There were tears and hugs at the state capitol Thursday, as Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill making it legal for Virginians to possess medical marijuana if their doctor believes it could be useful in treating epilepsy, cancer or glaucoma. But reformers are already lining up to fix problems with the law.
It was a thrilling moment for families of children who have epilepsy. They had lobbied state lawmakers for months to give their kids access to medical marijuana, and the governor praised their persistence.
“No state should have laws where our great Virginia residents may say, ‘I have to move to another state because we can’t provide the treatment for our children, and this in fairness is what our legislators ought to do.”
The measure was sponsored by two northern Virginia lawmakers -- Republican Delegate David Albo and Democratic Senator David Marsden, who admitted there is still no legal way for parents to get the medication from Colorado without transporting what DC considers a controlled substance over state lines.
“It’s impossible under federal law, but what we did want to do is say if someone has this and a doctor certification that they or their child have intractable epilepsy and the cannibidol oil may help, we are not going to make criminals out of them.”
That was good news for Beth Collins, a Fairfax resident who spent more than a year living with her daughter Jennifer in Colorado - giving the 16-year-old access to a life changing remedy.
“Before she was having 300 seizures a day on full medication, but we were able to cut her medications in half, and the side effects went away. She has not had a grand mal seizure in over a year, so big improvement.”
But Jennifer missed her father and sister, who were unable to relocate - and so did Beth who must now face another challenge - keeping her ailing daughter supplied with medication only available in Colorado.
“I’m going to have to risk a lot to obtain it, but at the same time it’s worth it. It’s my daughter’s life. I feel the government is wrong. I don’t like the fact that we’re going to have to break laws, but at some point this is going to have to tip.”
Having won this political fight, she’ll now start pushing for a change in federal law - taking marijuana off the list of controlled substances with no medicinal value so it can be transported across state lines. She also supports people with chronic pain, PTSD and other disorders that can be treated with medical marijuana.
“It doesn’t just help epilepsy. We know that. In fact, there’s far more proof that it helps other conditions than even epilepsy, and we really hope that those people will come forward and tell their stories and get the law expanded to include them.”
No lawmakers stepped up to say they would push for expanding access to medical marijuana, but Governor McAuliffe said he would support it.
“I am always open to that if we can do it to help people’s lives - always open to that from the executive branch.”
Meanwhile, other parents are gearing up to try the drug - among them 3-year-old Lucy Rhodin of Staunton. Her mother Melissa says the toddler has Dravet’s Syndrome, a condition characterized by frequent seizures.
“Those are dangerous seizures - prolonged seizures in which a child can die, and those can cause pretty severe brain damage. “
Half of the medications available for treating epilepsy don’t work for kids with Dravet’s Syndrome, but now this child has another option that might work, and Jennifer Collins is happy to have played a role in changing the law - proving it can be done.
“It’s possible to get a bill through. We just did!”
With a souvenir pen from the governor, she went off to celebrate this legislative success, her return to the state where she was born and raised - and the chance to again hang out with her friends.