Advocates cheer bill’s passage

Published 10:17 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Both the House of Delegates and the Senate recently voted unanimously to approve two bills to expand the use of cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil in Virginia.

The Senate voted in favor on SB 726, also known as the “Let Doctors Decide” bill, on Monday afternoon. The House voted in favor of HB 1251 on Friday. The two bills are identical.

The votes are a huge win for Virginia NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), a marijuana advocacy group, and the patients who could benefit from it.

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“First of all, it’s going to allow physicians to make these recommendations to their patients, rather than having the legislature make medical decisions for patients,” said Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini. “Secondly, now Virginia will be able to experience the same impact other states have with medical cannabis laws.”

Currently, legislation in Virginia only allows the use of cannabis oils for those suffering from epilepsy that cannot be controlled by regular treatments. The oils for the condition can only be recommended by a neurologist.

The new legislation will open the doors for doctors to prescribe cannabis oils to alleviate the symptoms of any diagnosed condition if the practitioner believes the patient can benefit.

States that allow medical cannabis have also seen a 25-percent reduction in opioid overdoses, according to Pedini.

“Three Virginians die every day, and here is a program doesn’t cost the state any money. It’s an important tool in mitigating opioid dependence,” Pedini said.

Cannabidiol oil and THC-A oil are both non-psychoactive products extracted from cannabis, according to projectcbd.org, a website that promotes the use of cannabidiol. They are non-psychoactive because they do not contain high amounts of THC, which is the chemical compound responsible for the “high” marijuana users feel.

“What is remarkable about this legislation is that Virginia is the first state to do this and expand a hyper-restrictive program,” Pedini said. “It bodes well for the rest of the country and the East Coast. This is a better step forward writing public policy by giving it to the people trained to make these decisions.”

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-12) is the chief patron for SB 726. Dunnavant is also a physician. Delegate Benjamin Cline (R-24) is the chief patron for HB 1251.

Being an advocate for the physicians was important, because they are the ones reading the literature about treatment options, Dunnavant stated in a press release.

Both bills made their way through several committees before being voted on. HB 1251 passed through the Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions, Committee for Courts of Justice and subcommittees within Courts of Justice. Votes throughout the process were always unanimous.

“This bill takes into account the recent changes over the last few years in how doctors prescribe medicine and seeks to provide physicians with the most flexibility possible when it comes to caring for their patients,” said Delegate Emily Brewer (R-64), whose district covers much of Suffolk. “By giving physicians more opportunity to make the medical decisions that they were trained to make, instead of the government, we can significantly improve patient care in the commonwealth.”

SB 726 passed through Committee on Education and Health and its subcommittees, Courts of Justice and the Finance Committee. All but one set of votes was unanimous.

The bill received two votes not in favor in the Committee on Education and Health. One came from Sen. John Cosgrove (R-14), who represents part of Suffolk, and Richard Black (R-13).

Both senators voted yes when read for the third time in the Senate.

“I have had the pleasure of seeing that legislation since its inception in the criminal justice subcommittee,” said Sen. Monty Mason (D-1), who represents part of Suffolk. “One of the lead mothers that has been pressing us on the bill for four or five years had a daughter in a wheelchair. She could not hold her head up and was practically unresponsive when I met her. Since we have slowly and surely enacted the next steps, the lady is sitting on her wheelchair and playing games on an iPad.

“I’m not a doctor, but this passed the eye test for me for four years,” Mason added. “I’ve watched this lady develop and become substantially better through the use of these oils. It’s been amazing to watch people become more educated, and I’m so proud of these families for sticking with it.”

Both bills, though identical, still have to make their way to the opposite legislature for votes before going to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk. Northam has been in the medical field since 1984, after he earned his medical degree at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and he also has served as a pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk.

“We know that Gov. Northam supports this bill. I spoke with him yesterday, and he’s looking forward to the arrival of the bill on his desk for signature,” Pedini said.

If all goes as planned, Pendini hopes the law will take effect July 1. When this law is operational, there will be five dispensaries to service the entire state of Virginia, with the possibility of more in years to come.

“It has been a sight for a number of years for patient access and protection from prosecution. We are fortunate for our legislature to remove from the doctor-patient relationship,” Pedini said.