Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

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June 18, 2014

Cannabis supporters push for medical marijuana

FRANKFORT — Some sympathetic lawmakers warned proponents of legalizing medical marijuana in Kentucky that their rhetoric sometimes isn’t helpful during a legislative committee meeting Wednesday.

When Oliver Olson, an Army veteran and registered nurse practitioner, got emotional about the issue and implied there might be political reasons for the government to withhold from the public the benefits of the illegal drug, the committee’s co-chairs cut him off.

Olson at one point also seemed to lay blame for the continuing illegality of the substance at the feet of Republicans while another witness called it a government conspiracy.

Rep. Tom Burch, the Democratic c0chair from Louisville, interrupted Olson, telling him, “Please don’t bring Kentucky politics into the discussion. You’ve got friends on both sides up here and if you alienate them it won’t help you.”

His Republican co-chair, Sen. Julie Denton of Louisville, also objected and said after the meeting such comments aren’t helpful before a conservative legislature many of whose members still fear that legalizing marijuana for medical purposes “may open the flood gates” of marijuana abuse.

Earlier, Eric Crawford, a Mason County paraplegic, showed the committee a large bag of prescription drugs he must take daily to fend off pain, pain pills which he said “make me crazy.”

“If I could legally use medical cannabis I wouldn’t need narcotics,” Crawford said. Crawford and others said their physicians have told them marijuana can be effective in treating pain or symptoms of such diseases as epilepsy and cancer.

Denton and Burch said it’s difficult to get physicians to testify on the benefits of the drug because they fear they’ll draw scrutiny from the Board of Medical Licensure.

But one member of the Interim Health and Welfare Committee is a licensed physician. Rep. Bob DeWeese, R-Louisville, said there is only anecdotal evidence that cannabis or marijuana have some medical benefits such as increasing appetite, controlling nausea and reducing seizures.

But he said there haven’t been any serious scientific and controlled studies of the drug’s effects or benefits.

The General Assembly last spring approved the legalization of CBD oil, extracted from marijuana and hemp for treating childhood seizures. But even that has encountered some legal and regulatory obstacles and the oil isn’t yet available for prescription.

That bill was sponsored by Denton but a bill sponsored during several recent sessions by Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, to legalize “medical marijuana” has never received a floor vote in either chamber of the legislature.

That’s the bill proponents want the legislature to pass.

One woman told of the rapid decline of her husband after a diagnosis of cancer last December and his dramatic weight loss due to nausea and loss of appetite resulting from the aggressive chemotherapy treatment he is undergoing.

While her husband sobbed in the audience, Victoria Burgin began making an effective case for legalizing the drug, but as she became emotional about her family’s difficulties, she also claimed that the federal government is suppressing evidence that marijuana can cure cancer.

That prompted Olson to criticize legislators for refusing to help those who say they can benefit from the drug and led to Burch’s admonition to the witnesses.

Later Denton said several lawmakers are privately sympathetic, especially to stories like Crawford’s, the paraplegic from Mason County. But they are reluctant to take a public position for fear it will be used against them in campaigns and some supporters of efforts to legalize medical marijuana make it harder for lawmakers to sign on.

She and Burch said such cultural and political shifts take time and supporters need to understand that. Burch said he plans to conduct more hearings on the issue in the future.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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