RICHMOND, Va. – According to the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, cannabis—commonly referred to as “marijuana”—is a schedule one narcotic, meaning it has no medicinal value and has potential to be highly addictive. This means the production of cannabis—whether it be for medicinal or recreational purposes—and any products derived from the marijuana plant are illegal to possess, manufacture, distribute or import in the United States.
Since 1970, whether it be for medicinal, recreational or industrial purposes, 46 states including Washington, D.C., and now Virginia, have ruled in some form that cannabis has its place in society.
A report published yearly by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws—otherwise known as NORML—compiled studies and research conducted from 2000-2017 highlighting the vast number of clinical applications cannabis and cannabinoids—chemical compounds found in cannabis—have to humans. This report includes studies that have found cannabis to be beneficial in treating or alleviating symptoms from diseases and disorders such as preventing seizures caused by Epilepsy, slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and in some studies, reducing the size of tumors.
The result of the new bill signed by Gov. Ralph Northam this past Friday is doctors will be able to recommend—not prescribe—the use of cannabidiol, otherwise known as CBD, and THC-A—which is THC prior to it being turned into the psychoactive form—oils for any medical reason doctors see fit. The bill signed by Gov. Northam included an emergency clause meaning it took effect immediately after it was signed.
Despite this bill, under current Virginia law, cannabis—and any compound derived from the plant—are illegal to possess and produce. This includes the medicinal cannabis oils this new bill permits for doctors to recommend to their patients. What this bill does is give patients who have been recommended the medicinal cannabis oils an affirmative defense to possessing and using the oils.
This is a huge win for patients across the commonwealth who have had to take medicinal cannabis oils in secret or for those who were limited only to the unregulated products containing CBD that are on the market today. These unregulated products are technically legal under the Agricultural Act of 2014 if the CBD is derived from the hemp plant and the product does not contain more than 0.3 percent of THC.
“This bill allows for doctors, not legislators, to decide which diseases medicinal cannabis oil is good for,” Executive Director of the Virginia chapter of NORML Jenn Michelle Pedini said.
The original bill signed in 2015 only allowed for doctors to recommend medicinal cannabis oil to patients with intractable epilepsy. The oils covered under this law can only contain a minimum of 15 percent CBD or THC-A and no more than five percent THC. Due to the higher THC content of these oils being allowed, they can be put under the category of medicinal cannabis oils since the stated five percent is higher than the current cap of 0.3 percent of all hemp products. This is the same with the new bill passed last Friday.
The 2015 bill, signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also gives patients an “affirmative defense” to possessing the medicinal cannabis oil, which the new bill does as well.
“It is an acceptable defense you may present to in a court of law,” Pedini said.
This affirmative defense is a certificate that is issued to patients by their doctors who have recommend it for medicinal use. Prior to the oil being given to patients by state approved pharmaceutical processors—which the state has yet to choose—both the patient and physician must be registered with the Virginia Department of Health to recommend and possess the oil.
“They [patients] could be stopped by law enforcement who would potentially find their medicine alongside their affirmative defense certificate,” Pedini said, “which at that point, the officer could presume the person is following the context of the law and no longer pursue that charge.”
Despite the affirmative defense, a police officer can still go through the process of arresting and charging a patient with possession of a controlled substance if they choose to do so. Then, the prosecutor would hear the case and decide if they want to continue pursuing charges. If the prosecutor moves forward with the case, the patient will have to provide the affirmative defense certificate 10-days prior to trial as their defense and the judge will ultimately drop the charges.
“Of course, there are going to be people who will try to press limits with the law,” Pedini said, “like people who have medicine that is not within the allowed cannabinoid ratios or people who are driving with it in their car.”
According to Pedini, the extent of the law is for people to have the oil where most people would take medicines, like their homes or place of work.
“Not for people to vape in their car,” Pedini explained.
A separate bill passed in 2016 allows for the production and distribution of medicinal cannabis oils within the commonwealth of Virginia by up to five approved pharmaceutical processors. These processors, which are essentially vertically integrated dispensaries—meaning everything from cultivation, extraction, and final production will be done in-house—must apply to the Virginia Board of Pharmacy for a permit to produce the oils.
According to Pedini, the bill passed in 2016 allows pharmaceutical processors to grow the drug variation of the cannabis plant because the level of cannabinoids—such as THC or CBD—won’t be measured till the final product is made. This variation of cannabis is most commonly called, “marijuana.” By using marijuana plants that have been bred to contain higher levels of CBD, rather than the commonly used hemp plant—which have low levels of CBD and cannabinoids in general—it allows for higher quality oil to be produced with less amounts of resources.
“Instead of taking a whole field worth of hemp to produce a small amount of medicinal cannabis oil,” Pedini said,” this production method allows for more CBD-rich plants to be grown and harvested allowing for a better product than what is being offered now.”
Currently under the Agricultural act of 2014 signed by President Barack Obama in 2013—which removed restrictions on industrial hemp to be grown in the U.S.—cultivation of hemp, for the purposes of agricultural pilot programs to study growth, cultivation, or marketing, is allowed in all 50 states as long the plants contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC. Essentially allowing the production and distribution of hemp-derived CBD products in states where hemp is allowed.
Because of this law, many producers have produced and marketed products as “hemp-derived CBD products.” Pedini says these products are usually using distillates of CBD—meaning only CBD was extracted from the hemp plant by a method of isolating it using chemicals like ethanol, butane and the safest method, which is using carbon dioxide. Then, manufacturers place this CBD distillate into oils, foods and supplements giving the products the health and therapeutic benefits of CBD.
But, this also means the products that are currently being sold in wellness and tobacco shops aren’t truly medicinal cannabis oils or supplements since they usually don’t contain other cannabinoids that interact with CBD to enhance its effects. This is what is called the “entourage effect.”
“In order for you to have that entourage effect, the synergy [the interaction between two or more substances creating a greater effect] is created by the abundance of cannabinoids and terpinoids in a single product,” Pedini explained.
According to a study published in 2015 by the Hadassah Medical School and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, both located in Israel, for CBD to be fully effective it should be paired with other cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant. People using CBD products—which are only allowed to be derived from hemp plants—don’t have the full benefits that CBD derived from marijuana plants does. The effects of CBD by itself are still present when ingesting oils or supplements derived from the hemp plant, it’s just not as effective.
“They [good CBD producers] are going to give you full research, tell you exactly what it’s going to do, if it’s non-psychoactive, where it comes from, everything about it,” Michael Fragola, manager of Carytown Tobacco on West Broad Street said. “They’ll tell you if it’s from distillate, isolate, or if they take it straight from the plant themselves.”
As the manager of a tobacco shop, Fragola has seen hemp-derived CBD products come and go, some of which are produced in safe methods and others that include unsafe additives like Kratom, to enhance their effects. Fragola himself takes CBD for pain that is associated with standing on his feet 12 hours a day.
“I just take a 10-milligram honey stick and it just alleviates all my body pains, puts me in a better mood and just completely all around changes my vibe,” Fragola explained.
However, Pedini doesn’t recommend buying these products because the FDA does not regulate the production of them because of cannabises’ schedule one status. She recommends patients who are looking for CBD to conduct extensive research prior to purchasing.
“There are products out there that legally qualify as hemp extracts that are made by reputable producers, that are lab tested, that are certified organic and those are the products that I would recommend people to research,” Pedini said.
Natalie Bennett, a junior currently studying sociology and human resource management at Virginia Commonwealth University, uses hemp-derived CBD oil for her generalized anxiety disorder. Bennett use to take small dosages of Xanax prior to trying hemp-derived CBD oil and she found that the oil helps just as, if not better, than Xanax.
“I was very impressed,” Bennett said, “It [the oil] sets in as quickly, if not quicker than a prescription pill and it doesn't make me tired or disoriented if I accidentally take more than needed.”
Although, for Fragola and Bennett, full on medicinal cannabis oils aren’t needed for their ailments. The value of being able to have oils that are higher in cannabinoid contents, such as THC, is for those that have more serious diseases or disorders. Pedini says the current limit of five percent is perfectly therapeutic for palliative treatments—treating symptoms rather than curing —but it’s not beneficial for oncological applications.
“We need to address that [the current five percent limit] to serve those patients because it’s nice to say, ‘hey cancer patients, you can feel better,’” Pedini says,” but it’s a whole lot better to say, ‘hey cancer patients, maybe you’re not going to die.”
The new legislation signed by Gov. Northam, legitimizes the possible medicinal value that cannabis can have for patients. Despite cannabis and any compounds derived from the plant are still schedule one narcotics, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, states and their constituents are still fighting the battle to push cannabis reform both at the local and national level.
This “let doctors decide” bill is just a drop in the large bucket Virginians must fill to have full on cannabis reform within the state. Whether it be for medicinal or recreational uses, Pedini says she and her organization will continue to fight in the coming years with the help of Virginians. NORML’s next step is pushing policy that would increase or remove the cap of THC on the oil and of course reforming marijuana laws both in Virginia and nationwide.
“You [Virginians] can elect Republicans, you can elect Democrats, you can elect Independents, you can even elect prosecutors [who she believes are the root problem for reform],” Pedini said, “you just need to elect ones [representatives] that will represent what Virginians want and an overwhelming number of Virginians want marijuana, want decriminalization and want regulated-adult access.”