How Virginia Turned Around On Medical Cannabis

Photo Credit: Liz McCall McCauley

It began with parents of children with epilepsy, who met with legislators to discuss using cannabis as medicine.

In 2015, a bill that would allow an affirmative defense for epileptic patients to possess cannabis oil with a two-year sunset clause passed, explains Nikki Narduzzi, patient coalition director of Cannabis Commonwealth.

Families then asked legislators to provide protection for industries to produce the cannabis in Virginia. The families returned the following year to make sure the bill would continue, and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed it into law in 2017.

During this time, Virginia NORML was beginning to advocate an expansion to the conditions list. Legislators wanted them to provide the efficacy of each condition, a near impossible task, says Narduzzi, who was advocating with Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML.

The Joint Commission on Health Care came back with numerous recommendations, including:

Do nothing.

Add only the top conditions.

Create a medical advisory panel to provide the efficacy of each condition.


Let doctors decide.

The patron of the bill in 2017 was Rep. Sen. Jill Vogel. Vogel’s bill was an expansion to the conditions list with 12 conditions. She was willing to amend it down to two conditions – a daunting task –  to get it passed, but it died in the House Criminal Law Subcommittee. Rep. Sen. Ben Cline was one of the yes votes on the subcommittee.

During this time, Rep. Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a physician who supported Vogel’s bill, sat on the Joint Commission on Health Care and was able to explain to the commission why doctors should decide and not legislators.

In 2018, Cline would patron the House bill that, for the first time, would pass the House Criminal Law Subcommittee and move on to the Senate floor.

Dunnavant told Vogel she’d continue the fight and would become the chief patron of the Senate bill that passed unanimously on Feb. 5 allowing doctors to recommend medical cannabis oil for any condition or disease.

A huge surprise for advocates, said Narduzzi, was Rep. Sen. Dick Black, who changed his no vote to a yes. When it was over, Dunnavant walked up to Black and gave him a hug.

“Virginia will set historic public policy by becoming the first state legislature to expand a hyper-restrictive medical cannabis program from a single qualifying condition to any diagnosed condition,” said Delegate Mark Levine, co-patron of Let Doctors Decide.

Virginia’s novel approach to medical cannabis will serve as a model to states that have adopted limited-access policies.