Treating young children with medical marijuana isn't common, but it's happening, and increasingly often. Several US states that have legalized the drug to some degree also allow it as an alterative treatment for kids and even toddlers with epilepsy—namely, as you may have guessed, Oregon, Colorado, and California. Now Illinois may be next on the list.
An Illinois House committee recently approved a measure for the use of medical marijuana to treat children with epilepsy, The full House will now vote on the bill, which comes on the heels of similar legislation in the works in Wisconsin, Florida, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.
To learn more about this controversial trend, I decided to talk to a California doctor who commonly treats children with cannabis, Bonni Goldstein, MD, the Medical Director at the marijuana technology company Ghost Group. Goldstein explained to me how the treatment works.
The endocannabinoid system in the brain is what registers the psychoactive effects of pot on the brain, and is also the system that regulates the level of activity in the brain's neurotransmitters, which are responsible for various psychological processes. In patients with epilepsy, these neurotransmitters are "firing all the time," Goldstein said. Cannabidol, or CBD—one of 60 active cannabinoids in the cannabis plant—can help.
"By taking these canabanoids from the plant, you are triggering that endocanabinoid system and telling it to turn down the volume," said Goldstein.
For hundreds of families, it's a miracle treatment. But the idea of treating kids with weed is still incredibly controversial.
Goldstein said she's seen great success with CBD oil—about 70-75 percent of her patients saw a reduction in seizures, according to her early data. She pointed to a 2013 National Institute of Health study published in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior that found similar results: 16 of the 19 children treated with CBD had decreased symptoms of epilepsy, and in two cases the epilepsy disappeared completely.
But most of the powerful evidence is anecdotal; there are scores of success stories from families with children suffering from epilepsy. I spoke with the mother of one of Goldstein's patients, Genesis Rios, who told me her son suffered from seizures all day long until she started the CBD treatment. Now, the boy can now go two weeks without having a seizure, she said.
"It's been basically a miracle," Rios told me. "He was having seizures 24 hours a day, even when he was sleeping, and none of the medications worked. Nothing worked, not even surgery."
For hundreds of families, it's a miracle treatment, and epilepsy isn't the only example. Austria has prescribed medical marijuana to kids with autism. In the US, cannabis has been used to treat young kids with leukemia, as VICE reported last year:
But the idea of treating kids with weed is still incredibly controversial. Some question the validity of the treatment, and the problem is there is very little research to prove the alternative medicine is safe and effective.
Marijuana is classed as Schedule 1 drug, which makes it very hard to get federal approval for scientific studies—it often means weeding through even more red tape than other Schedule 1 drugs like LSD or MDMA.
In response to a Minnesota bill to legalize the alternative medicine for kids, a children's hospital in St. Paul said in a statement: "The scientific evidence for routine use of marijuana is severely lacking. This lack of information does not mean that marijuana is ineffective, but because there are no clinical trials to rely upon ,we do not know if it is a safe and efficacious treatment. Additionally, we do not know what the long-term effects of using marijuana in infants and children are."
But we're seeing signs that the tide is changing. "The the American Medical Association has been pressing the Feds to reclassify cannabis to something other than a Schedule 1 drug, a move that would instantly lift a lot of the barriers to research," wrote Motherboard's Brian Andersen.
For instance, in March the US Public Health service approved research-grade cannabis be studied as a potential treatment for PTSD. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved a study "to evaluate whether purified cannabinoid is effective in treating severe forms of childhood epilepsy that do not respond to standard antiepileptic drugs."
Research aside, others simply aren't comfortable with the idea of kids using marijuana. Some groups in Illinois are fighting the legislation worried that giving medical marijuana to children hurts drug prevention programs. A city in the San Diego area recently threatened criminal charges against a nonprofit that was providing the treatment to 800 kids.
But Goldstein and other advocates argue that cannabis is actually much safer for kids than existing pharmaceuticals used to treat seizures, which can cause "liver failure, aplastic anemia, regression of behavior and growth and development," she said. She also pointed out that the marijuana industry has come a long way, and you can now find clean, organic and pesticide-free cannabis products for medical use.
"When they're on these cocktails of pharma meds, they're drug addicts."
Rios told me that her son appeared "drugged out" all the time when on traditional epilepsy drugs, but with CBD oil, "He's actually more alert than he's ever been before."
At the Illinois House committee meeting, Margaret Storey said her "daughter is stoned every single day" from traditional, FDA-approved medication prescribed by her doctor, the Chicago Tribune reported. "When they're on these cocktails of pharma meds, they're drug addicts," said another advocate and parent, Adam Frederick.
Many parents are strongly advocating for the cannabis oil treatment; the most common version is called 'Charlotte's Web,' derived from a strain of weed that's particularly rich in CBD but only contains trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive component of weed—the part that gets you high.
There's also a growing migration of families traveling or moving to states that allow cannabis oil be prescribed to kids.
Democracy Now wrote last week about a family of marijuana "refugees" that moved from Virginia to Colorado to treat their nine-year-old daughter suffering from hundreds of seizures a day with cannabis oil. There's a months-long wait list for patients looking to get their hands on the Charlotte's Web oil.
"More than 100 families have moved to Colorado Springs in recent months to obtain the oil, and mothers have launched lobbying efforts in many states to legalize medical marijuana for conditions such as epilepsy," the Virginia-based Reporter wrote today.
At the same time, more places are considering relaxing medical marijuana laws, specifically to treat children with epilepsy.
The Florida Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to legalize the Charlotte's Web strain of cannabis to treat epilepsy last month; Philadelphia Gov. Tom Corbett recently reversed his position and came out in favor of treating epileptic children with the cannabis oil; and last week an 11-year-old with a severe form of epilepsy became the first child in New Zealand to be prescribed cannabis.
Until recently, the war on drugs has hindered our ability to understand the possible benefits such a multifaceted plant can have. But there's a movement to change that, championed by the medical professionals who have seen the positive results firsthand, even in children.
"More research is needed, and cannabis should be removed from [being a] Schedule 1 controlled substance," said Goldstein. She said she wants the government to understand how huge an impact the drug can have in the lives of suffering patients and families.