MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama legislature on Wednesday voted to decriminalize medicinal marijuana oil possession.
In a 95-4 vote in the House of Representatives and a 29-3 vote in the Senate, legislators supported a bill supporters say is a bid to help families struggling with debilitating medical conditions.
Though derived from cannabis, cannabidiol doesn't cause a high like marijuana due to reduced amounts of the psychoactive property tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Proponents say it can help alleviate severe seizures, among other conditions.
"This is an opportunity to give some sunlight to families," said Sen. Paul Sanford, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. "They don't want to feel like criminals, but they know they need to try something like this."
Kari Forsyth's daughter Chesney was born with cerebral palsy. Now 11, Chesney is wheelchair bound, has had brain surgery in an attempt to control daily seizures and was given a limited prognosis three years ago.
The Forsyths on Wednesday watched as the House voted in favor of the bill. Forsyth grew emotional afterward as she described how traditional medications made Chesney lethargic, and how she hopes CBD oil might enable her to walk again.
"I just hope she has more quality of life," Forsyth said.
The legislation, nicknamed Leni's Law, follows a similar bill in 2014 that established a CBD oil medical study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
But certain federal regulations led to restrictive qualifications for the study, disqualifying many potential candidates and leaving families still struggling for relief.
Leni Young, the legislation's namesake, suffered a stroke in-utero and was diagnosed soon after birth with an epilepsy condition and a rare form of cerebral palsy. Multiple medications helped rein in hundreds of daily seizures, but rotted the toddler's teeth and made her lethargic.
After Leni was turned away from the UAB study, the Young family moved to Oregon where she could legally access CBD oil. The Youngs continued to advocate for CBD oil decriminalization alongside a community of Alabama families seeking improved "quality of life" for their children.
"Our daughter was alive before, and she's living now," said Leni's mother, Amy Young, in a phone interview Wednesday night. "She just giggled in my lap."
Amy Young said CBD oil's effect on her daughter was beyond her "wildest dreams."
"She's progressed further than we were ever told was a possibility for her," Amy Young said. "I can't wait to watch our friends' children progress."
The House passed a similar version of Rep. Mike Ball's bill two weeks ago, but that bill only allowed up to 1 percent of THC in the CBD oil. Sanford's bill restores THC levels to 3 percent, which Sanford said was "significant" for the families he'd heard from.
At a public hearing in March, a pediatrician speaking on behalf of the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said she believes 3 percent THC is too potent for children's developing brains.
Dr. Shannon Murphy said physicians are also concerned with the medicinal use of non-FDA regulated products.
The UAB study examining Epidiolex, a pharmacy-grade oil that contains .2 percent THC, is ongoing.
Approximately 50 percent of patients saw "sustained improvement in seizure control," according to a report UAB released in March. Two patients are currently seizure-free.
In the Senate Wednesday, two legislators expressed concern that the legislature was overreaching its expertise.
"I believe this is far too experimental," Republican Sen. Phil Williams said. "It's not matured to a point where the legislature should be acting on it. We're basically standing in the shoes of doctors by saying it's the right thing to do."
Republican Sen. Dick Brewbaker, himself a parent of a disabled child, said he doesn't believe there are "severe" negative side effects for people with profound disabilities.
"If it gives people hope, some relief and just a sense that they're able to do something for their children, that's not a whole lot to ask of us," Brewbaker said.
Leni's Law now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley.