By Haley Dover
MONTPELIER – Shelly Waterman was looking for a miracle that could cure her daughter’s seizures.
Her daughter Hannah, 13, has neurological disorders. She has experienced seizures multiple times each day for most of her life. Two years ago, doctors diagnosed her with a rare and severe type of epilepsy that causes various types of seizures.
“We’ve been on five or six, maybe seven different pharmaceuticals, all in combination,” Waterman said. “None of which are able to say you are going to be seizure free.”
Hannah had gone three days without a single seizure, her mother said one afternoon in early September. Waterman of Burlington attributes this improvement to the combination of pharmaceutical drugs and a type of hemp oil from Colorado.
The oil product, Charlotte’s Web, is made from cannabis which is high in cannabidiol, or CBD, but low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Waterman said.
THC is a chemical compound found in marijuana products, which produces a feeling of euphoria in users.
Because of the oil’s low THC levels, the product can be shipped from Colorado.
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell wrote in an April memo that residents should not fear prosecution for possessing hemp oil products. The oil can provide some therapeutic benefit in treating seizure disorders, he noted.
New regulations regarding medical marijuana could provide the option for dispensaries in Vermont to cultivate hemp for symptom relief.
The Legislative Committee on Administrative Roles met for a second time Thursday to discuss the proposed regulations. The committee has postponed any decision on the rules until an Oct. 12 meeting to allow the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Marijuana Registry, to make grammatical changes and clarify definitions.
New this year is the option for dispensaries to grow cannabis plants with a THC level of 0.3 percent or less. Strains of cannabis with low THC levels qualify as hemp under Vermont law, and can be commercially traded in the state.
This law could allow for Vermont medical marijuana dispensaries to enter the therapeutic hemp oil market, and offer Vermonters the choice of purchasing a local product, said Lindsey Wells, program administrator for the state’s Marijuana Registry.
“We’re not trying to limit their options for hemp oil,” Wells said, referring to all Vermonters. “We want it to be available here.”
The cultivation of hemp is currently overseen by the Agency of Agriculture, Wells said. The new regulations will apply only to the four marijuana dispensaries in the state. Farmers who grow hemp for agricultural purposes would remain under the jurisdiction of the agriculture agency.
Dispensary managers interested in growing hemp would be required to submit a proposal to the Department of Public Safety, according to a draft copy of the rules. Managers would be required to list the proposed hemp strands that would be dispensed, updated plans for record keeping, inventory and quality control and the type of barrier that would be used to prevent unauthorized access or visibility to the product.
Shayne Lynn, executive director of Champlain Valley Dispensary and Southern Vermont Wellness, said he doesn’t grow any plants with less than 0.3 percent THC.
“I just don’t have the time,” he said.
Since he opened his first medical marijuana dispensary in June 2013, demand for products has eclipsed Lynn’s five-year business plan.
Vermont patients have sought medical marijuana treatment at a higher rate than the projections of lawmakers who crafted the original medical marijuana legislation.
Lynn’s dispensaries, located in Burlington and Brattleboro, offer products with various levels of THC and CBD, but none are low enough to be given to children, he said. The lowest THC levels found in the dispensaries are 1 or 2 percent.
He said staff at his facilities are on the hunt for strains of cannabis plants that are similar to the plants used to create the hemp oil that Waterman orders from Colorado.
That involves donated seeds that Lynn germinates, grows and tests to find the correct ratio of THC and CBD.
But even if he found the correct strain, it takes a whole lot of hemp to create any oil, Lynn said.
Andrea Stander, executive director of the advocacy association, Rural Vermont, echoed Lynn’s thoughts.
“No one is producing CBD oil yet because the infrastructure doesn’t exist,” she said.
The Agency of Agriculture allowed farmers and dispensary managers to begin growing hemp in 2014. So far, 20 people are registered to grow hemp in Vermont, including Netaka White, co-founder of Full Sun, a Middlebury-based company that makes craft sunflower and canola oils.
White said he has about a quarter acre of hemp this year. By 2017, he hopes to plant over 100 acres and begin producing Vermont-grown hemp oil.
He believes in the nutritional value of hemp oil and has purchased and ingested it for years. His current plan is to produce nontherapuetic hemp oil, but White said if he saw a need in the market to grow hemp for a medicinal purpose, he might consider the option.
Still, he has reservations.
“I wouldn’t want to jump through the hoops that a dispensary has to,” he said. “The Department of Liquor Control doesn’t monitor a corn farmer because his corn might be turned into whiskey.”
Hemp and the medicinal benefit
Waterman said that her daughter has been on a “pharmaceutical merry-go-round.”
Hannah was diagnosed Rett Syndrome at age 2. The genetic neurological disorder is found almost exclusively in girls and can affect their ability to speak, walk, eat and breathe, according to rettsyndrome.org. When she was 11, Hannah was given a second diagnosis of Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, a rare and severe type of epilepsy.
One of Waterman’s friends and former co-workers, Annie Galloway, told Waterman about a mother in Colorado that was using cannabis oil to treat her daughter’s seizures.
Waterman thought getting her hands on the medicine seemed like an unobtainable goal, she said.
“I knew nothing about this, absolutely nothing,” she said. “I was thinking ‘oh my god are we going to have to set up a hookah room?'”
There had to be a catch, Waterman remembered thinking. She went to Colorado herself to see what the fuss was about.
“My husband and I needed to know — if this is something that can really help her, I need to see it,” she said.
Galloway, the family friend, was already living in Colorado and working with Realm of Caring, a nonprofit organization that provides support services and resources for people using cannabanoid products. She opened her home to Waterman and introduced her to families who could talk about their experiences using the hemp oils and extracts.
“There’s that perception that it’s a miracle drug, so people say they don’t believe in it,” Galloway said. “This plant is meant to be consumed by people and the best way to consume it is in it’s raw form.”
Creating oils is great for children, she said, adding that the oils are nonpsychoactive because of the low THC levels in the oils. Galloway said it’s critical that people understand the difference between the hemp oils and traditional marijuana.
“I think the perception in a lot of the public is that you smoke this and it’s high in THC and we shouldn’t give that to kids because that’s bad,” she said. “I think we need to legalize it so we can study it, and people can have safe access to it.”
To Waterman, supplementing Hannah’s medication with the hemp oil is no different than combining three or four medications together. While Hannah’s day-to-day wellness can be bumpy, Waterman said she has been taken off of one pharmaceutical completely since starting to use the oil.
Waterman said the decision to start Hannah on the oil was well thought out and included many of her physicians.
“Even though this path is unconventional, our physicians were supportive and active in our efforts to gather info,” Waterman said. “All are cautious and would prefer more research be done in this area but have supported us all the way and are learning along side of us.”
She advocates for Vermont to take the next step to approve the cultivation of hemp for oils at the state’s dispensaries.