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Marijuana Reforms: Money & Medicine

Photo: David Trawin, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

A new poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project shows 60% of Virginians think it’s time to decriminalize marijuana, and three out of four voters think seriously ill people should have legal access to medical marijuana. 

When I met 15-year-old Jennifer Collins, she was living in Colorado, where her mother could get medication for her – an oil that controlled her seizures without serious side effects. Because that drug was made from a derivative of the marijuana plant, Jennifer could not have it at home in Northern Virginia, where her father, her sister and her friends still lived.  So she wrote a letter to lawmakers in Richmond:

“I am currently living in an apartment with my Mom, me and my dog.  My family is split up, and it’s killing me to see my mom this way.  She has never looked so sad and depressed in her life.  If there is research that shows the medical marijuana works, then you would have to be crazy not to want to give it a try. Will you make it better for everyone?  Can you allow me to see my dad every day?  Please consider it.  Thank you.”

And her mother Beth spent months lobbying the legislature.

“It’s not just important that we want to get home, because we do, but there are so many children in Virginia whose life literally depends on access to this medicine, and lots of people can’t travel to Colorado, and they shouldn’t have to!”

Ironically, Virginia was the first state in the nation to approve medical marijuana back in 1979, but lawyer Kenneth Chrisman says the wording of the law made it useless.

“The law requires a valid prescription from a health provider.  Because the federal government views marijuana as a schedule one substance with no medical use whatsoever, it cannot be validly prescribed.”

So sick people who try medical marijuana for a variety of ailments can be subject to criminal penalties here.  That’s why Delegate David Albo, a Republican from Fairfax County, has introduced House Bill 1445.  It would change the word “prescribe” to “recommend,” making it legal for patients to use pot if their doctors suggest it for glaucoma, cancer and frequent epileptic seizures.

“One of my constituents’ sons is in intensive care on life support three times a year, and they have found that if they get this oil it reduces the number of seizures dramatically.”

His bill and a similar measure proposed by Senator David Marsden of Fairfax do not include marijuana for pain control, though studies show it can be effective in treating chronic pain.  Critics say some companies that make prescription painkillers have given generously to groups and politicians who oppose liberalizing marijuana laws.  The makers of oxycontin and some other opiod drugs have contributed more than a million bucks to lawmakers in Virginia over the last decade. Albo has collected from some of them but scoffs at any connection, saying he left pain out of his measure to prevent easy access to pot.

“That sets up what I consider to be this kind of joke like you have out in California, because everybody has a marijuana card,  because everybody says, ‘Oh, my back hurts.’”

Whatever the reason, Albo says there will be considerable opposition to his bill, and even if it’s passed, patients might have to risk arrest for transporting a federally controlled substance manufactured in Colorado across state lines. To fix that problem, the federal government must take pot off the list of schedule one drugs.  The White House could do that through a cumbersome process, but the president says he’d  prefer Congress act on the issue. At the University of Virginia’s Law School, Professor Richard Bonnie doubts that will happen.

“There has been a massive default of responsibility on the part of the Congress!”

So proponents of liberalizing marijuana laws keep working at the state level, and here in Virginia there are a few trends in their favor.  We’ll look at those in our next report. 

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.
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