The push by parents of children with epilepsy to obtain medical marijuana in Virginia has resulted in three new bills in the General Assembly that would allow the use of a cannabis oil to battle their children’s debilitating seizures.
On Thursday, the parents and children plan to aggressively lobby the legislators who will consider the bills in the Virginia House and Senate, and hope to show them a powerful seven-minute video of families pleading for legal access to the oil. The video also shows children in the throes of epileptic seizures and memorializes those who have died as a result of intractable epilepsy.
Beth Collins of Fairfax, one of two Northern Virginia mothers who moved to Colorado with their daughters last year to obtain cannabis oil, is helping to lead the movement on two fronts: as part of Virginia Parents for Medical Marijuana, which has enlisted legislators to file bills on their behalf, and the national Parents Coalition for Rescheduling Medical Cannabis, which is pushing to have federal authorities remove marijuana from Schedule I classification.
Collins and her daughter Jennifer, 15, will be among the lobbying corps Thursday, and Collins produced the video. They moved back to Fairfax from Colorado Springs last month, even though the cannabis oil Jennifer was taking had greatly reduced her seizures. The stress on the family, and Jennifer’s desire to be back in familiar surroundings, caused them to return, they said.
The three bills addressing medical marijuana each have slightly different approaches, and their sponsors have realistic outlooks; they do not expect any of them to pass this year. But all three Fairfax legislators hope to get the discussion rolling, and perhaps nudge federal authorities closer to either rescheduling marijuana or not enforcing laws for those who use it for specified medicinal purposes.
Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) wrote a bill, with Collins’s help, which creates a new code section and specifically legalizes both cannabidiol oil (also known as CBD) and THC-A oil, the two extracts of marijuana that do not have the weed’s intoxicating properties but do have great impact on epileptic seizures. Collins and others have found that THC oil had far greater effectiveness on her daughter’s seizures than CBD, and is created with amounts of THC that don’t get the user high.
“I wanted to make this very focused,” Marsden said. “I felt we needed to get the discussion going. This is how we talk about things; we don’t have a conversation unless there’s a bill to talk about.”
Marsden’s bill requires a licensed doctor to make a “valid recommendation” for the medical cannabis oil, as do bills by Dels. David Albo (R-Fairfax) and Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax). That’s because medical marijuana has actually been legal in Virginia since 1979 — except that it requires “a valid prescription,” and doctors cannot legally prescribe marijuana while it is federally restricted.
The term “recommendation” bothers Virginia prosecutors. The Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys “does not oppose legislation that would allow people with epilepsy to be treated with medical marijuana oil” with a prescription, said Nancy Parr, the Chesapeake City commonwealth’s attorney and head of the association. But prosecutors do “have a concern about the word ‘recommendation’ as opposed to ‘prescription,’ ” she said, because it is not legally defined and regulated. Parr said prosecutors planned to meet with Albo to discuss that issue.
Albo’s bill also inserts the word “epilepsy” into the conditions for which medical marijuana may be recommended. The current law allows it only for cancer or glaucoma. Plum’s bill instead deletes cancer and glaucoma and would make medical marijuana available without specifying a condition, though still require a doctor’s recommendation.
Albo said, “I’m just trying to take an existing law and allow it to apply to seizures. If my kid had 100 seizures per day, I’d give it a try.” Similarly, Plum said he had heard from people with epilepsy and other conditions who said marijuana helped them. “I don’t know why it should be denied to individuals to whom it would give relief,” Plum said, noting that medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District.
Albo acknowledged that some legislators are troubled that cannabis hasn’t been sufficiently scientifically tested or approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a pediatric neurologist who has treated many children with intractable epilepsy, said Virginia is working on that testing.
He said clinical studies approved by the FDA would soon start at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University and Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk with epidiolex, a product with CBD oil that will be tested on children with Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes of epilepsy. Effectiveness will be quickly apparent in a double-blind placebo study, Northam said, and results available later this year.
Northam said successful studies could reassure legislators and doctors that medical marijuana is truly viable, as opposed to the anecdotal evidence from the families.