Commentary: Scientific, Evidenced-Based Policy and Marijuana

Commentary: Scientific, Evidenced-Based Policy and Marijuana

Scientific, evidenced-based policy. When I am operating in a policy area that is not one of my primary areas of expertise, I always ask first for scientific, evidence-based research. Whether from doctors, scientists, or social scientists, this is where I start to bring together my values and reality into how I vote on an issue. Over time as new evidence is discovered or proven, it means that my positions sometimes evolve. One of the areas this has happened is in the way we treat marijuana. While I have always been open to medical marijuana as prescribed by a doctor, the evidence is mounting that we need to reconsider the way we treat this substance.

In the past I have voted against decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and other measures related to the substance; however, I have consistently voted for studies on the matter of medical marijuana and decriminalization. In the past several sessions, we have seen narrowly drafted pieces of legislation that allow certain cannabis oils and products to treat very specific medical conditions, like epilepsy. I met young children who are survivors of serious medical conditions — some of which have only been made bearable by the use of cannabis oil or other by-products. I have seen legislation that allows for specific illnesses to be treated by specific marijuana-related products. While each and every time we legalize a non-harmful treatment that can make the lives of children and adults better, to lessen their suffering, I am glad we claim victory.

To take that a step further this year, after a year of study, the Joint Commission of Healthcare released their study that resulted in the bipartisan HB1251, which states “a practitioner may issue a written certification for the use of cannabidiol oil or THC-A oil for the treatment or to alleviate the symptoms of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner.” I am very happy to be a co-sponsor of this bill. However, as more and more research is available, it makes me wonder if we are going far enough.

A step forward year after year, is one of the most heartening things you can see as a legislator. When there are victories for Virginians, there is always enough credit for everyone — especially since no one person is responsible for changing the law like this. But even as we work to get this legislation passed, I have to go back to my initial thought… the evidence-based research. The evidence here is that we should trust doctors… it is the same principle as when I talk about women’s healthcare, of which I have been a strong advocate. I think that while we have been making positive steps year over year, it is time to reconsider the larger issue of marijuana. My preference if for the federal government to take action to update laws surrounding the legality and use of marijuana for the country as a whole, but as they fail to do so in a reasonable way, it may be time for our state to act in more than a piecemeal way around the edges of a larger issue.

While I have been tepid in the past of lessening restrictions on marijuana use, this year I cast the lone vote to allow a very moderate decriminalization bill out from subcommittee to a full hearing in the Courts of Justice Committee. It struck me that we may be getting stuck in old patterns using old data, and that in the end an issue this large and with so many people vocal on both sides deserves a full public hearing. While I am still taking steps forward on the issue of marijuana outside of its medical uses, I welcome input from my constituents. I always want to be using the facts, and evidence-based scientific research as well as pushing forward the viewpoints of the people I represent.

Charniele Herring represents Alexandria City’s 46th District in the Virginia General Assembly where she serves as House Minority Caucus Chair and on the Courts of Justice, Counties, Cities, and Towns, and Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committees. Follow Herring online at