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Fighting to Broaden Virginia's Medical Marijuana Laws

Last year, Virginia allowed patients with epilepsy to possess certain medical marijuana oils. Earlier this week, the General Assembly voted to allow these oils to be manufactured and distributed in state so epileptic patients – but only epileptic patients – can get them without crossing state lines. But the laws still leave patients suffering from other diseases feeling marginalized. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler explores what some are calling “medical discrimination."

On the one hand, champions of medical marijuana should be happy that legislation in Virginia is moving forward at all. The state is not exactly on the forefront of progressive pot laws. On the other, it’s very tense and frustrating for those suffering from diseases that research has shown medical marijuana can help—everything from cancer, Parkinson’s, arthritis to Crohn’s.

Take the case of “Ann,” not her real name because she’s been breaking the law for the past five months. She illegally obtains cannabis oils from another state to treat her son’s Crohn’s Disease.

ANN:    For my son to use it with Crohn’s, that is considered illegal and in my opinion that’s considered medical discrimination.

When her son was first diagnosed in 2014 with Crohn’s – an autoimmune disease that attacks the gastrointestinal tract –the doctor prescribed the drug Remicade that came with a long list of alarming side effects, notably T-cell lymphoma. Ann and her husband sought a non-toxic alternative.

She began researching how cannabis oils were being used to treat diseases, ranging from epilepsy to Crohn’s. She eventually tracked down a grower in Colorado, where marijuana is legal, willing to sell his patented, high strain cannabidiol, or CBD, oil to treat a disease not included in Virginia’s medical pot laws. CBD is an anti inflammatory that does not produce a high.

ANN:    It was very nerve wracking. We were scared because there’s a social stigma with cannabis so I was scared of what people were going to think about a mother giving her son marijuana.…. fearful of what could happen to me if I ever was arrested. They would probably take my kids away.

Her fears are not unfounded. Last year, a Kansas woman was arrested and had her son temporarily taken from her after police searched her home and found cannabis oil used to treat her Crohn’s Disease.

JENN MICHELLE PEDINI:   I am disgusted. I am personally offended.

Jenn Michelle Pedini is a two time cancer survivor and executive director of Cannabis Commonwealth, a coalition that champions cannabis reform in Virginia. She testified before lawmakers last month in support of adding cancer to the law that protects those who use cannabis oils to treat epilepsy. The proposed amendment was killed last month by a Republican-led subcommittee.

PEDINI:    Say it to my face. Tell me why I am less deserving. Tell me why I have to die in this state and that patient doesn’t? What makes them more deserving than me? How come that child can have that oil, but my child can’t? How come I will still have to go to jail for my child or myself?

It’s not a question of better research on medical marijuana as a treatment for epilepsy, says Mike Liszewski of Americans for Safe Access. ASA lobbies for safe, legal access to cannabis for therapy and research. He says optics play a role.

LISZEWSKI:  I think one of the reasons why we’ve seen 17 states since 2014 adopt these CBD laws that allow in almost every instance only epilepsy is because you have parents advocating for children. It’s very hard for an ALS patient to advocate for themselves. Or an adult with moderate to severe Crohn’s—they’re dealing with paying rent, all the other things that go on in life and, you know, coming down to Richmond to meet with their elected officials just might not be something they can do especially since Virginia has such a short legislative session.

ASA’s stance is that physicians, not legislators, should decide which patients can benefit from cannabis therapy. It shouldn’t come down to which group can more effectively lobby lawmakers.Yet that is precisely what patients will have to keep doing until the laws become more inclusive.

LISZEWSKI:   Best thing to do is write letters and call their senators and representatives and let them know that they’re excluded from this law and that they should be included. The best standard for medical cannabis laws is not the strictest law but the one that helps provide wellness to the most patients that can benefit from it.

As for Ann’s son, he has been in remission for five months and is #illegallyhealed a growing online movement of medical pot lawbreakers. Ann and her son recently went for a follow up with their gastrointestinal doctor.

ANN:    He was surprised and he said, Well, I don’t know what you guys are doing but keep doing it.

She didn’t tell the G.I. she has to break the law to do it.