WASHINGTON — Standing in a Wisconsin State Capitol hearing room surrounded by parents hugging their seriously ill children, Sally Schaeffer began to cry as she talked about her daughter.
Born with a rare chromosomal disorder, 6-year-old Lydia suffers from life-threatening seizures that doctors haven’t been able to control despite countless medications. The family’s last hope: medical marijuana.
Schaeffer, 39, didn’t just ask lawmakers to legalize the drug. She begged.
‘‘If it was your child and you didn’t have options, what would you do?’’ she said during her testimony in Madison on Feb. 12.
The representatives were so moved that they introduced a bipartisan bill to allow parents in similar situations as Schaeffer to use the drug on their children.
Emboldened by stories circulated through Facebook, Twitter, and the media about children with seizure disorders who have been successfully treated with a special oil extract made from cannabis plants, mothers have become the new face of the medical marijuana movement.
Similar scenes have been playing out in recent weeks in other states where medical marijuana remains illegal: Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Utah, New York, North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky.
The ‘‘mommy lobby’’ has been able to open the doors to legalizing marijuana — if only partly in some places — where others have failed.
In the 1970s and 1980s, mothers were on the other side of the issue, successfully fending off efforts to decriminalize marijuana with heartbreaking stories about how their teenage children’s lives unraveled when they began to use the drug.
Mothers have long been among the most powerful constituent groups in the United States, and the reason is clear.
Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving are able to draw so much public support because they tug at a universal human emotion: the desire to protect children from harm.
And while national gun control efforts after the Sandy Hook massacre faltered, mothers’ groups worked to keep the issue on the public radar, helping to get some new measures passed at the state level.
Today, mothers are fighting for access to the drug, and they have shifting public attitudes on their side. For the first time, most Americans in opinion polls say they support full legalization of marijuana.
Last year, Colorado and Washington state made marijuana fully legal, and there has been a groundswell of support in several states for ballot initiatives or legislation to do the same, including some in the conservative South.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The diseases and conditions for which it can legally be used are limited and vary by jurisdiction. Most states have additional requirements for children: Instead of one prescription, parents must get two from different doctors.
The drug the mothers are seeking is an extract that contains only trace amounts of the part of the plant responsible for the euphoric effect of the drug but is still high in cannabidiol, or CBD, which scientists believe may have an ability to quiet the electrical and chemical activity in the brain that causes seizures. The liquid is mixed in food or given with a dropper.
The prospect of treating large numbers of children with this substance has alarmed medical organizations and antidrug groups that say the potential dangers of prescribing an untested and unregulated treatment for young children are being lost in the conversation.