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Welcome to Pediatric Cannabis Therapy
Medical marijuana brings relief for sick kids in Michigan but the treatment is controversial
LANSING -- Rebecca Brown says she tried every prescription drug she could find to control the frequent seizures her son suffered because of a severe form of epilepsy.
When nothing worked consistently, and the drugs and special diet caused kidney stones and pancreas problems as side effects, the Oakland County woman turned to medical marijuana.
Now, Cooper Brown, 14, is one of 44 Michigan residents younger than 18 with a medical marijuana card. His mom says his seizures have dropped off dramatically since he started using it early this year.
But the treatment is controversial. Marijuana -- medical or otherwise -- is illegal at the federal level and some doctors say it shouldn't be used by adults, let alone children. A lack of clinical studies means there is uncertainty about its effects on developing brains and nervous systems.
Though still in middle school, Cooper is not the youngest child on the state's medical marijuana registry. A 7-year-old, two 9-year-olds, an 11-year-old, and a 13-year-old can also legally possess and consume medical pot in Michigan.
State officials won't disclose the children's medical conditions. They say they don't know whether the kids smoke the drug or take it some other way, such as in a baked good, a liquid extract called a tincture, or by using a vaporizer.
Parents say they've successfully used medical cannabis to treat their kids for Dravet Syndrome, which Cooper has, as well as autism, attention deficit disorder, muscular dystrophy, and the pain and nausea of cancer, among other ailments.
Brown said she would never let Cooper smoke marijuana. Instead, he eats it in food she prepares for him.
Brown would not identify her supplier but said she searches out cannabis that laboratory tests show is low in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the compound which provides the marijuana high, but with elevated levels of a lesser-known compound, CBD (cannabidiol), which has antiseizure properties.
Brown said in an interview with the Free Press that she might face criticism for going public but hopes she can help even one family lessen the stress and suffering that she and her family have endured.
"This isn't something we entered into lightly," Brown said. "I've done a lot of reading and a lot of research. I have everything tested.
"I am not a pot smoker and never in a million years thought of trying this," she said. "But when your child is suffering and you feel desperate, you consider things you may not have before.
"Parents, when their kids are healthy, they take it for granted."
Brown first had to convince her skeptical husband. Because Cooper is younger than 18, Michigan law required her to get not one, but two doctors -- Cooper's pediatrician and his neurologist -- to sign off on him using it.
Like Michigan, most states that have legalized medical marijuana don't require users to be at least 18. Only Delaware, and now Connecticut, which this month became the 17th state to legalize it, have such a requirement, said Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Tom George, a practicing physician and former Republican state senator from Kalamazoo who voted against Michigan legalizing medical marijuana in 2008, said there are no absolutes in medicine but an effective prescription treatment is almost always preferable to herbal marijuana.
Michigan, which has more than 130,000 adults on its medical marijuana registry, should amend its law so the drug can be used only for a limited number of specific conditions -- not any time a doctor gives the OK -- he said.
George, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for governor in 2010, said his concerns are heightened when it comes to use by children, though he's not sure that should be banned.
"I don't think we know in growing nervous systems what effects it might have," George said.
In the case of the Brown family, "I like the fact that he's not smoking it," and "it sounds like she's done her homework," George said.
"It's hard to know what to say based on anecdotal cases."
The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't have a policy on medical cannabis, though it's working on developing one, officials said.
Nearly three-quarters of Michigan medical marijuana users who are minors are either 16 or 17 years old. Similar high school-age concentrations of underage users in other states have prompted concerns about students using medical marijuana cards to supply the drug not just to themselves, but to their friends.
It's a worry even for some proponents of medical pot, such as the Eugene, Ore., man who writes the Weed Blog under the pen name Johnny Green.
"I think it's kind of unusual that in a part of the country where there's a high prevalence of abuse of the program, there's also a high prevalence of teenagers getting their medical marijuana cards," Green said, in reference to Oregon.
Green, 31, who would not give his real name and said he uses medical cannabis to treat his tendinitis, said minors should face stricter controls than adults in getting medical marijuana cards. He said he likes the fact that Michigan, unlike Oregon and most other states, requires not one, but two doctors' signatures.
Farmington Hills attorney Robert Mullen, spokesman for the Michigan chapter of the National Patients Rights Association, which favors testing requirements and improved controls over medical marijuana, said he also favors Michigan's two-doctor requirement.
As for concerns about the long-term effects of medical cannabis on young patients, "there's a cost-benefit analysis to any form of treatment," Mullen said.
Prescription drugs also can have long-term adverse effects, and "here's someone who's run the full gamut of Western medicine and it's not working, so she's trying something that's an organic treatment," he said.
Though Cooper is small for his age and is in a special education class when he attends school, he is at the high end of the spectrum for youngsters with Dravet Syndrome. He likes to play video games, cook and hang out with friends, and he has verbal skills that many with the same condition lack.
Rebecca Brown said she decided to try medical cannabis for her son after she saw a YouTube video about Jason David of Modesto, Calif., who said he believes the drug saved the life of his son Jayden, 5, who also has Dravet Syndrome and only recently began speaking a few words.
"My son had a seizure every day of his life," David said in a telephone interview. "He was crying in pain every day." Since he started giving the boy an oral tincture of high-CBD cannabis, "he's been doing amazing," and "now he can go a week without having one and when he does, it's not nearly as severe."
Brown said she takes Cooper's medical cannabis to Iron Labs LLC in Walled Lake where it's tested not just for CBD content but for herbicides and other harmful impurities.
She said she's concerned about continuity of supply because high-CBD cannabis was hard to find in Michigan and it would be illegal for her to import it from another state.
"One day a few weeks ago I didn't give him any medicine and that day he had five seizures," said Brown, who uses Facebook to reach out to other moms with sick kids.
"To me, it's not a drug issue, it's a compassion issue," Brown said.
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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