Medical cannabis has finally taken root in the Deep South. On Thursday, Alabama's State Legislature unanimously passed “Carly’s Law,” a measure that will make cannabis-derived medicine available to severely epileptic children as part of a university-led research study. The bill, which Governor Robert J. Bentley has said he will sign into law, will also shield patients and their caregivers from prosecution for unlawful possession of marijuana in the state, provided they have “a debilitating epileptic condition and use or possess cannabidiol (CBD) pursuant to a prescription authorized by The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Neurology.”
Which means Carly’s Law doesn’t actually legalize medical use of marijuana in its raw form — instead, it allows certain doctors to prescribe a non-psychoactive, high-CBD extract of cannabis with less than 3% THC. The legislation also provides $1 million from Alabama’s education trust fund to support a five-year study of pediatric epilepsy patients who are given CBD medicine.
CBD is one of more than 80 unique chemical compounds found naturally in cannabis, and has shown tremendous efficacy as an anti-seizure treatment, among many other therapeutic uses, while providing no “high” to users. International researchers have been studying CBD as a medicine for at least three decades, but most Americans learned of its existence last August, when CNN aired a documentary that showed concentrated CBD to be over 99% effective in stopping the seizures of a six-year-old girl for whom all other remedies had failed.
That broadcast sparked a literal migration of epileptic children. Families relocated to Colorado from across the country in search of a marijuana miracle, which in turn generated more and more interest within the epilepsy community.
Meanwhile, in the small Birmingham suburb of Pelham, Alabama, Dustin and Amy Chandler thought about moving to Colorado too, but ultimately decided to find a way for their three-year old daughter Carly, who suffers from an extremely rare form of epilepsy called CDKL5, to get CBD legally without having to relocate. Prior to CNN’s special, no neurologist had ever so much as mentioned CBD to them as a way to potentially control Carly’s severe seizures, which typically come several times a day.
“Once we learned CBD was an option, we kept on asking about it, but our doctors really just couldn’t discuss it at that time,” Dustin Chandler told VICE News. “So I think the University of Alabama-Birmingham researchers must be really excited, because now they can actually study this, and hopefully even investigate treatment options for disorders beyond epilepsy.”
The law does not specify who will produce the CBD medicine prescribed to patients, but one option would be finding a legal way to transport the Charlotte’s Web oil featured on CNN directly from Colorado to Alabama. There’s also a federally-approved clinical trial underway at multiple US university hospitals using Epidiolex, a cannabis-derived CBD anti-seizure medicine made by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British corporation with ties to the world’s largest drug companies.
Politics As Unusual
Back in November 2013, Democratic State Representative Patricia Todd became the first lawmaker to champion Carly’s Law in the legislature, after meeting with the Chandlers and seeing firsthand the pain and suffering endured by their family.
Todd, the only openly gay elected official in Alabama’s history, had previously sponsored a bill to fully legalize recreational marijuana in Alabama, including home cultivation — a mostly symbolic effort that never made it out of committee. This time she recruited fellow Representative Allen Farley, a Republican with more than three decades of law enforcement experience, to take over sponsorship of the bill in the House and win conservative support.
“Parents with severely ill children shouldn’t have to sell everything they own and move to Colorado,” Farley told VICE News after the bill’s historic passage. “Most of these patients are kids like Carly, who’s three years old and has taken eight different FDA-approved drugs. Some so strong it says right on the label that the pills could kill you. A number of these kids are on hospice because their next seizure might be fatal. And then you read about CBD having an incredible success rate while causing absolutely no harm to anybody.”
After meeting families from all over Alabama with severely epileptic children, Farley and his wife Muriel became deeply passionate about the issue, personally researching the science behind cannabis and CBD, while working tirelessly to convince skeptical colleagues in the legislature. Muriel would gather parents and their afflicted children in the statehouse, and then go from office to office cajoling lawmakers to meet with them, if only briefly.
“She told them, ‘You need to go look into the faces of these children.’ ” Farley said.
Support grew in both parties, but the votes to pass Carly’s Law still didn’t add up. So Farley, Todd, the Chandlers, and their supporters threw a public rally to put pressure on those still opposed.
“It breaks my heart because we can help children right now,” Patricia Todd told a crowd of hundreds in Carly’s hometown. “By the end of next month, we could have the oil available. It could decrease seizures, and increase quality of life, and the only thing stopping it is 35 people in the Senate. We’re running out of days in the Legislature, and these kids don’t have another year to wait.”
Farley said the turning point came when both the University of Alabama and the Speaker of the House threw their weight behind the effort. He then felt sure they had the votes, but still worried that partisan rancor in the statehouse would prevent passage of the bill. The critical vote came well after midnight, on one of the legislative session’s final days.
“It’s 2 AM, and the speaker calls my name and the bill.” Farley recalled. “I go down to the podium, and I’ve got my iPad under my arm, ready to pull out my talking points to answer any oppositional questions. Then I looked around that chamber, and said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring to you this morning Senate Bill 174, Carly’s law.’ And the cheering was like being at a college basketball game or the Super Bowl. The chant went up, ‘Vote! Vote! Vote! Vote!’ ”
After tearing up at the unexpected show of unity, he finally returned home to his wife around 3:30 AM. Farley recalled thinking, as they lay in bed, that “this is just the first chapter of a book that’s going to be miracle, after miracle, after miracle.”
He described working with his wife to pass the law as part of their Christianity. “God created this Earth, all of it, and everything that’s on it,” he said. “And the Bible tells us that if God created something, it’s good. Now, there are some miraculous uses for this plant, that a lot of the population has seen as coming from the Devil himself. It has divided people, and caused people to be imprisoned or lose their homes and families. And do you think that maybe in all our feeble attempts to do things, it’s somehow taken us this long to figure out why God put this plant on the Earth? Because I think there’s a real possibility people will start to say, ‘You know, there's a lot of bad things we’ve heard about people who use marijuana, but it just might be that something good can come out of this plant.’ ”
Follow David Bienenstock on Twitter: @pot_handbook
Photo via Flickr