In conservative states like Alabama, Georgia, and Utah—where medical-marijuana bills would have sputtered and died on the floor ten years ago—legislatures are now passing pot measures with nearly unanimous support. What gives?
"When you couldn't get bills introduced for a decade, and now they're passing like they're on grease tracks, something is up," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.
What's changed? In two words: poster children. That is to say, medical marijuana has been found to treat children suffering from epilepsy and cancer, creating powerful new advocates for the legislation.
"This is an entire phenomena that one could not have anticipated a year and a half ago," St. Pierre says. "Children are, in effect, the fulcrum."
The first poster child for the issue was Charlotte Figi. When Charlotte was 2 years old, she was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome—a rare form of epilepsy that caused near-constant seizures that couldn't be tempered by medication. By the time Charlotte turned 5, she was suffering 300 violent seizures every week.
Charlotte's parents tried a special diet and an array of medications, but the seizures always came back. Then, they found a video of a boy in California whose Dravet Syndrome was successfully treated with medical marijuana.
Of course, there are risks for consuming marijuana at a young age. Studies have correlated early marijuana use with stunted IQ later in life. But for Charlotte's parents, the potential benefits vastly outweighed the risks. After they put Charlotte on a small dose of cannabis oil, her seizures stopped for a full week. CNN reports that Charlotte is now thriving, with only two to three seizures a month. She can walk, feed herself, and even ride a bicycle.
Utah, which has a solidly Republican state Legislature and a Republican governor, is set to legalize medical marijuana for those with intractable epilepsy. The bill is unofficially called "Charlee's Law" after Charlee Nelson, a 6-year-old girl who suffered from Batten disease, which left her with crippling seizures. Charlee was one of the 50 children in Utah on the waiting list for cannabis oil.
Charlee's Law was voted through the state Legislature last Thursday with near-unanimous support. Charlee passed away on Saturday. Though cannabis alone would not have saved her life, it would have eased it significantly, and possibly extended it.
Facing strict federal laws banning medical marijuana, state legalization efforts have taken on a David and Goliath dynamic. Currently, cannabis is considered a schedule 1 drug. That means that, along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, cannabis is classified as having no medical value and a "high potential for abuse"—and, therefore, can't be prescribed.
But marijuana advocates argue that it's ridiculous to lump it in with harder drugs—they say marijuana does have medical value and is not addictive. Medical marijuana has, after all, been successfully used to treat other nervous disorders such as PTSD and to alleviate nausea associated with chemotherapy. Landon Riddle, a 3-year-old leukemia patient, has become the face of the medical-marijuana movement in Colorado since he started treating his severe nausea with cannabis.
Haleigh Cox, a 4-year-old girl in Georgia, also suffers from a disorder that causes 200 seizures a day. After hearing Haleigh's story, Rep. Allen Peake drafted a bill in the Georgia state House to legalize a form of medical marijuana. It passed 171-4. The Georgia state Senate will vote as early as Tuesday on the bill, after which it will go back to the House.
Similar efforts have been made in the New Jersey Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. The poster child for medical marijuana there is 2-year-old Vivian Wilson, whose father passionately argued with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and told him, "Please don't let my daughter die, Governor." Vivian's family has since moved to Colorado, where they can buy the drug legally.
St. Pierre says CNN's full-court press on the issue, including Dr. Sanjay Gupta's investigation into marijuana's medicinal benefits, have helped turn the cultural tide in favor of medical marijuana. He jokingly refers to CNN as the "Cannabis News Network."
"CNN in the last six months has generated mainstream media attention in a way that's unprecedented," St. Pierre told National Journal.
At the state and national levels, both parties are torn on support for legalizing marijuana—but the Republican Party may be having a full-on identity crisis. GOP lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul, who leans libertarian, have advocated to lessen legal penalties for marijuana, calling the War on Drugs unnecessary and expensive.
Meanwhile, conservative Republicans in the House have taken issue with the Obama administration's decision not to prosecute marijuana smokers in Colorado and Washington state, and have introduced legislation compelling Obama to crack down on states where marijuana is legalized.
Of course, the growing support for medical marijuana hardly means conservative states will be willing to fully legalize marijuana any time soon. But St. Pierre says it's a good sign for marijuana advocates. With medical marijuana's newfound benefits and increased media attention, states that wouldn't have touched the issue a few years ago are taking sympathy with sick children who desperately need medical treatment wherever they can find it.
And voters who may not have supported medical marijuana before are also having a change of heart. St. Pierre says the issue has taken a fascinating turn to the right, with parents taken aback by the idea that the government would withhold a potentially life-saving treatment from their children.
"The most powerful thing in American politics is an angry mother," he says.
This article appears in the March 18, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.