Three-year-old Autumn Bay’s red hair floated up and down in the air as her mother, Christine Bay, bounced her in her arms before a hearing on medical marijuana Wednesday at the Kansas Statehouse.
Christine Bay, of Lenexa, was one of several parents who told legislators emotional stories about desperate, futile treatments for the seizures that wrack their children many times a day.
Democrats have proposed bills in the Kansas House and Senate that would legalize marijuana for a broad range of maladies and symptoms such as the children’s seizures.
But similar bills have gained no traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature in recent years. So another member of the Democratic minority is seeking a narrower path that he hopes will provide relief for children suffering seizures without scaring off legislators wary of widespread marijuana use.
After watching Wednesday’s hearing in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, Rep. John Wilson said he will draft a bill centered on legalizing only a form of cannabis oil that has shown some success treating seizures and does not produce the psychoactive “high” coveted by recreational pot users.
“Just by seeing the reactions to this hearing and then having some private conversations with people on the House side, I think it’s prudent to at least draft a rough outline of the bill that is narrowly focused on kind of the oil form of delivery,” said Wilson, Lawrence Democrat.
Wilson said he believes such a bill would have a better chance of advancing through the legislative process than others that include provisions for marijuana dispensaries or grow-at-home options. A similar cannabis oil proposal passed in Republican-controlled Wisconsin last year and was signed by conservative Gov. Scott Walker.
But there’s no guarantee Wilson’s bill would have the support of his Democratic colleagues or even the people who testified for legal medical marijuana Wednesday.
The Wisconsin law received a decidedly lukewarm reception from the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, which called it “an improvement to current law,” but one that still “leaves the vast majority of medical marijuana patients without legal protections” and “may be unworkable even for the limited population it’s meant to help” because it doesn’t provide a reliable legal source of the cannabis oil.
Lisa Sublett, founder of the pro-medical marijuana legalization group Bleeding Kansas, said the advocates she brought to the Statehouse on Wednesday would find an oil-only bill similarly insufficient.
“Even our seizure parents wouldn’t support that,” Sublett said.
Sublett said most medical marijuana patients don’t want to smoke it, but some who need its effects quickly must ingest the plant leaves or inhale them through a vaporizer.
Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City who introduced one of the broader medical marijuana bills, said that’s a good reason to settle for nothing less than access to medicinal marijuana in all its forms.
“I would not want to see any restrictive measure of ingestion for medical purposes for marijuana,” he said.
When asked if an oil-only bill would be better than getting no bill at all, Haley said he hadn’t weighed that possibility.
“I would have to study what the distinctions are between oil and ingestion and smoking, and to see if it’s significant enough to prevent us from having a bill at all,” he said.
There were medical marijuana advocates with other illnesses at Wednesday’s hearing. But those in the packed hearing room seemed most affected by the stories of parents like Bay, who have children suffering daily life-threatening seizures that have defied traditional medical treatments.
“The neurology team at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City has told us that she is out of medical options,” Bay told senators Wednesday as Autumn groaned and squirmed in her arms. “Her pediatrician wants her to have the opportunity to try cannabis oil.”
'A terrible precedent'
The Senate committee heard testimony Thursday from those who oppose marijuana legalization, including a spokesman for several law enforcement groups, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Association of Addiction Professionals and Eric Voth, a Topeka physician and chairman of the Institute on Global Drug Policy.
Voth said medical marijuana should be treated like any other medication — subjected to safety and efficacy trials by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and then administered in controlled dosages to prevent negative effects like cognitive impairment.
“You bypass the FDA and you get medicine by popular vote,” he said. “And that’s a terrible precedent.”
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from Topeka, asked Voth if narrow legislation could be crafted to help those who had already suffered cognitive impairment because of their illness and were out of other treatment options.
Voth said he feared any acquiescence to the pro-marijuana advocates would encourage them to pursue broader use, as they had in other states.
“The advocates are relentless, and I will tell you in states that have tried that, have tried to narrow the diagnoses down, within two or three years, it’s wide open,” he said.
When asked about Wilson’s cannabis oil-only idea, Voth said his preference would still be to keep the oil within the current regulatory framework for new medications.
Voth said that depending on how the cannabis oil is extracted, some can have “huge doses” of THC, so it must be tightly controlled.
Several investigational trials for cannabis oil drugs are under way in Colorado, he said, and suggested the Legislature could sponsor such a trial at an in-state medical research facility to give Kansas families easier access.
Kelly said she had not talked with Wilson about an oil-only bill. But she said she was touched by the stories about the young children the day before and wanted to find something that could pass.
“I would be leaning very strongly toward finding a solution to this problem,” she said.
Wilson took an interest in the oil when he heard the story of constituents Ryan and Kathy Reed, who moved to Colorado to access legal cannabis oil for their son Otis’ seizures.
Otis’ grandmother, Donna Reed, testified at Wednesday’s hearing.
“Our whole family agrees that Kansas should legalize medical marijuana,” she said. “Four years ago, if you would have asked me that I would not have agreed. But two things have happened in my life. The first thing is, I adore this little boy. And because of that I have become more educated on what it can do for children and for people.”
Donna Reed said her son and daughter-in-law have seen improvements in Otis’ development since he’s been taking the oil and are heartened by the transformation they’ve seen in other children in Colorado who have been taking the substance longer.
Wilson said he was hoping to wait for the full results of a medical marijuana health impact assessment being conducted by the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of the editorially independent KHI News Service.
Tatiana Lin, a senior analyst at the Kansas Health Institute, said the full results of the health impact assessment, which focused on four states that legalized medical marijuana, won’t be available until next month.
But she said one preliminary finding is that there is likely to be little to no impact on the overall consumption of marijuana in the general population if Kansas legalizes medical marijuana. However, Lin said depending on how that medical marijuana is regulated, there may be some increase in use among at-risk populations.
She said another preliminary finding suggests that there would be little to no impact on crime. Areas near dispensaries might see a slight uptick, she said, but it’s important to note that dispensaries are often in places more prone to crime.
Wilson said the preliminary information provides a level of confidence that a tightly regulated medical marijuana industry can operate safely in the state.
“It’s a balance of being supportive of patients who are in need of something and then balancing public safety,” Wilson said. “These preliminary results from the health impact assessment say that that’s probably not as big of a concern as we think it is.”