ASA Activist Newsletter - Mar 2015

March 07, 2015 | William Dolphin

In This Issue:

  • Kettle Falls Five Acquitted on 4 of 5 Charges
  • New Bipartisan Bill Focuses on Safe Access for Veterans
  • Virginia 12th State to Enact CBD-only Law
  • Many States Considering Medical Cannabis Bills
  • California Bill to End Transplant Denials for Cannabis Patients
  • Washington State Lawmakers Consider New Regulations
  • Executive Branch Pressured to Reschedule Cannabis
  • ASA Chapter Profile: Safe Access Virginia
  • ASA National Unity Conference March 27-31

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Kettle Falls Five Acquitted on 4 of 5 Charges

A Congressional ban on interference with state medical marijuana laws did not stop federal prosecutors from spending as much as $2 million seeking long prison terms for the Kettle Falls Five, a family of qualified patients from eastern Washington State. But the jury did.

After a trial in which District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice barred all evidence of medical need and compliance with state law, a jury acquitted the three remaining defendants of four of the five felony charges against them. The remaining charge that they had cultivated more than 100 plants, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison, was also rejected by the jury. Instead, the jury found that they had cultivated fewer than that, leaving Judge Rice free to sentence them to something other than prison time.

The widely watched trial of the Kettle Falls Five, began at the end of February with just three of the original five defendants. In the week before trial started, prosecutors dismissed charges against Larry Harvey, 71, who was recently diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. Family friend Jason Zucker agreed to testify against the Harvey family in exchange for a recommended sentence of 16 months in prison. He had faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, if convicted. The three remaining defendants -- Harvey's wife and caregiver, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 56, her son Rolland Gregg, 33, and daughter-in-law Michelle Gregg, 36 -- remain free until sentencing on June 10 at 10am.

In August 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided the Harvey family home near the town of Kettle Falls in Washington State and seized 68 marijuana plants. The five were charged with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, manufacture and distribution of marijuana, maintaining a drug-involved premises, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

In order to charge them with cultivating more than 100 plants, which carries a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence, prosecutors argued the family also grew cannabis in previous years, so those plants can be counted, too. The jury rejected that in finding they had cultivated fewer than 100, a conviction that does not require jail time. The defendants were acquitted of all the other charges.

More information:
Dismissal of Larry Harvey's charges
Congressional measure restricting DOJ enforcement in medical marijuana states

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New Bipartisan Bill Focuses on Safe Access for Veterans

Veterans will be able to discuss medical cannabis as a treatment option with their VA doctors if a new bill becomes law. The bipartisan Veterans Equal Access Act, introduced by Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and eight cosponsors, would lift the federal ban on Veterans Health Administration physicians issuing recommendations in states where medical cannabis is legal. The bill is modeled after similar legislation which was narrowly defeated at the end of the last Congressional session.

"Post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury can be more damaging and harmful than injuries that are visible from the outside,” said Rep. Blumenauer in a prepared statement. "And they can have a devastating effect on a veteran's family. We should be allowing these wounded veterans access to the medicine that will help them survive and thrive, including medical marijuana -- not treating them like criminals and forcing them into the shadows. It's shameful."

The bill’s cosponsors include four members from each side of the aisle, including Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Walter Jones (R-NC), Justin Amash (R-MI), Tom Reed (R-NY), Richard Hanna (R-NY), Dina Titus (D-NV), Sam Farr (D-CA) and Jared Polis (D-CO).

Currently, veterans may obtain recommendations for medical cannabis from doctors outside the Veterans Health Administration. Until 2011, when the VHA issued a directive revising the policy, any medical cannabis use was grounds for denying other treatment to veterans.  

For many veterans, a VA physician is their only doctor, and many lack the means to pay for private care. More than a million U.S. veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty.

"In every state of our union, disabled United States military veterans stand to gain from this legislation because every veteran deserves the best medical care,” said Veterans for Medical Cannabis director Michael Krawitz. “We trust our doctors to prescribe morphine; we should also trust them to appropriately recommend cannabis."

More information:
Veterans Equal Access Act: http://www.safeaccessnow.org/veterans_equal_access_act
VHA directive on medical cannabis: VHA issued a directive

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Virginia 12th State to Enact CBD-only Law

Virginia became the 12th state to pass a limited medical cannabis bill restricted to extracts rich in cannabidiol (CBD), the second most prevalent cannabinoid in the plant. The new law provides an affirmative defense only for patients with severe forms of epilepsy who use oils with CBD and THC-A, the non-psychoactive version of THC.

The medicine remains illegal, but patients with written permission from their doctors can present that as a defense if charged. The law makes no provision for producing or distributing the cannabis extracts, and transport remains illegal.

Seizure disorders are a promising therapeutic application for cannabis. In 2014, the Epilepsy Foundation recognized medical marijuana as a potentially beneficial substance for treating epilepsy, calling for better access to the drug and urging the federal government to allow more research into its medical possibilities. The American Academy of Pediatricians called on the Drug Enforcement Administration in January to reschedule the drug for medical research purposes.

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Many States Considering Medical Cannabis Bills

Since Congress told the Department of Justice to stop interfering with state medical cannabis programs, new bills have been introduced in several state legislatures. Among the states where lawmakers are considering new medical cannabis bills are Pennsylvania, Utah, Georgia and Iowa.

In Pennsylvania, the state Senate is considering SB 3, the Medical Cannabis Act. A similar bill passed the Senate in September but stalled in the House. In its current form, the bill’s limited list of qualifying conditions excludes most patients, and vaporizing or smoking cannabis would be forbidden. Distribution would be regulated by a Medical Cannabis Licensing Board. One of the primary cosponsors has said the bill should let patients and their doctors decide if cannabis is an appropriate treatment and permit vaporization. Recent polls show that Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly support safe access, and newly-elected Gov. Tom Wolf favors legalizing medical cannabis.

In Utah, a bill that would establish a more effective medical cannabis program gained approval from a legislative committee last month. SB259 would create regulations for the cultivation, processing, testing and dispensing of medical cannabis. Currently only CBD oil is legal, and there is no method for producing or obtaining it. The new measure would still prohibit combustion as a means of administration.

In Georgia, competing plans are making their way through the state legislature. Senate Bill 185 would create a limited four-year research trial program for treating pediatric seizures with CBD oils. Only children under 18 who were born in Georgia or lived in the state for at least two years would be eligible for the program. Gov. Nathan Deal has voiced support for clinical trials of cannabis oil. House Bill 1 has no age limits and would allow use of low-THC cannabis extracts for nine conditions, including cancer, MS and Parkinsonism.

In Iowa, a new bill would expand the qualifying conditions for the use of CBD cannabis extracts, create a production and distribution system, and possibly allow the use of other types of cannabis. Currently only patients with severe epilepsy are permitted to use CBD extracts, but there is no mechanism for obtaining it in the state. A state Senator noted that the current law “is really not helping anyone.”

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California Bill to End Transplant Denials for Cannabis Patients

Even state-qualified patients can be denied critical organ transplants in California because they use cannabis, but that will end if a new bill becomes law. Last month, a bill sponsored by Americans for Safe Access (ASA), AB 258, the Medical Cannabis Organ Transplant Act, was introduced by Assembly member Marc Levine (D-San Rafael).

AB 258 would establish the same protections for medical cannabis patients that currently exist for transplant candidates with mental or physical disabilities. ASA has advocated for legislation to recognize the rights of medical marijuana patients such as Norman B. Smith. Smith died in 2012 after being denied a liver transplant at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, despite having a valid recommendation for treating his cancer with cannabis. Cedars-Sinai also denied Toni Trujillo a kidney transplant after being on a waiting list for six years because her medical cannabis use was considered substance abuse.

"Arcane public health policies view medical cannabis patients as drug abusers," said Assembly member Levine in a prepared statement. "Too often, patients are denied a life-saving organ transplant solely because they are prescribed medical cannabis. These patients have died after being dropped from the list, and many more are in jeopardy right now. This legislation will save lives by ensuring medical cannabis patients are not discriminated against in the organ transplant process."

The bill's introduction comes after the California Medical Association adopted a resolution stating that medical cannabis use should not be a reason for denying organ transplants. Other states that explicitly protect qualified patients from discrimination when seeking organ transplants are Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Washington State.

In addition to Cedars-Sinai, ASA has reports of patients being denied organ transplants by the medical centers at UCLA, Stanford and UCSF. Transplant centers may deny patients organ transplants or refuse to place them on a waiting list unless they test negative for marijuana for six months and undergo drug abuse counseling. Smith was attempting to comply with Cedars' policy when he died.

"Denying organ transplants to otherwise eligible patients is the worst kind of discrimination," said ASA California Director Don Duncan. "The Medical Cannabis Organ Transplant Act will bring California's policies up to date with a growing body of scientific evidence, and we look forward to working with the legislature to get that done."

Other states in which qualified medical cannabis patients have been denied transplants include Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. In 2008, Seattle resident Timothy Garon died after being denied a liver transplant by the University of Washington Medical Center. A year later, Big Island resident Kimberly Reyes died at Hilo Hospital after also being denied a liver transplant.

More information:
AB 258, the Medical Cannabis Organ Transplant Act
Assembly member Marc Levine's Fact Sheet on AB 258
California Medical Association resolution
Video of Norman Smith

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Washington State Lawmakers Consider New Regulations

Lawmakers in Washington State have been debating how to regulate medical cannabis since voters approved an initiative allowing adult use.  A new bipartisan bill would restore vetoed provisions of a regulatory proposal first passed in 2011, while a Senate measure would add Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to the list of the state’s qualifying conditions.

House Bill 2058 would establish a licensed distribution system that had been part of a 2011 medical cannabis bill. The licensing portions of the bill were vetoed by then-Governor Christine Gregoire after the local federal prosecutor threatened state officials and employees with criminal prosecution if they implemented regulations. Congress has this year prohibited that type of interference by the Department of Justice.

Senate Bill 5379, a bipartisan proposal to add PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions in the state, was passed out of the Senate Health Care Committee last month.

"Every single day, twenty-two men and women who honorably served our country take their own lives," says Marine Corps Veteran Patrick Seifert, Chair of ASA-Washington and Founder of Rainier Xpress, a medical cannabis collective in Olympia. "This bill is a beacon of hope for patients who suffer from PTSD."

Many patients report cannabis is an effective treatment for PTSD, and recent research findings support it.  The State of Colorado has awarded a $3 million grant to study its efficacy with veterans.

More information:
House Bill 2058
ASA Fact Sheet on House Bill 2058
Veteran Patrick Seifert’s blog re: VA policy on medical marijuana

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Executive Branch Pressured to Reschedule Cannabis

After US Attorney General Eric Holder made public comments questioning the classification of cannabis as a drug with no medical use, Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) sent a letter to Holder urging him to reschedule it.

The letter from Rep. Cohen comes just days after the Brookings Institute published an article explaining the process by which cannabis can get rescheduled. While the Attorney General may not be able to reschedule it at the snap of his fingers, he can initiate the process.

The Schedule I status of cannabis (along with the even more research-inhibiting Public Health Service review process) has stymied cannabis research in the United States, a mounting body of medical evidence keeps building that demonstrates its medical value.

Pressure is also on the White House. A postcard campaign targeting First Lady Michelle Obama is asking for her support for rescheduling. The Parents Coalition to Reschedule Medical Cannabis has also launched an online petition as part of their #stoptheseizures campaign to reschedule cannabis.

Congressman Cohen cosponsored legislation in the previous session of Congress to reschedule marijuana to somewhere between Schedule III-V. He also cosponsored the landmark Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment that restricts the DOJ's ability to interfere with state medical marijuana laws.

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ASA Chapter Profile: Safe Access Virginia

Safe Access Virginia, the ASA chapter being honored at this year’s National Unity Conference, was formed by a group of Virginians who met at ASA’s first Unity Conference in 2013. After getting to know each other at the conference, T.J. Thompson, Mohammed Mustafa, Rose Bono and Steven Doheney started a conversation that lasted the rest of the year about what could be done in Virginia. On October 20, 2013, that core group decided they were ready to start a chapter of Americans for Safe Access and take that step toward medical legalization in the Commonwealth.

The first thing the chapter leaders did was get indoctrinated in Virginia politics, which can be very conservative and different from the rest of the country. A sympathetic state Delegate acted as a mentor, giving them a 2-1/2 hour crash course in the workings of the General Assembly, which has been in continuous operation since 1619, making it the oldest law-making body in the New World.

The chapter Steering Committee created a strategy to work with the state legislature’s compressed sessions of just 60 days on even-numbered years and 45 days on odd years. The first test of that strategy came when a state lawmaker attempted to repeal a 1979 law that allows prescriptions for cannabis as a treatment for cancer or glaucoma. Because doctors are forbidden from prescribing Schedule I substances, that law has not afforded patients real protection, but the effort to repeal it gave Safe Access Virginia the chance to organize a response. With help from ASA Government Affairs Director Mike Liszewski, they lobbied lawmakers and had a big presence in the subcommittee hearing.

That effort helped show state lawmakers that safe access is an issue important to Virginians, prompting Delegate Dave Albow to start work on a more workable medical cannabis bill on behalf of constituents whose young daughter has intractable epilepsy. The result was HB 1445, signed into law last month, which provides an affirmative defense for the use, possession and distribution of cannabis extracts that are rich in CBD and THC-A, two of the non-psychoactive cannabinoids in the plant.

“The new law is exciting but bittersweet for me personally,” said TJ, a veteran who is leaving his leadership position in the chapter to focus on veterans issues.

While the bill fell far short of what Safe Access Virginia sought and an alternative bill that left the decision on treatable conditions to physicians was not brought to a vote, the new law is nonetheless a step in the right direction for the state and a limited group of patients in dire need of relief.

Safe Access Virginia is building on success that saw, in just 18 months since the chapter was formed, three medical cannabis bills pre-filed in the Assembly. At their state lobby day just a few weeks ago, they identified some potential champions in both parties, including a few Republican lawmakers who said they might help with medical cannabis bills in the Assembly. For more information about Safe Access Virginia, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/SafeAccessVA or safeaccessnow.org/virginia_advocacy.

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ASA National Unity Conference: Mar 27-31

Join ASA in Washington, D.C. this month for our annual Unity Conference, March 27-31. Hear about emerging trends, policy developments and new research from leading experts, then head to Capitol Hill for the Lobby Day to let your elected representatives know why they should take action now. Register today at www.nationalmedicalcannabisunityconference.org

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