FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers took another key step Wednesday toward legalizing a medicinal oil derived from marijuana or hemp as an option to treat severe childhood seizures.
The bill, once seemingly a long shot, cleared the House Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support and now heads to the House floor — where it's backed by the chamber's top leader. The measure has already passed the Senate.
If it becomes law, the measure would represent a limited breakthrough for medicinal use of a derivative of marijuana, a plant banned in the state decades ago.
The House panel advanced the bill after hearing from an eastern Kentucky woman who wants her son to be treated with the non-intoxicating oil, which would be administered orally under the tongue.
Rita Wooton held up a photo of her 4-year-old son Eli and a plastic bag filled with drugs that she said have not worked in treating Eli's seizures. The family made more than two dozen trips to Cincinnati last year to have her son treated, resulting in mounting medical bills and related costs, she said.
The measure offers a chance for a new treatment without having to take her son out of Kentucky to legally gain access to the drug, she said.
"I honestly thought six months ago that we were going to have to seek medical refuge in a different state," Wooton said. "But now it's looking like you all are standing up for us."
Advocates say thousands of Kentucky children suffer from severe seizures targeted by the bill.
Republican Sen. Julie Denton of Louisville said her bill appears on track to clear the General Assembly.
"I'm pleased to know that the General Assembly has been very thoughtful and taken time to learn about this issue and has cast a vote that is going to mean an awful lot to families in Kentucky who suffer with this horrible disease," she said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo later predicted the full House will vote on the bill in coming days.
"I think that thing is going to pass," said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. "I'm going to vote for it."
The bill would specifically allow use of cannabidiol, which is derived from hemp plants. Marijuana is a form of hemp.
The substance would be allowed when recommended by doctors practicing at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville research hospitals. The oil also would be exempt from the definition of marijuana when used in Federal Drug Administration-approved studies.
Denton said the medicinal substance in question can be derived from marijuana and from industrial hemp.
Hemp is starting to make a comeback in Kentucky. The new federal farm bill allows state agriculture departments to designate hemp research projects in states like Kentucky that allow the growing of hemp. State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has announced pilot hemp projects.
The state's hemp crop could someday become a source for the medicinal oil, Denton said.
The benefits could be widespread for adults as well as children suffering from severe seizures, though debate on the bill has focused on the plight of children. The measure could have broader applications under the strict guidelines set out in the legislation, Denton said.
The House committee amended the bill to name the proposed law after a baby girl who suffers from seizures. Because of that change, the bill would have to return to the Senate for another vote if it clears the House.
Denton said the bill's narrow scope has reassured lawmakers who might have been skeptical at the outset.
"We're not opening the barn door and letting just anything and everything through," she said. "We're very specific with this piece of legislation, and I think that gave legislators a level of comfort."
A much broader bill to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky cleared a House committee earlier in the legislative session but was then referred to another committee, where it is still pending.
The legislation is Senate Bill 124.