Bills Expanding Cannabis Oil Access Advance

By Megan Pauly for NPR News

In Virginia, cannabis oils – often referred to as medical marijuana – are only legal for those with epilepsy.

Even that legislation is relatively new – just a few years old. Advocates like Beth Collins with Americans for Safe Access and her 18-year-old daughter Jennifer are a major reason why the oils are even legal at all.

“I’m incredibly proud of the advocacy efforts of my daughter. Couldn’t be prouder.”

Jennifer has epilepsy. She and her mom moved to Colorado so she could experiment with alternative treatments for her illness.

She tried CBD oil, but that didn’t work, but then she tried THC-A oil, and it did.

“It’s great, you know. I’ve got my life back.”

The two then moved back to Virginia to advocate for legal access to the oils. Now – Collins is working with legislators on bills that would allow doctors to recommend oils to patients with other illnesses in addition to epilepsy.

“So if you go to your doctor, and you say: I want the oils, I think they can help me and your doctor agrees, he can write you a recommendation. Rather than legislating every condition. Because how do you decide: cancer’s more important than, MS is more important than, you can’t. And legislators shouldn’t do that. Physicians who’re planning out their patients managed care plan should.”

Bills to do so have already passed on the House – and Senate – floor.

Those like Tamara Netzel – who was diagnosed with MS five years ago – are hopeful they’ll continue to advance. Because of her MS, Netzel has a lot of pain from her shoulders all to her fingertips. She says the oils help with the pain, as well as extreme fatigue and internal tremors she experiences.

“It’s almost like if you were holding onto a power tool. If you were like, say, weed whacking the yard and you were doing it for an hour or so. You know what your hands feel like after that? That’s my whole body all the time – and then add pain to that.”

Initially, Netzel was skeptical. After one of the FDA-approved drugs she was on landed her in the hospital with a liver failure, a friend suggested she try cannabis oils.

“I believed the myth that everybody believes until it mattered to me. Until it made a difference for me.” Even after a sample of the oils did help, Netzel needed proof that the health benefits were real.

So, she did some research. A 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found strong evidence of cannabis effectiveness for those with chemo-induced nausea, patient-reported MS symptoms like Netzel and treatment of chronic pain in adults.

“We’ve had more and more evidence showing how many more people can be helped by this.”

That’s Republican Delegate Siobhan Dunnavant, discussing her bill to legalize the oils Monday. She also referenced their effectiveness in preventing overdose deaths.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that state medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower levels of opioid deaths.

“That’s something we could use in Virginia.”

“So there you have it. That alone should change the conversation for those who are naysayers.” That’s Collins again.

Republican Delegates like Rob Bell and Todd Gilbert used to be naysayers when it came to considering bills that would expand access to cannabis oils, but in subcommittee this session – they admitted that testimony from Collins and her daughter largely convinced them otherwise. Collins says that’s a good sign for the legislation.

“Many members grew up in the era in which I grew up in: which was, cannabis is bad, fear it, it leads to other drugs. And now we’re shifting to look at the medicinal properties of it and seeing, this can help a lot of other people who otherwise have no hope.”

Dunnavant’s bill passed unanimously on the Senate floor Monday, and Republican Delegate Ben Cline’s bill cleared the House unanimously last Friday.

Cline says the science played a major role, too – not just the testimony. Both oils are not psychoactive by nature, meaning you can’t get high from them.

Opponents, however, point out that THC-A oil can become psychoactive when it’s heated to a certain degree.

Netzel says even then - the benefits outweigh the risks.

“I had plenty of opportunities to abuse things if I wanted to. I mean, I’ve got – the doctors easily give me things that I could very well abuse. So personally I just think the abuse should not even be a question.”

She says what’s more important is having access to all of the information so needs to make an informed decision about her health.

“And right now as it stands – I go and try to talk to my doctor…and it’s silence. And that makes me a little angry in a way. Because you start to think – this could have benefited me? And it’s been kept a secret?”

While she ended up having to retire early because of her MS, she says the cannabis oils allow her to live the best life she can.

As we spoke, Netzel started to tear up thinking about her diagnosis five years ago this week.

She says she never thought she’d be put in a position where she’d have to break a law in order to take care of her health. But, she’s hopeful that will change soon.