Although Missouri lawmakers are not clamoring to legalize marijuana, key Republican lawmakers appear ready to follow a few states in allowing use of a cannabis extract for people whose epilepsy isn't relieved by other treatments.
Legislation is advancing in the Missouri House, where a committee could hold a public hearing and vote this week. Recently filed legislation is backed by the Republican House speaker, majority leader and Democratic leaders. It also is supported by a Republican senator whose son has epilepsy. Sponsoring Rep. Caleb Jones said lawmakers are moving quickly.
"People realize that people's lives are at stake," said Jones, R-Columbia.
About a dozen states have considered legislation seeking to allow use of cannabidiol oil for patients who have seizures. Cannabidiol, also called CBD, is a compound in cannabis but doesn't cause users to feel high. During the past week, the South Carolina House approved a bill and Wisconsin lawmakers sent a measure to Gov. Scott Walker. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed legislation allowing the University of Alabama at Birmingham to study the marijuana extract while giving participants legal protection from state criminal charges.
There has been particular attention on oil from the marijuana strain Charlotte's Web bred for an epileptic patient in Colorado. It is high in CBD and has little or no psychoactive effects. There is a waiting list, and patients must live in Colorado where marijuana is legal.
The Marijuana Policy Project said CBD oil is relatively new. The Washington-based advocacy group doesn't oppose the state efforts but says there are other health problems for which cannabis also can help.
"It's an easy sort of rallying point, but the problem is that it leaves behind the vast majority of patients who would otherwise benefit from medical marijuana," said Chris Lindsey, legislative analyst for the group.
Missouri's legislation would allow use of "hemp extract" with no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and at least 5 percent CBD. Patients or their parents would need a registration card, and it only could be used for epilepsy that a neurologist has determined isn't responding to at least three treatment options. The state Agriculture Department could grow plants, and universities could be certified to cultivate them for research.
"This is one to me that is kind of a no-brainer," said Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County. "You can't get high on it. It can help some families."
Schmitt's 9-year-old son, Stephen, has intractable epilepsy and daily seizures. Infantile spasms started when Stephen was about 9 months old and his first big seizure came when he was a little older than 1. Medications have helped but not stopped them.
Schmitt said he is uncertain whether CBD oil is an option but that families should have access if it can provide relief to people going through dozens or hundreds of seizures daily.
One Missouri family looking for relief for a sick child is heading to Colorado to find it.
June Jessee turns 2 years old later this month. Her parents, Matt and Genny Jessee, said they have tried everything they can legally to stop seizures that they estimate occur at least 20 times daily. June has taken 10 seizure medications, adopted a special diet, tried alternative therapies like chiropractic care and seen a homeopathic doctor. She also has other health problems, but it is unknown how they are connected.
Doctors suggested retrying medicine that already failed to stop the seizures, and the family instead is moving. Matt Jessee is a lobbyist at Bryan Cave in St. Louis.
Genny Jessee said CBD oil isn't guaranteed to work but likened it to trying other medications or treatments. She said it doesn't make sense families go through so many hoops for something that could prove lifesaving.
Missouri's bill sponsor got to know Matt Jessee when they both worked on President George W. Bush's 2004 campaign and stood next to him at Matt's wedding.
Even if Missouri lawmakers legalize CBD oil quickly, it will not stop the Jessee family from going to Colorado. But they hope it could allow them to return to Missouri.
"June is developing now. We don't have a few years," Genny Jessee said. "While it's a great step in the right direction, we still have to go there now to get it for her. We don't have time to wait."