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Laetrile bill would make drug illegal in Arizona

Rep. John Kavanagh (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

John Kavanagh

A veteran lawmaker says the time has finally come to tell Arizonans they can’t legally use cyanide as a cancer treatment.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said it was a mistake for lawmakers in the 1970s to decide it’s OK to sell laetrile in Arizona despite the fact that it is illegal under federal law. More to the point, Kavanagh said repeal would send a message that Arizona’s drug laws are based on science and not on politics.

At issue in HB 2028 is laetrile, also known as amygdalin and vitamin B17.

Arizona law makes it illegal to manufacture, sell or even give away a drug unless it has been approved by the federal government.

In the 1970s, however, lawmakers approved an exception for laetrile, calling it a “nutritional supplement.” The argument at the time was the drug, processed from apricot pits, was an effective treatment for cancer, one the federal government refused to recognize.

The American Cancer Society says it contains a substance the body converts to cyanide and there have been reports of poisoning.

But the state law permitting its manufacture and sale remains. And Kavanagh said it’s time to undo all that.

“Laetrile was exempted during a time when it was thought about in some non-medical circles to be a cancer cure, which was proven to be tragically false,” he said. Kavanagh cited actor Steve McQueen who, suffering from lung cancer, was undergoing laetrile and other treatments when he died in Mexico in 1980.

“It was put on for non-medical purposes and consequently should be removed,” the lawmaker said of the statute. “The legality of drugs should be decided by science, not politics.”

It was that philosophy that drew Kavanagh to the issue in the first place.

The senator said he was totally unaware that laetrile was legal in Arizona until 2013 when he was pushing a measure to ask voters to repeal the 2010 ballot measure that legalized marijuana for medical use. His argument at the time was that Arizona should not be allowing its residents to use drugs that had not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

When the exception for laetrile was pointed out, Kavanagh said that, to be consistent, he would seek repeal of that, too.

Those efforts, however, have run into opposition from some lawmakers who have argued that people should be free to decide what is appropriate for themselves. Most recently, Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, refused to give the bill a hearing in the Senate Health Committee she chaired.

Both Kavanagh and Barto are moving to the House this year.

But Kavanagh could wind up with the same roadblock: Barto is in line to chair the House Committee on Health and Human Services.

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