BISMARCK – On some nights, Tracy Vearrier thinks about going to Colorado to get cannabis oil, driving the speed limit and dodging police dogs on his way back to Bismarck just to see if the drug will stop the seizures that afflict his 12-year-old daughter Paige.
“We do not ask for a medication to make our kids walk, talk, call me Daddy,” he told state lawmakers Wednesday as Paige, who was born with her intestines outside of her body and is unable to walk or talk, sat half-asleep in the wheelchair beside him. “We just ask for her to be content.”
Vearrier and other parents of children with debilitating and terminal medical conditions shared emotional testimony Wednesday in support of legislation that would make North Dakota the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana.
“We do not want to make our kids high,” Vearrier, a 37-year-old physician assistant, told the House Human Services Committee. “We want to make their quality of life better.”
But North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said House Bill 1430 raises numerous concerns about regulation and public safety and is “far from ready for enactment.”
“The bill and its amendments create a new and really dangerous method to deliver what purports to be a prescription medication,” he said.
The bill would allow patients and caregivers to possess a certain amount of cannabis or products such as cannabis oils, beverages, vapors and pills, for medical use.
Rep. Pamela Anderson, D-Fargo, who introduced the bill, offered amendments Wednesday that would reduce the cannabis possession limit from 2½ ounces to 2 ounces, clarify that smoking pot is a non-medical use and delay the law’s effective date to June 30, 2016.
People who have obtained a prescription for medical marijuana also would be allowed to cultivate up to six marijuana plants, with an amendment allowing for three or fewer plants mature enough to produce a usable form of marijuana.
Anderson said she introduced the bill at the request of a Fargo constituent who suffers from pain and neuropathy and felt that medical marijuana was a better alternative than oxycodone and morphine. She noted that neighboring Montana and Minnesota are among the 23 states that have legalized it.
“This is a quality of life issue, not a drug issue,” she said.
Ashley Riggs, whose two oldest sons, Landon, 8, and Blake, 5, were diagnosed in April 2010 with Sanfilippo syndrome, a terminal and progressive genetic condition, said currently available prescription medications are hit-and-miss.
In states where medical cannabis is legal, children suffering from the seizures, movement disorders and anxiety caused by the syndrome have seen symptoms reduced dramatically, the Minot mother said.
“Our children deserve to live their lives as comfortably and happily as possible. They have already been handed what is, in essence, a death sentence,” she said. “To know there is an alternative medicinal option out there that we are barred access from seems unacceptable to me.”
Dr. Joan Connell, a Bismarck pediatrician and president of the North Dakota chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the bill is unnecessary because the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is already available in the prescription drug Dronabinol, which has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Connell said allowing local growing of marijuana “makes regulation of production as well as consistency of dosing impossible.” More research is needed to determine if medical marijuana is effective in treating the conditions parents described Wednesday, she said.
State Health Officer Terry Dwelle also testified against the bill, saying it would take an “astronomical level” of resources beyond the Department of Health’s current capacity to decide which serious medical conditions should be added to those listed in the bill as eligible for treatment with medical marijuana – a list that includes cancer, glaucoma, HIV and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The bill’s fiscal note, prepared by the Health Department with input from Stenehjem’s office, says the department would need to add about two-dozen full-time employees for registration and enforcement. Revenue from fees for medical marijuana registration cards and other fees would offset nearly $3.9 million in costs.
Stenehjem said the bills’ exemptions from prosecution for the possession, manufacture or sale of medical marijuana would limit law enforcement’s ability to enforce drug laws and is a step backward in the state’s efforts to combat impaired driving. He cited statistics from Colorado showing traffic fatalities involving drivers who tested positive for marijuana increased 100 percent from 2007 to 2012, when medical marijuana was legal but before recreational marijuana was legalized there.
“The effect of the passage of this bill … is going to send us in the opposite direction, and people will die because of it,” he said.
Committee member Rep. Dwight Kiefert, R-Valley City, indicated he hadn’t seen enough evidence of marijuana’s medical value.
“I think we should wait until we have positive research,” he said.
“I would like to see North Dakota be a little more proactive than waiting on that,” replied Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.
Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.