FRANKFORT—The movement to legalize medical marijuana in the state of Kentucky made another leap forward on Thursday.
A House Health and Welfare Committee, packed to bursting with medical marijuana supporters, approved a bill that would legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. It passed by a 9-5 partisan line vote, with Democrats voting in support of the measure.
The bill's primary sponsor, Re. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, is a retired nurse. She said the bill will help alleviate the the suffering of some patients without the need for costly medication and their potential for harmful side-effects.
"I've been a nurse forever, and we do give people just boatloads of medications that either don't work or they have tons of side-effects," Marzian said. "So if this is an answer to some of those diseases and conditions, then I think, 'Why don't we look at it?'"
Sue Sisley, a physician from the University of Arizona's College of Medicine, told lawmakers that her research into the medical benefit of marijuana on military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, have been blocked by the Federal Drug Administration on political grounds.
Sisley said that, in the three-years that her study has been halted, more than 24,000 veterans have committed suicide. According to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the suicide rate for male veterans younger than 30 jumped by 44 percent between 2009 and 2011.
"I would submit to you that many of these veterans could have benefited from medical marijuana if they'd had legal access to the drug," she said.
Michael Krawitz, a disabled veteran of the United States Air Force, reiterated Sisley's claims. He testified before the committee that marijuana alleviates symptoms of PTSD in ways that traditional pharmaceuticals cannot.
"I think it's important to recognize that I, like other veterans, are given huge bags of pills at the VA hospital. 'Go home and feel better,' is what they say," Krawitz says. "And we try to use these medications, we try to the use the non-medication treatments they have available at the VA. And if we're saying that we're asking for medical cannabis, just please know that many of us and most of us are putting aside some very strong medications from the VA in favor for cannabis.
"I think that's obvious proof that there's something of value to us there."
In addition to is potential treatment of PTSD, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that marijuana can alleviate nausea in chemotherapy patients; provide pain relief for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis; and treat some symptoms of multiple sclerosis, or MS.
Jamie Montalvo of Kentuckians for Medical Marijuana says he uses the drug to treat his MS.
"The worst part about this prohibition that we have today is that we can lose our children for it, and we can lose our civil rights, we can lose our freedom," he said. "We don't deserve to be sent to prison for use of this plant. It's benign."
But Republican members of the committee were not persuaded.
Rep. Robert Benvenuti, a Lexington Republican, says that it isn't the role of state government to circumvent the FDA process, and that Marzian's bill, if passed, would "release a Schedule 1 drug into our community that has not been been studied."
The conventional wisdom among Frankfort's denizens suggests that the measure won't pass the House, much less the Republican-controlled Senate.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo wouldn't speculate on the bill's chances in his chamber, however, but said he is open to the issue.
"I've generally opposed expanding the use of any type of drug," Stumbo says. "A lot of members are becoming more open to it as we hear the stories from people in our districts that have family members that are positively affected by the use of these products."
Marzian said the bill will need tweaking if it is to garner bipartisan support in her chamber, including a reduction in the amount that patients may obtain from three ounces of marijuana in the current legislation to half an ounce, as well as tighter restrictions on how prescriptions of the drug are filled.
If medical marijuana dies during this session, Marzian says she'll take advantage of the legislature's off-season "to fashion it into a bill that can be agreeable to folks that may have some concerns, but also the people that are in desperate need of this alternative."
The ultimate fate of Marzian's bill may be tied to a similar, albeit narrower, measure in the Senate. Senate Bill 124, filed by Republican Sen. Julie Denton of Louisville, would permit the use of cannabis oil to treat certain neurological disorders. It passed a Senate committee this week by a 9-1 vote.
Because of the compounds in cannabis oil contain little to no THC, which is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, the bill has been able to garner bipartisan support.
"It's so limited it may pick up support," Marzian said of SB 124. "But I think the folks that are crying out for more access to a larger array of medical marijuana may be disappointed in the Senate bill. But again, it opens the door."