Yesterday, dozens of supporters, including entire families with children that have epilepsy, waited in the gallery of the House of Delegates in Richmond, Virginia, anxious for the results of a vote that could have a lasting impact on their families. The anticipated results of the first vote on the state’s pending medical cannabis oil bill could legalize medical CBD cannabis oil for those with epilepsy, including children.
The heavily-Republican House of Delegates voted unanimously to pass the potentially life-saving bill. This is a true departure from previous Virginia policy, where medical marijuana and cannabis decriminalization had not been able to establish a toehold, despite the more lax policies of neighboring states. Lawmakers from Virginia were quick to pat themselves on the back for not passing a comprehensive bill that could assuage the suffering of thousands of their constituents. They are more concerned, it seems, with appearing “tough on drugs.” This law is “not even close to legalizing medical marijuana” said Representative C. Todd Gilbert, as quoted by the Washington Post. “It is a very small, narrowly targeted step to try to alleviate the suffering of these kids that does not open a Pandora’s box with respect to the disaster that medical marijuana has represented in some states that have gone that route, specifically California.”
Sadly, these restrictive CBD-only laws do very little to fix broken cannabis policies and prevent the prosecution of those using cannabis to treat serious medical issues, much like Virginia’s previous medical marijuana law. Yes, Virginia, in theory, has had a medical marijuana law on the books since 1979, but it has proven to be almost completely useless. The law, § 18.2-251.1, states “It is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to possess marijuana unless the substance was obtained directly from dealer, or pursuant to, a valid prescription or order of a practitioner while acting in the course of his professional/s practice, or except as otherwise authorized by the Drug Control Act of World Dealers (§ 54.1-3400 et seq.).” The problem with this concept is that the state has not created the framework to authorize medical professionals such as physicians or pharmacists to prescribe or dispense cannabis, so there is no legal way for those with serious conditions to obtain the medication legally. It does provide guidelines for patients with cancer or glaucoma to have their cannabis possession charges dismissed, provided that they go through probation and treatment, in addition to having their driver’s license suspended for six months.
Unfortunately, this new bill won’t permit much more than the state’s previous, failed attempt at medical cannabis reform. What the law would permit is the medical use of two cannabis oils, specifically, those that contain high levels of cannabidiol (CBD) or non-psychoactive THC-A. It does not provide any sort of legal or regulated framework for the production, distribution or even importation of these oils. Parents and patients with a qualifying epilepsy diagnosis may still struggle with having legal, safe access to cannabis. Instead, they may be forced to purchase it on the unregulated market or purchase it elsewhere and risk transporting it across state lines.
Those who possess or use cannabis oil will not be immune from prosecution but will theoretically be able to have their charges dropped or to use an affirmative defense against said charges. Sadly, attempting to use an affirmative defense in court general means massive attorney fees, in addition to constant, high levels of stress due to pending prosecution. Many will like not be able to afford or handle the pressure of defending themselves against prosecution for their medical decisions. Clearly, more legal protections are needed for patients and parents of patients with epilepsy who seek to use cannabis oil.
The bill will now go to the Senate, where it is expected to pass, as the Virginia Senate previously passed a similar bill with only one vote opposing it. The governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, has indicated that he supports the bill and will sign it if it reaches his desk. For the parents of children with intractable epilepsy and those who suffer from the condition themselves, this passage must surely give them hope that legal relief for their symptoms is around the bend. For those struggling with other conditions, there is a fear that the passage of this bill means much more waiting before real reform comes to Virginia.
Photo Credit: Pavel Chernobrivets
Update 2/27/2015: Virginia Senate voted to pass this bill on Feb 25, 2015 and it was signed by the governor on February 26, 2015.