“After eight years of using the same thing with great results, I don’t want her to have to go seek something else.”
By Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury
Before many people even knew what CBD was, a particular group of families was asking Virginia lawmakers to legalize it.
At the urging of parents with children diagnosed with severe epilepsy, Virginia passed a law in 2015 creating a legal shield allowing families to possess cannabis-derived CBD oils for medical use without fear of being criminally prosecuted due to CBD’s connection to marijuana.
Under the original law, that legal defense only applied to CBD—a substance typically derived from non-intoxicating hemp plants marketed as a remedy for aches and pains, sleep trouble, anxiety and other ailments—that was obtained specifically to prevent or reduce seizures. The initial 2015 law also included limits on THC, the compound in cannabis plants that gets users high and can come in both natural and synthetic forms.
To date, the anti-seizure medication Epidiolex remains the only CBD drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe and effective for a specific medical use. In testimony before the General Assembly eight years ago, when Epidiolex was still three years away from FDA approval, many Virginia families said non-prescription CBD oil was the only thing that worked to alleviate their children’s seizures. State lawmakers responded accordingly, indicating they would work to create a legal way to let Virginia families get CBD for medical purposes.
But Lisa Smith, a Youngkin-supporting Northern Neck resident who was one of the mothers involved in the initial push to legalize CBD oil, says the strict hemp regulation bill the General Assembly passed this year threatens to undo the help legislators extended to families like hers nearly a decade ago.
The 100 milliliter bottles of CBD oil she gets shipped from a Colorado-based company called Charlotte’s Web, Smith said, are big enough they’d most likely violate a provision in the pending law that says cannabis products can contain no more than two milligrams of THC “per package.”
“After eight years of using the same thing with great results, I don’t want her to have to go seek something else,” Smith said of her daughter, Haley, who has a form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome.
Smith said the bottles she gets contain 216 milligrams of THC but have a total THC concentration of less than 0.3 percent, a standard measurement separating industrial hemp from marijuana The contents of Charlotte’s Web products aren’t entirely clear from labeling and descriptions on the company’s website, but more specific certificates of analysis available on the website back up Smith’s claim that the THC contents would be above the limits laid out in the proposed Virginia law. The company also offers “THC-free” CBD oils that have only 1.2 milligrams of THC in a 30 milliliter bottle. Charlotte’s Web didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment on how Virginia’s proposal would affect its business in the state.
After a whirlwind of pushback by Smith, lawmakers who sponsored the hemp bill are now considering amendments to try to address her concern.
“We want to fix that,” Sen. Emmett Hanger (R) the sponsor of the Senate version of the hemp bill, said in an interview.
Hanger said the concerns some Virginians have about potentially losing access to largely unregulated cannabis products illustrate what he sees as a broader problem.
“A lot of people are self-medicating with these products,” Hanger said. “But a doctor should be involved with these things. Sometimes these are potent drugs of sorts that are not FDA-approved.”
Hanger did not elaborate on specific amendments being considered to his bill, but one idea being discussed is a carveout to the THC limits for CBD products, as long as they have a high-CBD, low-THC ratio, meant to only cover products unlikely to get users high from a standard dose.
The hemp legislation is currently awaiting action by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who has said he supports its main goal of getting tougher on unregulated hemp-derived products like delta-8, which contain enough THC to produce intoxicating effects but are openly sold throughout Virginia because they’re technically not marijuana.
Youngkin’s office did not specify what specific changes the governor might propose for the bill.
“The final text of the bill is in review and the administration is meeting with stakeholders,” said Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter. “The governor looks forward to the enhanced enforcement this will bring to keep dangerous intoxicants off the shelves and away from Virginia children.”
The governor is facing a Monday deadline to sign, veto or recommend changes to the hemp bill.
‘We have major seizures’
The first form of state-sanctioned cannabis possession approved in 2015 gradually grew into the medical marijuana program Virginia has today as lawmakers created legal avenues to purchase CBD oil, broadened the list of health conditions that could be treated with cannabis products and expanded the program to allow actual marijuana. The medical dispensaries remain the only fully legal way to buy marijuana in the state, even though possessing small amounts of pot and growing up to four plants at home is no longer a criminal offense.
If other businesses were to stop selling hemp products in Virginia to comply with the pending law, the state’s medical cannabis dispensaries would remain an option for Virginians looking to legally buy marijuana or CBD. Those products are also subject to stricter regulations and testing to ensure consumers know exactly what they’re buying.
Proponents of the tougher THC rules say the medical marijuana program was created specifically so that Virginians would have access to safer, better-regulated products.
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Michelle Peace, a forensic science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in cannabis-related research, said she’s sympathetic to Smith’s plight. But the problem of unregulated products, she said, is clear given the numerous “adverse events” Virginians have experienced from ingesting cannabis products with intoxicating ingredients.
“The unregulated marketplace is dangerous to hundreds of people on a regular basis in Virginia,” Peace said.
Changing the bill to allow products with more THC, she said, leaves the door open to intoxicating products and could create confusion for people who “just want plain old CBD.”
“Consumers have access to a regulated marketplace in Virginia,” Peace said. “So they no longer need to ship products from other states.”
Smith said she’s not eager to switch to a different product available from Virginia’s government-licensed dispensaries because they may or may not have the same effects on Haley as what she’s been getting in the mail from Charlotte’s Web.
“It’s not like switching from cherry Tylenol to orange Tylenol,” Smith said. “There’s so many other implications because of how fragile she is medically. We have major seizures that can end in hospitalization or death.”
Haley is 22 but functions at about a four-year-old level. Smith said that, from her perspective, the medical dispensaries seem geared toward products for adults, not medicine for “someone of a child’s intellect.”
“I’m definitely not going to teach her how to vape something,” Smith said of her daughter.
Smith said she supports the idea of cracking down on bad actors in the industry profiting from selling unregulated or dangerous products, but she said she and others feel “blindsided” by the proposed law.
“You can’t harm all the work that parents like myself and others have done to help our kids,” Smith said. “We got so far.”
Photo courtesy of Kimzy Nanney.