Political polarization’s impacts are pervasive. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade made it harder to access reproductive healthcare in many parts of the country. Florida recently banned gender-affirming care for transgender children. Trends indicate that it may soon be time to remove the word “United” from our country’s name. The divisions are also impacting people with medical conditions that can be treated medically with marijuana, including those with epilepsy.
Cannabis reform’s popularity is rising among voters, activists, and state legislators. Cannabis is now legal for medical use in 38 states and DC and for recreational adult-use in 19 states and DC. Despite state level reforms and nationwide acceptance, Congress has yet to pass any major legislation addressing the issue. There are multiple reasons I’d like to see legislation pass, including the positive impacts decriminalization will have on those with records. But as somebody who lived with uncontrollable seizures for decades, increasing access to cannabis for medicinal purposes is the one that hits closest to home.
While doctors did not recommend cannabis for my intractable complex partial seizures, studies show that a chemical found in cannabis – Cannabidiol (a.k.a. CBD) – has been clinically proven to reduce seizures in some people with epilepsy. Cannabis wasn’t an option for me – ultimately it was brain surgery that controlled my seizures. But given that 30% of the 3.4 Americans with epilepsy cannot control their seizures with medication, maximizing available treatments and access to them is critical for us. Congress’s inaction decreases resources for people with epilepsy and other medical conditions treatable with CBD. Like the recent Supreme Court reversal of Roe vs. Wade, Congressional inaction on legalizing cannabis sales and production punts the issue to the states, where it gets vetted and debated by state legislatures until they establish their own laws.
In Georgia, a young girl with epilepsy, Haleigh Cox was the impetus for the 2015 bill Haleigh’s Hope. Back in 2014, Haleigh had up to 200 seizures a day. At 4-and-a- half years old, doctors told her mother, Janea that Haleigh wouldn’t live past five-years-old. “I was so worried I was going to lose my child at such a young age. I didn’t even know if she knew who I was or if that I was even in front of her or around…. Honestly cannabis oil was our last resort. There was nothing else we could do for her. We had done surgeries, we had done all the meds the doctors kept throwing at her,” Janea Cox said. Following her doctor’s suggested CBD regimen, Haleigh’s seizures decreased to two on a bad day. “Now, I know she looks for me, she calls for me,” Janea said.
Signed by then Governor Nathan Deal, Haleigh’s Hope established a list of medical conditions – including epilepsy – that qualified to receive CBD as legal treatment. While it was an important step, the bill left a gaping hole, as it was still illegal to produce marijuana in Georgia. Between 2015-2018, former Republican State Representative Allen Peake unsuccessfully filed three bills to legalize cannabis production in Georgia. As CBD was still hard to access during that period, Haleigh’s family chose to move to Colorado, where it was easier to get.
Incremental progress was made in Georgia on September 21, 2022, when two companies were granted licenses to grow medical cannabis in Georgia. Now CBD products can be produced locally and patients with a registry card will be able to buy cannabis there. Despite the role they played in trying to increase Georgia residents’ access to cannabis, Haleigh Cox’s family will not benefit from this, as they’re living in Colorado. The fact that they had to move 1,500 miles in order to receive critical medical treatment is an unamerican travesty of justice.
Federal legalization of cannabis is the best way to rectify this unfairness. On April 1, 2022, the House passed a bill decriminalizing marijuana[i]. On July 21, 2022, Senator Schumer introduced The Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA) to the Senate. The CAOA is comprehensive: In addition to decriminalizing marijuana, and allowing states to implement their own laws, the act would expunge federal cannabis-related criminal records, and provide funding for police to curb illegal cannabis cultivation. But it’s unclear whether the Senate has support from all 50 Democrats plus the 10 Republicans required to pass this bill, and it’s unlikely to receive consideration prior to the midterm elections. Now is the time to call or write your Senators and urge them to support the CAOA when the Senate votes on it. Also, consider supporting nonprofits actively advocating for federal cannabis reform, including the American Civil Liberties Union, The Marijuana Policy Project, and/or The National Organization for The Reform of Marijuana Laws. Patients with medical conditions treatable with marijuana should not have to move out of state to take care of themselves.
[i] https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3617 HR bill 3617 passed the House on April 1, 2022