for himself and four terminal patients. Or whether it was fair that he should spend 18 months in a halfway house for helping relieve the suffering of his dying friends. Or whether the federal government has the right to seize his farm and home of 40 years, which they are currently attempting to do.

If anti-marijuana advocates are correct that denying these people medical marijuana is the only way to prevent marijuana from flooding our streets and corrupting our children, then they should have no reason to worry if people hear evidence that suggests otherwise.

Perhaps allowing anti-medical marijuana advocates to lie is the only way to maintain a perverse sort of balance in the debate.

After all, if they couldn't, what would you have? Legislative hearings where only arguments for compassion and common sense are heard, and newspaper articles that only cover advocates who are horrified by the idea of arresting patients and doctors for using a safe, effective medicine to alleviate suffering.

Dan Bernath is the Marijuana Policy Project’s assistant director of communications, www.mpp.org. Email him at dbernath@mpp.org.