By Lex Talamo
PHOENIX – A Michigan panel recently recommended adding autism as a qualifying condition for children to use medical marijuana.
If the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs approves the petition, Michigan will become the first to allow marijuana for children under the range of developmental disorders, which can involve language and social impairments, and repetitive behaviors.
“When the vote passed the panel, this huge weight lifted in my heart,” said Carolyn Gammicchia, executive director of the non-profit L.E.A.N. On Us and former president of the Autism Society of Michigan. “We are seeing a shift. People are realizing what’s been done isn’t working.”
Gammicchia, whose son has autism, said that Risperdal – the only approved drug for treatment of autism in children – can cause side effects like dramatic weight gain associated with onset of juvenile diabetes and hormone imbalances. Gammicchia said she believes parents of children with autism should have the option of treating their children with medical cannabis.
“Marijuana is a natural substance that has never been shown to harm anyone,” Gammicchia said. “I think we have to be cautious, but I think this is an exciting time. It seems better than the drugs that have been used to treat kids in the past.”
Dr. Jeanne Lewandowski, director of palliative medicine at St. John Hospital and Medical Center, said she voted against qualifying autism in a 2013 hearing because of a lack of valid scientific evidence.
“Whether or not marijuana could potentially benefit people is not the issue,” Lewandowski said. “The way our current law is written, my role is to evaluate the strength of a petition based on the scientific evidence presented and then make a recommendation.”
Lewandowski added that Michigan law is specific about how to approach adding qualifying conditions: Petitioners need to present at least three pieces of scientific-based evidence.
But many of Michigan’s pediatricians and neurologists support the petition.
“I am so convinced that this is the answer,” Dr. Christian Bogner said. “I have seen it with my own eyes. I have a patient with a child with severe autism, and after 45 minutes of this, they got their child back.”
Annette Crocker, a registered nurse practitioner at Michigan Holistic Health, said many doctors support adding the autistic spectrum to the list of qualifying conditions because of the aggressive and potentially dangerous behaviors that often accompany autism. Crocker also said that adding autism would not make medical marijuana available to all children.
“We know it’s not for everyone, but this gives parents of children with severe autism another option,” Crocker said. “There’s a lot of safety nets. It’s not just a parent coming in and saying, ‘I want to try this.’ It’s a process.”
Michigan law requires that two physicians write certifications and that a parent, who qualifies as a caregiver, signs off in writing before a child can be treated with medical marijuana.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with autism has gone up by 30 percent since 2008. Currently, one in every 68 children in the country have a diagnosis of autism.
Amy Lou Fawell, president of Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, said it can be difficult to understand the daily frustrations parents of children with autism face.
Advocates said medical marijuana could help with both seizure activity and violent behavior, what Fawell called a “double whammy.”
“Autistic parents have been so beat down that all we want is a little bit of normalcy,” Fawell said. “We’ve given up expecting that we’re going to cure our kids. We just want them to be happy, because if they’re happy they aren’t going to hurt us.”
Lex Talamo is a Hearst Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @LexTalamo. Come back Aug. 16 to see the full News21 report on “America’s Weed Rush.”