How Kids Are Bringing Medical Marijuana to the States

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

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National Journal
Emma Roller
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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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