B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

One of many believers:  “Frank Smith,” who suffers from a disease that affects blood vessels in his brain, claims CBD oil helped him regain mobility. “I’m my own lab rat… Before, I could barely walk. Now I can walk across my home and back. I’ve come a long way.”

There’s a moment when Frank Smith holds his hands in the air, staring at you. His eyes go wide, and his expression seems to say, “Can you believe it? I can’t either.”

To most people, this kind of basic movement is not a big deal. But last year, Smith (not his real name) says he couldn’t hold up his arms at all, couldn’t shower himself or use the bathroom without assistance, and was nearly confined to his bedroom in his Wausau area home. It’s easy to see why this man is excited and amazed.

Last year Smith was diagnosed with a disease that affects blood vessels in the brain. The condition is debilitating, causing symptoms that can resemble strokes. Smith, who is in his mid-50s, says he the disease crippled his ability to take care of himself. He says he started seeing spots and geometric shapes.

After nothing else helped, Smith says he started taking CBD (cannabidiol) oil. The substance is made from hemp plants that contain only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychotropic compound in marijuana associated with “getting high.”

In Wisconsin, CBD oil has received the most attention for its use in treating epilepsy. Plenty of early-stage research on this hemp-based oil shows promise in reducing seizures, and anecdotes abound about the substance reducing symptoms of autism, according to a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But the gold standard research—double blind clinical trials with large sample sizes—are still in short supply. Sans that, there are plenty of people such as Smith, with a variety of conditions, who say “hey, it works.”

The problem? Both marijuana and hemp are cannabis plants. While the hemp plant is nearly free of the high-inducing compound THC, the link to marijuana means hemp and its CBD oil are illegal in Wisconsin. (CBD oil is available in states that allow medical marijuana, but is still scheduled on the controlled substances list at the federal level).

To allow medical use of CBD oil in Wisconsin, the state legislature passed what’s known as Lydia’s Law in 2014. Named after 7-year-old Lydia Schaeffer of Burlington, who died shortly after the law was passed, the law allows CBD oil to be legal when prescribed by a doctor to treat seizures.

Parents of children with epilepsy jumped for joy when Lydia’s Law started making its way through the Wisconsin State Legislature back then. Parents had the difficult choice of either possessing the oil illegally (buying it from a state where it is legal) or watching their children suffer. A few moved to Colorado to in order to avoid complications. It was largely due to parents’ lobbying efforts that the bill was introduced in the first place.

Unfortunately, last minute revisions added onerous restrictions that are keeping CBD out of reach. Most notably, only physicians approved by the Controlled Substance Board for trial usage can prescribe the oil. Obtaining this designation is such a complicated, uncommon process that few physicians were willing or able to go through it.

So even though Lydia’s Law in theory allows the use of CBD oil in Wisconsin, in practical terms, most patients can’t find a doctor who could prescribe it.

A new bill currently working through the Wisconsin state legislature addresses those logistical hurdles. Patients would be able to possess the CBD oil with a simple written certificate by a Wisconsin-licensed doctor to treat any medical condition, not just seizures.

Not everyone is happy about loosening the law. But proponents are hopeful the changes will make CBD oil treatment more of a reality for those who need it.

Possession technicalities

In the end, Lydia’s Law left parents and patients frustrated after such a great effort to get it passed. Lydia’s mother was among those lobbying for the bill.

The new bill to loosen provisions in Lydia’s Law passed the Wisconsin State Senate on Feb. 8. The proposed changes would remove the difficult restrictions on doctors who agree to help treat a patient with CBD oil. A patient (or the parent) could possess CBD oil as long as they have a written certification from a Wisconsin-licensed doctor that the substance is “treatment for a medical condition” (Lydia’s law now specifies only for seizure disorders). The bill also requires Wisconsin to reschedule CBD oil if the federal government does so, within 30 days.

According to the bill’s authors, this proposal in essence allows people to use CBD oil without fear of local or state prosecution—and it opens up possibilities for people like Smith, who have found relief with CBD oil for conditions other than seizures.

But it does not address the many federal hurdles, which make acquiring CBD oil illegal. The substance still cannot be produced in Wisconsin, and transporting any marijuana product across state lines is illegal under federal laws.

In other words, you might be able to use it legally, but you’d have to break other laws to get it.

In response to this paradox, Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) announced Wednesday, Feb. 15, that he and Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) are proposing a separate bill that would allow the production and distribution of CBD oil in Wisconsin by licensing individuals to manufacture it in the state. “We cannot keep writing out prescriptions without a way for families to fill them in Wisconsin,” Larson says in a press release.

How much trouble will a person get into now for possessing CBD oil? If it’s actually CBD oil, with no THC, and for medical purposes, probably not much. But many oils labeled CBD are actually hash oil made from the marijuana plant, and that will land you in the same hot water as possessing any illegal drug, says Wausau Police Captain Matt Barnes.

“Is it a ‘go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200’ kind of a situation? Not really,” Barnes says. “But we will likely refer charges to the district attorney’s office.

That said, CBD oil cases are very rare locally. In the past two years, Barnes could think of only one instance in Wausau where an arrest or request for charges was made in regard to CBD or hash oil. “We don’t have people calling us up saying ‘hey there’s a case of CBD oil you need to look into,’” Barnes says.

Lt. Randy Albert, head of Marathon County’s Special Investigations Unit, says Marathon County officers have never encountered CBD oil. They have come across hash oil, which will get a person high, and is often found among stashes of other illegal drugs.

Albert isn’t convinced legalizing CBD oil is a good idea. Until more research is done, he thinks the state should hold off. He’s also concerned it might clear a path for marijuana legalization.

That concern is valid. If the bill’s main purpose is to help Wisconsinites who need CBD oil for medical reasons, the next logical step is helping them obtain it legally—which would require allowing the cultivation and production of medical marijuana or hemp in Wisconsin

Like Wausau police, officers in Marathon County say they will follow whatever the law is.

So far, there have only been two cases in which local prosecutors charged someone for possessing CBD or hash oil, says District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon. Prosecutors take into consideration whether the person claims to be using the oil to treat an ailment and has medical documentation, and whether they possessed other illegal substances, Wetzsteon says. Most of the requests for charges sent to the DA’s office involving CBD oil also involved other drugs, she says.

Science and belief

One only has to hear the passionate pleas of someone like Sally Schaeffer, Lydia’s mother, to get a sense of the anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of CBD oil. Schaeffer once again traveled to the capitol in Madison to testify in front of a senate committee last month as it took up the proposed revisions to Lydia’s Law. Schaeffer conveyed numerous anecdotes from parents whose children have suffered from epilepsy and have used the oil to reduce painful and frightening seizures. Schaeffer held up photos of each child as she read the letters to lawmakers.

“Maybe you’ve seen me on coverage of my daughter’s funeral,” Schaeffer told the committee, “because after Lydia’s law was signed by the governor, she passed away less than 30 days later. My husband found her dead.”

But anecdotes aren’t science. A clinical review in the journal Epilepsy Currents from May 2015— whose authors include Adrienne Luebke and Barry Gidal of the UW School of Pharmacy—says that trials in animal studies have shown promise, and early clinical work does demonstrate that CBD oil and medical marijuana might reduce seizures. Nevertheless, the report says there’s not enough clinical research to truly call CBD oil an effective treatment.

According to the study’s authors, many clinical trials done so far were flawed; and without FDA approval, which would include standards for labeling and purity, consistency will continue to be an issue.

A double-blind clinical trial published in the journal Pharmacology showed that half of the epilepsy patients given CBD suffered no seizures during the trial period, while most of the rest experienced reduced seizures. No one showed any adverse affects from CBD.

That study’s authors conclude that CBD shows promise and further clinical studies should be pursued.

Requests for comment from Wausau-area medical providers about CBD oil were mostly declined.

But Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler, owner of Draeger Chiropractic and Laser Center in Weston, is keeping an open mind. He agrees that the research into treating epileptic seizures with CBD oil looks promising, though he points out that research on treating other ailments with the substance is much more sparse.

Ritzenthaler is a chiropractor and functional medicine practitioner (addressing prevention and underlying causes such as diet, environment, and lifestyle). If he could, he would have no problem certifying certain patients to use CBD oil. “As always, before I use any compound, or supplement, or nutriceutical, I always look into the research to look into both its effectiveness and safety.” Ritzenthaler says he hasn’t come across anything that would suggest the compound is unsafe.

The Wisconsin Medical Society and the Wisconsin Neurological Society both oppose the Senate bill.

Legislating change

The new CBD oil bill passed the Senate Feb. 8 with near unanimous, bipartisan support, 31-1. And to the criticism that it would ease the way for legalizing medical marijuana, at least some legislators are saying, “So what?”

Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) is one of those voices. Shankland voted in favor of a similar CBD oil legislation that came to the Assembly last session (it did not pass the Senate then) and co-sponsored the Assembly’s version of the current CBD bill. If it passes that chamber as expected, the bill goes to Gov. Scott Walker to sign it into law, or veto it.

The majority of states in the U.S. now allow medical marijuana. And in those states, deaths from opioid overdoses have dropped 25% compared to the 22 states which don’t yet have medical marijuana laws, Shankland says.

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) and Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) plan to introduce legislation that calls for medical marijuana to be fully legalized and requests a non-binding, statewide referendum on the issue. The move came after Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos signaled he might be open to such legislation.

Rep. Pat Snyder (R-Schofield) plans to keep an open mind. He supports the bill to make CBD oil more accessible, and says he’s open to the idea of putting legalized medical marijuana to a statewide referendum.

Of CBD oil use, “This should be between a doctor, the parents and their child,” Snyder says. “Some people are saying, ‘oh no, it’s marijuana,’ but until they have a child facing these kinds of seizures… If this oil can help them, I’m all for it.”

Snyder says he’s also open to a bill that would allow industrial hemp production, which could greatly boost Wisconsin’s economy.

“I’m my own lab rat”

For people like Smith, the finer points of clinical trials and research reviews aren’t as important as the results they see through their own use— or at least claim to. Smith claims he started gaining mobility shortly after taking his first amount of CBD oil, and showed a reporter two bottles that he currently possesses.

Smith is unable to work, and lives in a very modest home in the Wausau area. The CBD oil, which currently is illegal for him to use it would seem, costs about $50 for a small bottle. “I’m not afraid of the law. I’ll take it to the Supreme Court,” he says. Smith says he’s never once felt high from taking CBD oil, and credits it for helping him regain enough mobility to at least take care of himself.

“I’m my own lab rat,” Smith says. “Before, I could barely walk. Now I can walk across my home and back. I’ve come a long way.”