Giles County NAACP Branch President Joseph Sutton confers with Dr. Jason Martin, a candidate for the Democratic nomination to run against Gov. Bill Lee. Photo by Clint Confehr

By Clint Confehr

PULASKI, TN — The physician campaigning to succeed Tennessee’s governor advocates “cannabis” legalization, state acceptance of more federal funding for health care, and 

public education without vouchers subsidizing private schools.

Dr. Jason Martin “can’t wait” to confront Gov. Bill Lee in a debate, saying Lee has hurt Tennesseans by refusing federal money to insure families against medical bankruptcy, abiding political dogma instead of medicine, and defunding public education to pay private interests.

Dr. Martin mentioned privatization of prisons at a political forum here, and addressed legalizing marijuana, putting cartels out of business, and spending drug officers’ pay on health care. 

Martin’s complaint about overcrowded prisons includes Tennessee’s “truth in sentencing act” which “makes it harder for folks who are in for-profit prisons to get out on good behavior when they have certain infractions that got them in jail.”

Lee called the sentencing act “a bad idea,” Martin said, paraphrasing Lee as saying it wouldn’t be effective; it’s “going to cost” money; and will “overcrowd our prisons even further…

“But,” Martin said against the sentencing act, “what did [Lee] do? He let it become law without his signature because he doesn’t have courage to lead. We’ve got to do something about it.”

Giles County NAACP Branch President Joseph Sutton, treasurer of the Greater Richland Creek Missionary Baptist Association, heard Martin at UT Southern on July 14, and later said, “The point about overcrowded prison is legit.”

David Plazas, opinion and engagement director for USA TODAY Network Tennessee, moderated the forum.

Martin decided “to use this opportunity to tell … about legalization of cannabis … [T]his could be an opportunity for rural Tennessee… Sometimes people chuckle and get … uncomfortable when we talk about it… [L]et me disarm that…”

Nineteen states legalized marijuana. Colorado has “1.5 million fewer people than … Tennessee… [It’s] … generating about $400 million of tax revenue every year,” Martin said. “Let’s … invest (that money) in distressed counties … give our farmers a new opportunity to save their family farm [and] take those law enforcement resources that we’re using to lock up primarily Black and Brown Tennesseans for small drug offenses … and use those law enforcement resources where they’re more appropriately applied. Let’s give our veterans with PTSD, or chronic pain, a medical alternative that is regulated. 

Let’s take the power away from the cartels. There are so many reasons why we need to do this.”

Sutton is “not in favor of them growing marijuana and making money for the state.” Understanding Martin’s point for poor counties, Sutton said, “There’s got to be more ways to make money.”

Plazas asked what Martin would do for health care. 

Martin said Lee and GOP lawmakers “turn their back every year on one billion-plus dollars we could be taking back from the federal government for Medicaid expansion.” Martin said he would use the money to reverse “scary trends.” 

He said, “We’re No. 1 in the nation when it comes to medical bankruptcies … breaking our families with medical debt…”

Most of Martin’s career has been at Nashville General Hospital.

Martin said, “School vouchers … are weapons to defund public education.” 

Sutton agrees.

Martin said Tennessee is 44th in the nation for the last decade on per pupil spending. Lee favors charter schools. Sutton doesn’t.

GOP lawmakers “push horse medicine on people,” tried to defund the Health Department, and Lee threatened school districts over mask requirements to protect teachers and students against Covid, Martin said. “That’s a lack of leadership and it cost people their lives.”

Martin is running in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary. 

Early voting ends July 30.

Clint Confehr — an American journalist since 1972 — first wrote for The Tennessee Tribune in 1999. His news writing and photography in South Central Tennessee and the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical...