ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- When California voters passed Proposition 215 in November, supporters proudly declared the state to be in the vanguard of the medical marijuana movement.
In fact, at least one other state got a head start - by nearly two decades.
Without a whiff of controversy, the Virginia Legislature passed a law in 1979 allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana to treat glaucoma and to help cancer patients cope with the side effects of chemotherapy.
The law was passed as a small part of a sweeping overhaul of the state's drug laws. For years, it sat on the books virtually unnoticed by anyone in an official capacity, from the the state Board of Medicine to the attorney general.
Moving to repeal law
It was only after California voters approved Proposition 215 that the existence of the law came to light. Now, legislators are moving rapidly to repeal the law, something that is likely to happen in less time than it takes to grow a marijuana plant.
"I don't want people who, having found out that this law is on the books, will misconstrue it to think that we think it is a good idea to smoke marijuana," said Jay Katzen, a representative in the Virginia House of Delegates who wants to outlaw the use of marijuana for any purpose.
After being merged with a similar bill proposed by Del. Robert Marshall, Katzen's legislation was sent by committee to the floor of the House last week.
"We have one of the most liberal laws in the country, passed not by a referendum but by the Legislature," fumed Marshall, a former aide to former Rep. Robert K. Dornan, the conservative from Orange County, Calif., ousted in November by Democrat Loretta Sanchez.
Marshall said what concerns him most is that the Virginia law allows any doctor, not just those licensed in his state, to recommend the use of marijuana.
"You could have someone in California phone in and recommend to someone in Virginia that they take marijuana," said Marshall. "The people of California would have decided this issue for the people of Virginia, and that is what upset me."
Repeal almost certain
Repeal of the law is almost certain. Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House "drug czar," who is leading the attack against Proposition 215 in California, has strongly endorsed the repeal drive, as has the Virginia Medical Society, which represents 7,000 doctors.
"For a very conservative state, this is a radical piece of legislation," said Ann Hill, speaking for the Medical Society. She said the majority of physicians had no idea it was on the books, but now that they do, they want it off. "With all the flap that is going on, and because of the potential abuse of the law, they have decided it should be withdrawn," said Hill.
Medical experts say few physicians have availed themselves of the opportunity to prescribe marijuana.
"We do have patients who are using marijuana for medical purposes, but I don't know of any physicians who are recommending it," said Billy Martin, a pharmacologist at the Medical College of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
In any case, he and others say that any doctor who prescribed the drug would have been doing so in violation of federal laws that prohibit the use of such so-called Schedule I drugs as marijuana and heroin.
Martin, who has done animal research on the effects of marijuana and its synthetic derivative THC since the early 1970s, said there are better alternatives to marijuana.
"For a physician in modern medicine to say someone should smoke marijuana for nausea and vomiting is pretty ludicrous," he said.
That's not the view of Dr. William Regelson, a professor of medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, who conducted government-approved research in the 1970s on the benefits of THC for cancer patients. He was the driving force behind the legislation, which passed with barely a ripple.
"No one was panicked," he said. "Everyone felt that cancer patients deserved what we as physicians thought was appropriate."
Pub Date: 2/02/97