Hopes that marijuana could relieve suffering competed with testimony that the medical use of the drug opens the doors to legalizing recreational use filled hours of testimony Wednesday before the Louisiana Senate Health and Welfare Committee.
In the end, the Senate panel approved, without objection, Senate Bill 271, which broadens the number of diseases marijuana can be used to treat. The measure now goes to the full Senate.
Its sponsor, Sen. Fred Mills, R-Parks, said he expects another donnybrook. “Every time we talk about marijuana, this is what happens,” Mills said with a shrug.
To be clear, Mills said, reefers are not smoked when marijuana is used medically. It’s an extract from the plants that can be used pharmaceutically, must be recommended by a physician and must be acquired through one of 10 stores to be licensed in the state.
Marijuana has been illegal since the 1930s and still is on the federal level. But 23 states have made the medicinal use of marijuana legal, and a handful of states have allowed the recreational use of the drug.
Louisiana passed legislation last year that allows marijuana use for medical reasons. In this session, the Legislature is shaping just what maladies the plant can be used to treat and how to go about buying the drug legally.
Mills said while Louisiana sorts out the process, people are leaving the state or, in some instances, breaking the law in order to get the cannabis oil they want to treat various diseases.
He has been in touch with people who illegally grow marijuana in their backyards, then squeeze the oils from the plants.
“They tell me, ‘I can’t pass a drug screen at work, but I don’t have anymore seizures,’ ” Mills said. “Cannabis oil is not a gateway drug.”
SB271 would expand the list of debilitating medical conditions that marijuana can treat to include cancer, glaucoma, positive status for HIV, AIDS and chronic conditions such as wasting syndrome, seizure disorders, epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other severe muscle spasms.
As touching as the stories of patients and their families are, Stephanie Haynes, a New Orleans advocate affiliated with Smart Approach to Marijuana, based in Washington, D.C., argues that little objective research has been conducted on cannabis-based medicines.
“Let’s go back to the science,” Haynes said, adding that she supports studying the possibilities of the medical use of marijuana and then making policy decisions.
Haynes also said the pro-pot industry is using unsubstantiated stories about the miracles of marijuana in medical use as a way to help relax opposition to its recreational use.
Will Hall, of the Louisiana Baptist Convention Office of Public Policy, agreed with both points, saying none of the research supports the results being claimed.
“Before we start adding diseases to this bill, let’s look at the data,” said Hall, of Alexandria.
Katie Corkern, of Amite, spoke about her son, Connor, who suffers from a form of epilepsy. His illnesses make him so prone to seizures and convulsions that he wore a helmet and face mask. One seizure left him in a coma for 36 hours. He awoke unable to eat, drink, crawl and speak.
“The seizure that took his words and abilities took a piece of my heart. I have yet to recover. I’m sorry,” Corkern said, apologizing for breaking into tears, as did a few senators and audience members.
The 9-year-old takes maximum doses — “literally enough to tranquilize a horse” — of six medications that do little to control the seizures and also have weakened the child.
“According to Louisiana, my son has run out of options to control seizures,” she said.
But other children with similar conditions have moved to states that allow marijuana to treat epilepsy. She said she has seen the light return to their eyes and wants the same for her son, without having to move.
“I look forward to the day when Connor’s seizures are controlled and I can hear him call me Mama again,” Corkern said.
During her testimony, Mills texted to members of the panel a copy of photos of 4-year-old Ella, whose family moved from Acadiana to Colorado. The child hasn’t had a seizure since beginning the cannabis treatment.
She now is laughing and running and dipping their fingers into ranch dressing, Mills texted his colleagues.
“You can talk about all the science until you’re blue in the face. I can give you hundreds upon hundreds of families,” Mills said.
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.