INDIANAPOLIS – Brian Bennett thought oil extracted from marijuana plants to treat children with severe epilepsy, like his son, might just be legalized this year.

A proposal sailed through the Indiana House, carried by some conservative Republicans, without a single vote in opposition.

But Bennett’s hopes were dashed Tuesday, when a Senate committee stopped the measure in light of opposition from prosecutors who likened it to legalizing medical marijuana.

“This is ‘reefer madness,’ ” said a frustrated Bennett. “We shouldn’t be making decisions based on scare tactics.”

Backers of the measure, amended into a larger bill clearing the way for research of industrial hemp, had reason for optimism. Over the past two years at least a dozen states have legalized the use or study of the non-psychoactive marijuana extract known as cannabidiol, while keeping in tact bans on medical marijuana.

“I’m against medical marijuana,” said Rep. Don Lehe, R-Brookston, author of the Indiana bill. “That’s not what this legislation was about. It’s about creating some relief for children in need.”

Bennett saw it that way. His 7-year-old son, diagnosed with epilepsy as a toddler, has seen relief from chronic seizures after taking a cannabidiol-rich oil recommended by a family doctor. The Bennetts obtained the oil only after moving from Indiana to Colorado, where marijuana is legal for recreational and medicinal use.

Cannabidiol is derived from hemp, the part of the cannabis plant that is low in the THC compound that gives marijuana its intoxicating kick. The national Epilepsy Foundation has called for it to be made available to all seizure patients, although there’s little formal research into its effectiveness.

That’s in part because the federal government has yet to recognize the medicinal value of marijuana – no matter the form. The government also bans the shipment of cannabidiol oil across state lines.

So families including the Bennetts would be violating the law if they ordered cannabidiol from suppliers in other states or brought it across state lines.

Lehe’s bill would have exempted non-psychoactive hemp substances from Indiana’s marijuana laws provided that they were “part of certain medical treatments.”

That language was supported by Rep. Steve Davisson, R-Salem, a pharmacist who tried early this session to get fellow legislators to create a registry for parents seeking to obtain cannabidiol for their epileptic children, to mitigate concerns about the drug's illegal use. His bill failed.

“This is not about medical marijuana. It’s far from it,” said Davisson, who like Lehe opposes legalizing marijuana even for medicinal use.

But Lehe’s legislation was still a step too far for the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, which has long opposed efforts to ease marijuana laws and pushed to kill the cannabidiol measure.

St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak cited unanswered questions about the bill’s potential impact.

Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, offered a compromise which won support. She’s asking to send the issue to a summer study committee for a deeper look.

“It’s the only way I could save the bill,” Leising said.

A nurse by training, Leising expressed sympathy for parents. But she also cited concerns by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that producers of cannabidiol oil make unsubstantiated claims about their products’ ability to treat disease.

In February, the FDA issued warnings about the use of cannabidiol after it found that some products claiming to contain the substance in fact had very little of it.

“I’m concerned that some state legislatures that are getting ahead of the science,” Leising said. “I want people to have relief, but I don’t want them to do anything that could harm their child.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Indiana newspapers. Reach her at mhayden@cnhi.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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