A new Senate bill that would allow children with epilepsy to use cannabidiol without fearing federal prosecution is being called weak and “narrowly focused.”
A proposal that would protect pediatric patients with intractable epilepsy from federal prosecution for using cannabidiol (CBD) derived from medical marijuana was introduced in the U.S. Senate last month. The bipartisan Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, or Senate Bill 3269, would also make CBD distinct from cannabis and subsequently remove or reschedule it under the Controlled Substances Act.
The law’s scope only covers CBD oil that is derived from medical marijuana, which may still contain significant levels of THC. CBD oil that is created from the hemp plant, another varietal of cannabis, is already legal to purchase and use in all 50 states because it contains only trace levels of THC under 0.3%, if any at all. Under FDA guidelines, these CBD hemp oil products are sold as supplements, not medications.
Research has found CBD to be a well-tolerated and effective therapeutic substance for reducing, and in some cases even eliminating, the seizures associated with pediatric epilepsy disorders like Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Like marijuana, CBD extracted from marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug. As such, research is subject to stringent regulations. If it were rescheduled, the regulatory barriers associated with conducting research on CBD would be reduced, allowing for greater medical developments.
“I strongly believe that more research into the potential medical benefits of marijuana, specifically cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of marijuana, is needed,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), lead sponsor of the bill, said in a press release. “This narrowly focused bill takes a responsible approach by cutting the red tape associated with marijuana research. It paves the way for new research to be conducted to determine if cannabidiol can be an effective medication for serious illnesses, such as intractable epilepsy. Our bill also maintains safeguards to protect against illegal diversion.”
Joining Sen. Feinstein in sponsoring the bill are Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Tom Tillis (T-N.C.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
“The parents of children with severe epilepsy and other conditions are interested in cannabidiol to try to ease their children’s symptoms,” Sen. Grassley said. “I understand their interest. Research is necessary to determine the potential medical value of cannabidiol, and wherever possible, the government should help facilitate the scientific research needed to give these parents the answers they need.”
In some countries, like Brazil and Mexico, CBD from hemp oil is already being imported into the country for children with severe epilepsy, sparking a growth of interest in the benefits of cannabinoids across Latin America. Although medical marijuana has spread to 25 states here in the U.S., on a federal level, change has come much slower.
While the bipartisan supported proposal demonstrates that federal attitudes regarding cannabis are evolving, cannabis advocates claim that the bill is limited and restrictive. Excluded from the proposal are adult patients seeking medicinal cannabis, pediatric patients with conditions other than intractable epilepsy, and cannabis products containing any tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
At a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on marijuana last month, Sen. Lindsey Graham urged congress to be more active in the medical marijuana debate. Serving as the hearing’s chair, Sen. Graham contended that with half of the nation’s states passing medicinal cannabis legislation, it was time for congress to take a stand.
“I think it would be good for Congress to get involved and give some direction,” he said.
The new proposal, however, seems to trail far behind a medical cannabis market that has been expanding throughout the U.S. Since 1996, 25 states and Washington D.C. have passed comprehensive medical marijuana legislation, and there are currently an estimated 2.1 million medical marijuana patients in the U.S. Only a very small percent of legal medical cannabis patients would qualify for the protective clause under the new proposal.
Many from the cannabis community are also concerned the proposal could eclipse the more comprehensive and encompassing CARERS Act. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act, introduced to the Senate in March 2015, would reschedule all cannabis from a Schedule I to a Schedule II substance and would remove any state-federal conflict over medical marijuana laws by allowing states with legislation to continue without concern over federal prosecution. After the bill’s introduction, it was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, but no progress has been made since then.