RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s Senate voted Thursday to expand the use of marijuana oil for medical purposes after a spirited debate that veered into presidential drug usage, 1960s hippie culture and the comically long list of potential side effects recited on TV pharmaceutical ads.
The bill – co-sponsored by Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, and Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington – builds on legislation passed into law two years ago that was intended to make it easier for Virginians with severe forms of epilepsy to use two oils derived from marijuana.
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This year’s measure, which passed on a 29-to-11 vote in the majority GOP chamber, expanded the list of ailments to include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, nail-patella syndrome, cachexia or wasting syndrome, multiple sclerosis and complex regional pain syndrome.
The two marijuana-extracted oils lack the plant’s intoxicating properties but help alleviate debilitating seizures for some epileptics. The law passed two years ago provides a way for epileptics or their legal guardians to avoid prosecution for possession of cannabidiol oil (also known as CBD) and THC-A oil.
Passage of that law came after intense lobbying by parents of children with intractable epilepsy. These children suffered dozens of seizures a day and had exhausted every conventional drug or suffered debilitating side effects from them. That 2015 bill was so narrowly tailored that it faced virtually no opposition, even from law-and-order Republicans.
But expanding the list of illnesses raised concerns from some Republicans, who warned about a slippery slope toward marijuana legalization. They also noted that there had not been any exhaustive studies on the oil’s effectiveness for other ailments or testimony from patients this year. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, and Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, were among those opposed, with Black warning about “a return to the 1960s.”
“Believe me, it was not pretty,” said Black, a Vietnam veteran, describing widespread drug use in the military of that time. “It was the worst of all times.”
Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the Senate minority leader, said those concerns were misplaced, since the oil has no hallucinogenic effects.
“We’re not going to become a nation of potheads because people with MS and other kinds of ailments are using this kind of oil,” he said.
Saslaw also noted that even the last few presidents have admitted to smoking pot, “although one claimed he didn’t inhale. I don’t think anybody believes that. And God only knows about the current occupant of the White House.”
Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, noting that epilepsy patients have not experienced side effects from the oils.
He talked about the litany of warnings that accompany TV ads for medicines. “How many of you watch on TV: ‘I have an ear ache’?” he began. “It [the advertised drug] would take care of the ear ache, but side effects: dizziness, diarrhea, blindness, get a heart attack. Twenty things or more could happen to you, but your ear’s goning to be okay. But you can die.”
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, a practicing doctor, noted that the Senate had already determined that the oil was so safe for epileptics that the chamber, just two days earlier, approved a bill to allow pharmacies to manufacture and provide the oil. (Currently, patients have to obtain the oil from unlicensed or out-of-state manufacturers.)
She supported the Vogel and Favola’s bill, saying the legislature should leave it to doctors to determine if the oil is useful for ailments other than epilepsy.
The House of Delegates will weigh the measure next.
Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post. Follow Laura on Twitter @LVozzella.