By ANNA GRONEWOLD
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers gave initial approval Monday to a measure that would allow certain patients who suffer from severe seizures to use a form of marijuana as part of a medical study.
Senators by a vote of 33-1 approved the bill by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue to commission a University of Nebraska Medical Center study on the effectiveness of cannabidiol, a cannabis extract, in treating severe epileptic seizures.
The move comes less than a week after the legislature gave preliminary approval to a broader medical marijuana bill. Crawford’s measure would go into effect immediately after being signed into law, which supporters said would offer an expedited but limited way to expand treatment options for families who need it most.
The bill would authorize neurologists to treat patients using cannabidiol, a low-THC version of cannabis, through October 2019. The drug would be available to neurologist-approved patients who suffer from intractable seizures and have exhausted at least three other anti-seizure treatments.
Crawford said the study would help establish scientific evidence on the effectiveness of the drug, but it will be up to future legislatures to decide how to proceed after the study concludes.
“It could very well be that in the next four years from now we don’t need this kind of pilot project because this substance is available through the ordinary prescription process,” Crawford said.
Supporters, including a group of senators who met with families using the drug in Colorado as part of an interim study last summer, say there are children in Nebraska with debilitating seizures whose families have exhausted other federally approved treatments and are now desperate for options.
Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis said he hopes the bill’s passage will send a message to the federal government to speed up approval processes for similar drugs.
Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue, who sponsored the bill to allow a broad medical marijuana program in the state, called the two measures a “multi-pronged attack.” If passed, Garrett’s bill would allow the Department of Health and Human Services up until December 2016 to activate the medical marijuana program. Both Garrett and Crawford said that’s not soon enough.
“This one will get a limited number of children some near-term relief, and my bill will go even further,” Garrett said.
Nebraska would obtain cannabidiol from GW Pharmaceuticals. The U.S. Federal Drug Administration has authorized the company based in England to provide the drug for rare diseases.
The only no vote, Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha, said he believes Nebraska could use results from other states that have authorized similar studies. Ten states passed cannabidiol studies last year and a handful of others are considering similar legislation in 2015. Riepe said by legalizing the substance before knowing its full effects, the legislature falls into a dangerous role of playing doctor.
But after a lengthy debate on the broader bill last week, most other conservative senators jumped to back Crawford’s bill, which would draw from an existing health care fund, rather than the legislature’s general funds.
Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, who has been a harsh critic of medical marijuana this session, said he believes the cannabidiol study eliminates the potential for young people to abuse the drug because it contains very low levels of THC, the compound responsible for the marijuana high.
“Under this study it would be controlled; it would be organized; it would be very systematic,” Williams said. “I am very comfortable with it happening that way, and hopefully people will be helped.”
While Gov. Pete Ricketts has vocally opposed legislative legalization of marijuana, he does support FDA-approved studies of marijuana for medical purposes, according to his spokesman, Taylor Gage.