The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would exempt certain strains of low-THC marijuana used for medical purposes from a federal ban on the plant — but stops short of legalizing other forms that most patients consume.
The bipartisan bill, introduced on Monday by Representative Scott Perry (R-Pa.), would “exclude therapeutic hemp and cannabidiol from the definition of marihuana” under the Controlled Substances Act. Instead of revising the way marijuana is treated under federal law, the bill instead defines plants with 0.3 percent THC or less simply as something other than “marihuana” (the plant’s spelling in penal law dates back to the time of Reefer Madness.)
Regardless of the bill’s semantics, it would be the first time the federal government acknowledges an accepted medical application of cannabis. The bill’s passage could open the door to consideration of other marijuana reforms or wider medicinal applications of the plant.
Just a few years ago, a bill like Perry’s would have seemed a pipe dream for advocates.
Its introduction comes after 11 states approved bills legalizing cannabidiol (CBD) this year, mostly by Republican-controlled legislatures. Those laws, like the federal proposal, are aimed at using the substance to treat children who suffer from seizures.
Perry’s bill, the Charlotte’s Web Medical Hemp Act of 2014, refers to a strain of marijuana named after Charlotte Figi, a seven-year-old Colorado girl who suffers from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that at one point caused her to suffer as many as 1,200 seizures every month. After her parents began treating her with oil extracted from low-THC, high-CBD plants, her seizures fell to one per week. Other parents have since reported similar results, and the Colorado company that produces the Charlotte’s Web strain has seen demand explode.
Because CBD oil is only legal in certain states, families have relocated in order to access it for their children.
“We applaud Representative Perry for proposing this new bill,” Philip M. Gattone, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation, said in a statement. “We cannot allow access to lifesaving treatment to be determined or limited by zip code.”
CBD and THC are two of the more than 400 known compounds in marijuana. THC accounts for the plant’s psychoactive effects — the “high” that smokers experience — which can translate into therapeutic analgesic, anti-inflammatory, or anti-convulsant effects. CBD does not possess psychoactive properties, but is believed to offer other benefits, including slowing the abnormal electrical discharges and chemical signaling in the brain that characterize epilepsy.
Some advocates and doctors, however, worry that the unique attention paid to CBD strains could narrow the conception of the entire plant as a treatment option.
“I don’t think legislators realize CBD is just one of the non-psychoactive cannabinoids that yields benefits for patients,” Dustin Sulak, a Maine osteopathic physician who treats some patients with cannabinoids and whole plant marijuana, told VICE News.
Sulak sees more than 30 pediatric seizure patients, almost all of whom have failed to respond to conventional medicines.
“It’s often CBD that helps them, but not always,” said Sulak. “I have some patients that get worse with CBD but better with THC or a combination of the two. I have some that get worse with CBD and THC but better with THC-A [another cannabinoid]. It’s really an oversimplification that CBD is the only cannabinoid that treats seizures.”
“We know very clearly, scientifically we get better effects when we use the full plant in treatment,” he added, referring to the so called “entourage effect” among various compounds that can offer more comprehensive palliative results than taking one alone.
Drug companies are acting swiftly to accommodate (and profit from) the shift towards CBD. In June, the FDA authorized “fast track” status for trials of GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug aimed at sufferers of Dravet syndrome. GW previously received patent approval from the federal government for a drug that combines certain ratios of THC and CBD to target rare tumors arising in the brain or spine called gliomas. Shares in the company are up more than 700 percent in the past year.
The public success of high-CBD strains has forced legislators to allow that certain cannabis compounds can be beneficial — even as they continue to demonize marijuana and the synergistic effect of its compounds in combination. Cynics see bills like Perry’s and at the state level as a way to hedge against full legalization.
“This legislation in no way federally legalizes the recreational use of marijuana, nor is CBD marijuana,” insisted Rep. Perry in a statement referring to CBD as a “supplement.” “This bill in no way changes my stance on marijuana.”
Indeed, Joel and Josh Stanley, the Colorado brothers behind the Charlotte’s Web strain originally called it “The Hippie’s Disappointment” because it didn’t produce the high associated with marijuana.
But even the effects of THC pale in comparison to the torpor that can result from many of the heavy sedatives currently prescribed to children with epilepsy.
“They may get giggly, or easily distractible, but the side effects of cannabis are so much less than all the other alternatives,” said Sulak.
For other patients, getting high on a non-addictive drug is precisely what would help them.
In the United States, 300,000 children under 14 suffer from epilepsy. By comparison, in 2011 the Institute of Medicine found that 100 million experience chronic pain, which research has shown can be relieved by marijuana.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported that in 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers. More than half of the 11 states that have passed limited CBD oil bills were among those highlighted by the CDC as issuing the most painkiller prescriptions per capita.
“Children with epilepsy can have terrible suffering, but in the grand scheme of things, the prevalence isn’t very high,” said Sulak. “The vast majority of people with epilepsy respond to traditional treatment. That’s not the case with chronic pain.”
A University of California, San Francisco, study suggested that including cannabis in a treatment regimen for chronic pain could “allow for opioid treatment at lower doses with fewer side effects,” potentially preventing overdoses that claim the lives of some 46 Americans every day.
The federal government could reduce this harm by legalizing marijuana to replace the use of addictive narcotics like OxyContin.
“Families have applied a lot of pressure for the right reasons, because they’re concerned that their kids are having seizures,” Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, told VICE News. “We’re happy about that, but we don’t want to leave behind other medical marijuana patients who are using it for pain alleviation.”
“The problem is still federal prohibition,” he added.
Because it’s almost impossible to obtain federal approval to study the medicinal benefits of marijuana (though not its harms), legislators have ensured the scarcity of available data — a constraint they cite as one of various reasons not to legalize medical marijuana.
“There is no evidence for marijuana as a treatment for seizures,” Representative John Fleming (R-La.) said last month at a Congressional hearing. “We hear anecdotal stories, and that’s how myths come about.”
Just a few years ago, a bill like Perry’s would have seemed a pipe dream for advocates. But with public opinion nationwide now firmly behind legalizing medical marijuana, they want to ensure reforms across the board.
One of the co-sponsors of the federal bill is Representative Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.), one of the House’s most outspoken critics of US drug laws, whose policy goals extend far beyond authorizing CBD. Cohen has called for DEA chief Michele Leonhart’s resignation, and requested that President Obama change marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug — considered as dangerous as heroin and more so than cocaine and methamphetamine.
But in Congress, you take what you can get.
“If there’s a piece of legislation that he believes gets us closer to where he thinks the nation’s policy should be, he’s all for that,” a spokesperson for Cohen told VICE News. “He’s willing to work with someone who is new to the issue.”
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford