A bill that would have opened the door to treating more things with marijuana was slammed shut after testimony by health officials, with the state health director and surgeon general maintaining that the drug causes harm.
House Bill 1150 would have allowed doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for 13 additional illnesses and conditions beyond the ones approved by voters in 2016. State Rep. Douglas House (R – North Little Rock) led about a dozen people in testimony in favor of the expansion. Many emotionally relaying their medical history.
“Please, please add traumatic brain injury to your list. I'm begging you to please add it,” said one woman who tearfully said a riding accident left her with severe anxiety disorder that marijuana allowed her to overcome. As her time wrapped up before the House Rules Committee, she thanked them and rushed out of the room.
A man in a wheelchair said medical cannabis is the only thing that works to relieve pain in his extremities. A mother of a grown child with autism said current medications left her son addicted to methanfedamines and suicidal. Yet another man said he had multiple sclerosis and that marijuana allowed him to continue playing the saxophone despite stinging pain in his hands.
The arguments are familiar to many of the lawmakers on the committee, but they then heard from the state’s two highest ranking doctors.
“There has been research done,” said Dr. Greg Bledsoe, the state surgeon general on the debate of how much is unknown about marijuana despite rapid legalization in recent years. “There hasn't been research done that proves that marijuana helps these illnesses, but there has been a lot of research done that shows we're inducing harm in patients by giving them marijuana."
He echoed remarks made by Dr. Nathaniel Smith, the director of the state Department of Health. An hour after the meeting, that department issued an advisory warning of risks from cannabis, particularly smoking marijuana. It pointed to an 11% addiction rate among users, a lack of knowledge about the active chemical in the plant, THC. Other points included studies showing increased psychiatric disorders and a host of problems with brain development in young people who take the drug.
Dr. Smith, an infectious disease specialist, singled out a problem rising out of treating Hepatitis-C, an illness on the currently approved list.
“We also now know that daily marijuana use actually accelerates the rate of fibrosis of the liver,” he said. “It actually makes the disease more rapidly.”
After about an hour of testimony, no member of the committee made a motion to approve or reject the bill, effectively halting its progress.
“The committee has been asking for feedback and the feedback they want are studies,” Rep. House said. “[The health department] doesn’t have that kind of money for those studies. So if those are the conditions that anything has to be done, nothing’s going to change.”
“People are so angry with this state,” said Melissa Fults, a longtime marijuana advocate and president of the Drug Policy Education Group. “They have completely ignored what the people said, and from here I think now we need to try and get recreational marijuana here.”
Rep. House was surprised to hear governor Asa Hutchinson was opposed to his bill.
“The reservation I have is that we are just now implementing the program and making medical marijuana available, and before we expand the program, we need to have more experience with it,” the Republican governor said. “The existing legislation is broad enough that a physician who sees a legitimate need has the ability to issue a prescription. Rep. House has been a real leader in this area, and I respect his work tremendously. However, I do have concerns with regard to broadening the program.”