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Why Are So Many States Passing CBD-Only Legislation?

Mona Zhang

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Despite what seemed like strong momentum to expand Utah's restrictive CBD law, the effort died without a vote earlier this month. Even after the Mormon Church walked back on its opposition, lawmakers did not so much as debate the issue—saying only that the money wasn't there to implement the bill.

Advocates remain hopeful.

"That momentum will either be translated into legislation to be enacted next year, or a ballot initiative," Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, said.

But the whole ordeal brings up another issue: Why do so many medical marijuana states have restrictive, CBD-only legislation?

Sixteen states, most of which are red, have some sort of CBD legislation on the books. The cannabinoid first gained mainstream media attention when CNN's Weed documentary told the story of Charlotte Figi, a child whose epileptic seizures were greatly helped by CBD oil. Early stages of research suggest it might help neuropathic pain, muscle spasms and maybe even certain symptoms of cancer.  

Unlike THC, CBD is non-psychoactive, and the United States' resistance to it highlights the country's prudish, puritanical streak. This week, a CBD bill failed to get a vote in Wisconsin because lawmakers were worried about trace amounts of THC present in CBD oils. While it's unlikely that trace amounts of THC would be enough to produce psychoactive effects in a high-CBD product, an unfounded concern over people getting high isn't the only reason why conservative legislatures are passing these restrictive laws. Some politicians are just staunchly anti-cannabis, perhaps influenced by decades of drug war rhetoric and the financial interests of law enforcement.

Many of these laws only legalize CBD medicines by name and provide no way for patients to actually obtain such medicines, non-psychoactive or otherwise.

"These lawmakers oppose marijuana, and they oppose the public's access to marijuana," Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said. "These CBD-specific bills are written in a way that help virtually nobody… that’s why conservatives support the bills."

Out of the 16 CBD-only states, only two (Florida and Georgia) include qualifying conditions beyond intractable epilepsy or seizure disorders. Some of them only provide "affirmative defense," meaning a patient could still be arrested and made to stand trial. Many of the laws do not include provisions for in-state cultivation or manufacturing, which means patients either have to violate federal law to transport medicine over state lines or buy from dubious sources over the Internet.

"Unless CBD products are going to fall from the sky into their laps, there's no way for them to utilize the laws," Armentano said.  

The passage of these laws may make it seem like state legislatures care enough about their constituents to put politics aside and help those in need. Many of them, like Haleigh's Hope Act or Carly's Law are named for children who are desperate for treatment as their parents tirelessly lobby lawmakers for some relief.

"[These laws] publicly allow lawmakers to take a position that they are supportive of patient access… But in reality, they ensure that nobody has access to the drug. It's strictly politics," Armentano explained.

One concern among marijuana advocates is that the passage of such unworkable laws will make lawmakers reluctant to revisit the issue.

"Because of the pomp and circumstance that surround the passage of these laws, it provides politicians political cover to not have to go back to amend these laws in a way that makes it helpful to patients," said Armentano.

In Wisconsin, advocates have been fighting to amend a 2014 law that (in theory) legalized CBD for seizure disorders. But the bill requires any doctor who wants to recommend CBD to apply for an investigational drug permit from the FDA. Combined with the provision that requires a "hard copy of a letter or other official documentation" to recommend the treatment, the law makes it pretty much impossible for parents to obtain the medicine.

A bi-partisan group of senators tried to schedule a vote to expand the existing law on Tuesday, the last day of the chamber's session. But now, it looks like they aren't even going to vote on it.

"Parents and people are tired of fighting for something so simple," Sally Schaeffer told Fox 6. Schaeffer's daughter was the namesake of the original legislation, dubbed "Lydia's Law." Though her daughter passed away before she could even access a potentially life-saving medicine, Schaeffer is continuing her advocacy in hopes of helping other families.

The situation in Wisconsin also highlights the focus of CBD laws on epilepsy.

While there are many conditions that could benefit from such treatment, the attention surrounding epileptic children have made it a rallying point.

"There have been many heartbreaking stories that have gotten a lot of media attention for these poor children [with epilepsy]," Angell said. "It's very hard for legislators to tell those children to keep suffering."  

Plus, an increasing number of studies are showing that CBD is an effective treatment. 

On Monday, GW Pharmaceuticals announced that its CBD drug was effective in reducing seizures for patients with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. Meanwhile, epileptic patients in states where it's legal have access to several high-CBD strains, including Charlotte's Web (named after Charlotte Figi), Harlequin and Cannatonic.

While lawmakers may be passing useless laws for political expediency, there are some ways in which these CBD-only laws help the movement.

"It demonstrates continued momentum for medical cannabis, especially when you can list a bunch of conservative states that a casual observer might not expect to have laws like this," said Angell.

For the past two years, Congress has passed omnibus appropriations bills that include measures to prevent the federal government from interfering with state cannabis laws. These measures prohibit the DEA and the Department of Justice from spending federal dollars to enforce federal drug laws when individuals and businesses comply with state law.

According to Angell, CBD-only legislation was a major reason why those measures got passed.

"In the text of the amendment, we list all of the states that would be impacted by it," he said. "Because so many states have passed CBD laws, we were able to list all these conservative states… which ultimately led to its passage for the first time."

Those measures protect not just the CBD laws, but also all the states that have more comprehensive marijuana laws.

"If you were tell me four years ago that medical marijuana for kids would be the thing that would help us get these congressional amendments over the finish line, I wouldn't believe you," said Angell. "But that's exactly what's happened."

Recently, efforts to expand restrictive legislation have failed in Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin, despite polls showing public support for such measures. While the effort in Georgia did manage to see a modest expansion of the law, critical provisions in the original bill, like in-state cultivation and manufacturing, were gutted after opposition from the governor and law enforcement.

In almost all states with restrictive CBD laws, supporters of medical marijuana are working to expand them—but efforts are extremely incremental. For example, pending legislation in Oklahoma would expand the list of qualifying conditions but would not provide patients any means of obtaining the medicine. In Virginia, a bill would extend affirmative defense to cancer patients but wouldn't protect patients from arrest.

While convincing lawmakers to adopt in-state cultivation and manufacturing measures has been challenging, it's only a matter of time before legislatures catch up to public opinion on these issues. Plus, the same constituents that got those original bills passed are the ones lobbying for expansion.

"It is very hard for politicians to look certain constituencies in the eye and vote against their interests," Armentano explained. "When it comes to groups of mothers of young children, lawmakers tend to publicly go to great lengths to take actions that appeal to those constituencies." 

(Photo Courtesy of CBDOilClinic.org)

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