JEFFERSON CITY • Measures to loosen restrictions on the prohibition against cannabis received some bipartisan support during hearings in the Missouri House and Senate today.
A proposal to legalize medical marijuana got some bipartisan support during a Senate hearing and in the House, lawmakers expressed interest in a measure to allow industrial hemp farming in the state.
The Senate bill would set guidelines for the legal use of marijuana for medical uses after recommendation by a physician. Bill sponsor Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, said the complete prohibition on marijuana was an “unsustainable and unwinnable” war.
Holsman said he favored legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana but that medical marijuana was an incremental step to move the law forward.
“What we are doing is trying to provide an avenue for a citizen to not be a criminal when they choose to use medicine in the privacy of their own home,” Holsman said.
Several relatives of individuals with medical problems they said were most effectively treated or controlled with marijuana testified in support of legalizing medical marijuana. Brandy Johnson, whose son was born with cranial duplication and suffers from frequent and severe seizures, said the most effective treatment so far has been oil extracted from cannabis plants.
The oil is sold by Dixie Botanicals, contains no THC and is legal in Missouri.
“He hasn’t had any relief,” Johnson said. “I’m here as a mother because we’ve exhausted all legal treatment... I think that we should have the right to all available treatment.”
Committee members were more receptive to the idea of medical marijuana than lawmakers at a House hearing last month on a bill to regulate marijuana like alcohol. Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said he supported legalizing marijuana for medical use. A physician, Schaaf said he’s had patients who have illegally used marijuana to help control nausea and pain.
After questions about how marijuana might be used by a patient – smoked, vaporized, eaten, as an oil – Schaaf cautioned against narrowing how medical marijuana could be consumed. He said there could be benefits from different methods for different people.
Brad Bates, the lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons, said the testimony in support of the legislation was very convincing. He said the group was concerned about possible liability for physicians who recommend medical marijuana, since it has never been tested or approved by the FDA.
Schaaf pointed out that other natural supplements are not regulated by the FDA but are frequently recommended by doctors.
Committee chairman Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, cautioned against expecting swift action from the Legislature on the issue of medical marijuana or legalization.
“Missouri is a very conservative state and if anything is going to happen with this it’s going to be a baby step,” Nieves said.
Another hearing today dealt with the issue of industrial hemp, a strain of cannabis low in THC that can be used to produce food, textiles, fuel and plastics. Several members of the House committee for economic development expressed bipartisan support for the idea of legalizing hemp production in some way.
Rep. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, said she was interested in the proposal and viewed the hearing as an opportunity to learn more about industrial hemp.
The farm bill passed by Congress in February allows hemp farming in states where it has been legalized but only for research purposes. The United States imported $11.5 million in legal hemp in 2011. That does not include finished hemp products, but the Hemp Industries Association estimates the total retail value of hemp products in the U.S. for 2012 was almost $500 million.
Ten states have laws allowing industrial hemp farming and several have authorized research or studies on the issue.
Bill sponsor Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said allowing industrial hemp farming was not a step toward legalizing marijuana use. He said they were completely different products and that the bill took guidance from the federal government definition of hemp. It must contain less than 0.3 percent of THC.
“It would be like smoking a piece of paper,” Colona said.
The bill gives the authority to the state’s agriculture department to regulate hemp farming by issuing licenses and then tracking and inspecting any hemp plants. Rep. Lyndall Fraker, R-Marshfield, said he was interested in the potential benefits for farmers but wanted to be sure it didn’t make it easier for people to grow marijuana mixed in with hemp plants.
Colona said permitting and regulation by the department or other regulations should be able to prevent abuse.
“I want to take the road that slowly, conservatively, allows our Department of Agriculture to follow what the federal government is doing,” Colona said. “It’s not an end-run to legalization or recreational drug smoking.”
Although Colona’s bill focuses on hemp for production purposes, which could include food products or supplements, it may not rule out low-THC strains of cannabis for medical uses. Paige Figi, the mother whose daughter the “Charlotte’s Web” strain of cannabis is named for, testified in support of the industrial hemp.
Colona said his proposal did not rule out the use of cannabis plants that met the definition in the bill. Figi’s daughter had more than 300 severe seizures each week. Charlotte responded well to a specific strain of cannabis which contains high amounts of cannabidiol (CBD). Figi said the strain would meet the definition of hemp in Colona’s bill because it was extremely low in THC, which is the chemical that actually causes a person to get high.
Figi now helps run a non-profit to sell the oil extracted from Charlotte’s Web plants to people with severe seizures and other medical conditions. She said there are about 8,000 people on the waiting list.
“I do see this helping hundreds and hundreds of children,” Figi said. “I urge you to consider these patients when you are considering industrial hemp, consider these very time-fragile children.”
Leslie Holloway, government affairs director for the Missouri Farm Bureau, testified against the industrial hemp bill. She said members were concerned about the potential for illegal activity and that they'd heard those concerns from law enforcement officials.
None of the bills relating to medical marijuana, marijuana legalization or industrial hemp have been voted on in a committee.
(Colona's bill is HB 2054 and Holsman's bill is SB 951.)
Marie French is a reporter in the Jefferson City bureau. You can follow her on Twitter @mre545.