RICHMOND, Va. -- A Virginia mother and teacher, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (M.S.) five years ago, is advocating for a change in Virginia law that would allow people with severe medical conditions to use cannabis oils prescribed by a doctor.
Tamra Netzel, who lives in Alexandria, was a teacher for 16 years, and thought she would continue working in the job she loves despite her diagnosis.
"My legs might go, I can still teach in a wheelchair. I have a cane some days; I have a wheelchair some days. That's fine!" Netzel said.
However, last March her doctors said her prescription medications were causing her liver to fail and her symptoms of M.S. were becoming more severe. After speaking with a friend, Netzel said she began using cannabis oil, medication derived from a marijuana plant that does not cause psychotropic effects.
"It's amazing. It worked like nothing else did, but I couldn't deal with the fact that I would have to break the law to be able to feel well," she said.
In 2017, then Governor McAuliffe signed new legislation that allows patients with severe forms of epilepsy to use cannabis oil to alleviate symptoms, but advocates say the law stops there. SB 726 and HB 1251 would allow Virginia doctors the option to prescribe cannabis oil to patients for "any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner to benefit from such use."
State Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R - Henrico), an OBGYN by trade, said medical researchers continue to find new uses for medical marijuana. As that research continues to evolve, Dunnavant said Virginia physicians, not lawmakers, should be the gatekeepers who would and would not benefit from cannabis oil.
"In some of these chronic illnesses and cancer treatment, we use poison to help people," Dunnavant said. "We don't need to be coming back to the legislature every year for legislators who are not subject matter experts to be reviewing what the latest data is and deciding if there is a medical indication. That's something that needs to sit with doctors."
"Cannabis is bad. I believed that myth until it really matter to me," Netzel said.
Both the House and Senate versions of the cannabis oil legislation have passed through committee assignments practically unopposed. Dunnavant said she feels attitudes among her colleagues surrounding cannabis oil have evolved in recent years.
Critics of cannabis oils argue there has not been enough research into side effects the prove using the oils over the long term is safe and that its medicinal effectiveness is over blown.