How Kids Are Bringing Medical Marijuana to the States

Children are now uniquely powerful advocates for medicinal pot across the country.

Drug of choice?
National Journal
Emma Roller
March 17, 2014, 1 a.m.

In con­ser­vat­ive states like Alabama, Geor­gia, and Utah — where med­ic­al-marijuana bills would have sputtered and died on the floor ten years ago — le­gis­latures are now passing pot meas­ures with nearly un­an­im­ous sup­port. What gives?

“When you couldn’t get bills in­tro­duced for a dec­ade, and now they’re passing like they’re on grease tracks, something is up,” says Al­len St. Pierre, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Or­gan­iz­a­tion for the Re­form of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. 

What’s changed? In two words: poster chil­dren. That is to say, med­ic­al marijuana has been found to treat chil­dren suf­fer­ing from epi­lepsy and can­cer, cre­at­ing power­ful new ad­voc­ates for the le­gis­la­tion. 

“This is an en­tire phe­nom­ena that one could not have an­ti­cip­ated a year and a half ago,” St. Pierre says. “Chil­dren are, in ef­fect, the ful­crum.” 

The first poster child for the is­sue was Char­lotte Figi. When Char­lotte was 2 years old, she was dia­gnosed with Dravet Syn­drome — a rare form of epi­lepsy that caused near-con­stant seizures that couldn’t be tempered by med­ic­a­tion. By the time Char­lotte turned 5, she was suf­fer­ing 300 vi­ol­ent seizures every week. 

Char­lotte’s par­ents tried a spe­cial diet and an ar­ray of med­ic­a­tions, but the seizures al­ways came back. Then, they found a video of a boy in Cali­for­nia whose Dravet Syn­drome was suc­cess­fully treated with med­ic­al marijuana.

Of course, there are risks for con­sum­ing marijuana at a young age. Stud­ies have cor­rel­ated early marijuana use with stun­ted IQ later in life. But for Char­lotte’s par­ents, the po­ten­tial be­ne­fits vastly out­weighed the risks. After they put Char­lotte on a small dose of can­nabis oil, her seizures stopped for a full week. CNN re­ports that Char­lotte is now thriv­ing, with only two to three seizures a month. She can walk, feed her­self, and even ride a bi­cycle.

Utah, which has a solidly Re­pub­lic­an state Le­gis­lature and a Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, is set to leg­al­ize med­ic­al marijuana for those with in­tract­able epi­lepsy. The bill is un­of­fi­cially called “Char­lee’s Law” after Char­lee Nel­son, a 6-year-old girl who suffered from Bat­ten dis­ease, which left her with crip­pling seizures. Char­lee was one of the 50 chil­dren in Utah on the wait­ing list for can­nabis oil.

Char­lee’s Law was voted through the state Le­gis­lature last Thursday with near-un­an­im­ous sup­port. Char­lee passed away on Sat­urday. Though can­nabis alone would not have saved her life, it would have eased it sig­ni­fic­antly, and pos­sibly ex­ten­ded it.

Fa­cing strict fed­er­al laws ban­ning med­ic­al marijuana, state leg­al­iz­a­tion ef­forts have taken on a Dav­id and Go­liath dy­nam­ic. Cur­rently, can­nabis is con­sidered a sched­ule 1 drug. That means that, along with heroin, LSD, and ec­stasy, can­nabis is clas­si­fied as hav­ing no med­ic­al value and a “high po­ten­tial for ab­use” — and, there­fore, can’t be pre­scribed.

But marijuana ad­voc­ates ar­gue that it’s ri­dicu­lous to lump it in with harder drugs — they say marijuana does have med­ic­al value and is not ad­dict­ive. Med­ic­al marijuana has, after all, been suc­cess­fully used to treat oth­er nervous dis­orders such as PTSD and to al­le­vi­ate naus­ea as­so­ci­ated with chemo­ther­apy. Landon Riddle, a 3-year-old leuk­emia pa­tient, has be­come the face of the med­ic­al-marijuana move­ment in Col­or­ado since he star­ted treat­ing his severe naus­ea with can­nabis.

Haleigh Cox, a 4-year-old girl in Geor­gia, also suf­fers from a dis­order that causes 200 seizures a day. After hear­ing Haleigh’s story, Rep. Al­len Peake draf­ted a bill in the Geor­gia state House to leg­al­ize a form of med­ic­al marijuana. It passed 171-4. The Geor­gia state Sen­ate will vote as early as Tues­day on the bill, after which it will go back to the House.

Sim­il­ar ef­forts have been made in the New Jer­sey Le­gis­lature, which is con­trolled by Demo­crats. The poster child for med­ic­al marijuana there is 2-year-old Vivi­an Wilson, whose fath­er pas­sion­ately ar­gued with New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie and told him, “Please don’t let my daugh­ter die, Gov­ernor.” Vivi­an’s fam­ily has since moved to Col­or­ado, where they can buy the drug leg­ally. 

St. Pierre says CNN’s full-court press on the is­sue, in­clud­ing Dr. San­jay Gupta’s in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to marijuana’s medi­cin­al be­ne­fits, have helped turn the cul­tur­al tide in fa­vor of med­ic­al marijuana. He jok­ingly refers to CNN as the “Can­nabis News Net­work.”

“CNN in the last six months has gen­er­ated main­stream me­dia at­ten­tion in a way that’s un­pre­ced­en­ted,” St. Pierre told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

At the state and na­tion­al levels, both parties are torn on sup­port for leg­al­iz­ing marijuana — but the Re­pub­lic­an Party may be hav­ing a full-on iden­tity crisis. GOP law­makers like Sen. Rand Paul, who leans liber­tari­an, have ad­voc­ated to lessen leg­al pen­al­ties for marijuana, call­ing the War on Drugs un­ne­ces­sary and ex­pens­ive. 

Mean­while, con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans in the House have taken is­sue with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision not to pro­sec­ute marijuana smokers in Col­or­ado and Wash­ing­ton state, and have in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion com­pel­ling Obama to crack down on states where marijuana is leg­al­ized.

Of course, the grow­ing sup­port for med­ic­al marijuana hardly means con­ser­vat­ive states will be will­ing to fully leg­al­ize marijuana any time soon. But St. Pierre says it’s a good sign for marijuana ad­voc­ates. With med­ic­al marijuana’s new­found be­ne­fits and in­creased me­dia at­ten­tion, states that wouldn’t have touched the is­sue a few years ago are tak­ing sym­pathy with sick chil­dren who des­per­ately need med­ic­al treat­ment wherever they can find it.

And voters who may not have sup­por­ted med­ic­al marijuana be­fore are also hav­ing a change of heart. St. Pierre says the is­sue has taken a fas­cin­at­ing turn to the right, with par­ents taken aback by the idea that the gov­ern­ment would with­hold a po­ten­tially life-sav­ing treat­ment from their chil­dren. 

“The most power­ful thing in Amer­ic­an polit­ics is an angry moth­er,” he says.

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