CQ Roll Call- Backers of medical marijuana are divided over whether narrow legislation that emphasizes the science and health benefits of certain products made from Cannabis sativa will help advance their legalization efforts.
One vehicle unveiled Wednesday by a House Republican would legalize a type of therapeutic hemp for at least three years. Advocates believe the effort could foster bipartisan compromise, because even lawmakers who oppose legalizing traditional medicinal pot, including bill sponsor Scott Perry, believe individuals should have access to hemp oil treatments.
“This is about an extract from a plant, this is not about smoking weed,” the Pennsylvania Republican said at a press conference alongside families with children who suffer from debilitating seizures and have benefited from cannabidiol (CBD) oil. Perry’s bill would remove the marijuana-based oil from the federal definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substance Act (PL 91-513.)
Some states have legalized therapeutic hemp oil, but individuals in those states would technically be in violation of federal law, which classifies cannabis — including CBD — as a Schedule I drug.
Congress in its year-end spending bill (PL 113-235) included language blocking the Justice Department from spending money to enforce a ban on growing or selling marijuana in states that have examined legalizing it for medical use. Individuals still aren't allowed to transport the substance across state lines to where it is illegal, and some families have been prosecuted for trying.
Paige Figi, founder of the Coalition for Access Now, said her daughter Charlotte had been suffering 1,200 seizures per month, but that doses of hemp oil reduced the number to just two per month. She lives in Colorado, which has legalized medicinal and recreational marijuana use.
“We had run out of options, she was seizing every 30 minutes . . . we signed a Do Not Resuscitate and were just hopeful we had as much time as possible with her,” Figi said. But, since Charlotte starting taking CBD, “she can run and walk and talk and ride a bike. Her twin sister and she can live again.”
Other families had similar experiences with children who have seizure disorders. Some have had to move to states where CBD is legal, while others use it despite the threat of prosecution .
“We just want to fix this,” Figi said. CBD “should have never been included” in the federal definition of marijuana.
Perry was careful to stress that his measure would not legalize forms of medicinal pot that are smoked. A spokesman for Perry said the bill also would sunset after three years so that lawmakers could revisit the issue before reauthorizing the legislation.
Coalition members have emphasized that the therapeutic hemp contains no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical responsible for marijuana’s high, and stressed that the drug is not smoked but ingested as oil.
The hope is that by dispelling misconceptions and separating hemp oil from other marijuana legalization efforts, skeptics may begin to view the oil more like medicine than a drug.
“There’s a big misconception out there, but this is vastly different than what you would anticipate in terms of medical marijuana,” said Robert Dold, a cosponsor of the measure. “You put two drops under your tongue, you don’t get high.”
The Illinois Republican added that “this is a short window, we are talking about three years” in order to reexamine the policy in case there are additional breakthroughs or research in that time period.
Broader Approach Urged
Not everyone agrees the effort should be so narrowly tailored.
“The bill is limited to one particular ingredient in marijuana, and it only addresses one subset of the population,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s progress in a sense, but if we’re going to do medical marijuana, we should do it all the way.”
Riffle fears that rallying support for just one type of marijuana for a limited timeframe will undercut broader efforts to legalize medicinal pot, especially if people still have negative connotations about the other forms. He believes the best way to overhaul marijuana policy is to push for states to choose.
“In this Congress, in order for a bill to move it has to have bipartisan support, and letting states determine their own marijuana laws is something that does,” Riffle said. “We want states to develop their own policies . . . it’s what led to the CBD oil being developed [in Colorado.]”
He pointed out that members of both parties and even some 2016 presidential hopefuls are beginning to evolve on the matter. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a measure earlier this month that would allow states that have passed their own medical marijuana laws to be in compliance with federal law, among other things.
Riffle’s group is advocating for the trio’s legislation because of the freedom and certainty it grants to states, which he believes is the best path to speed legalization. Supporters of that effort also focused largely on the health benefits for families in rolling out the bill, holding a press conference that featured another young girl whose life was positively changed from using medical marijuana.
Figi of Coalition for Access Now wants action at the federal level and believes Perry’s bill has a high chance for success.
“It’s a bipartisan issue . . . This is a bill that hurts nobody, and helps so, so many,” she said. “The federal government needs to catch up to what’s happening in all these states.