State legislators pass bill allowing medical marijuana to treat autism, but uncertainties remain
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Colorado’s House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Thursday allowing medical marijuana to treat autism spectrum disorders.
The legislation, which is expected to pass the state senate, would make it easier for minors with autism to receive a prescription for medical cannabis. Gov. Jared Polis has also pledged to sign it, according to a news release from the Associated Press.
Many people, including a mother in Steamboat Springs, agree that cannabis helps treat autism, but that claim remains controversial.
Current laws allow people to use medical marijuana to treat cancer, glaucoma, HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder, seizures, severe pain and muscle spasms, but not autism. Two physicians, one of whom has to have specific board certification, must diagnose children younger than 18 with a disabling medical condition if they want to use medical marijuana.
The National Institute of Health classifies autism as a developmental disorder because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of a person’s life. People with autism have difficulty communicating and interacting with others.
Symptoms tend to hurt their ability to perform well in school, work and other social parts of life.
The new bill would remove the specific requirements on physicians, which would streamline the procedure for minors to join Colorado’s medical marijuana registry.
Babette Dickson, a teacher at Steamboat Springs High School, has seen firsthand the potential benefits of treating autism with cannabis.
Dickson started giving her son James medical marijuana in the form of edibles or tinctures. He was 13 at the time and suffered from frequent meltdowns and outbursts.
During his worst incidents, James would run away from home or school.
“You can imagine the drama and hardship that caused,” Dickson said.
Despite the severity of James’ disorder, Dickson did not want to give her son prescription pills out of concern of the chemicals in them and wariness over their efficacy.
James received a medical marijuana prescription to treat muscle spasms, one of the state’s approved disabling medical conditions. Because he was a minor, state law also required that two doctors approve his use of marijuana. James received that approval via a teleconference from Rocky Mountain Remedies in Steamboat, a practice that is no longer legal.
During the initial months of James taking medical marijuana, Dickson monitored his behavior. She said that within weeks, the number of outbursts decreased by half. The incidents he did experience were less intense and more manageable.
“It didn’t solve the issue, but it helped him to have a better quality of life,” Dickson said.
But, by the time James reached 10th grade, his disorder intensified, and cannabis no longer proved as effective. Dickson eventually conceded her reservations about more traditional medicine and put James on a regimen of pills.
Lisa Lorenz, executive director of the Yampa Valley Autism Program, has met with several families who treat autism with medical marijuana. Like Dickson, she said the results have been mixed.
“They have not experienced a significant benefit in terms of behavior and function,” she said of those families.
Cannabis has been most effective in alleviating seizures commonly associated with autism. Lorenz said about 25 percent of people with autism also suffer from chronic seizures.
Part of the issue with treating autism concerns the variability of autism disorders. That is why experts refer to autism as a “spectrum” with varying degrees of severity.
“There’s never a one size fits all for any kind of autism treatment,” Lorenz said.
Lorenz does not endorse cannabis as a cure for autism, nor is she qualified to recommend a certain treatment. She encourages families and patients to consult their doctors about the various options available.
Dr. Rosanne Iversen acts as the board chair for the Yampa Valley Autism Program. She also operates a family medicine practice in Steamboat.
While Iversen has read some studies about the efficacy of CBD — a nonpsychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana — in reducing seizures, she has yet to come across any data that supports cannabis as a treatment for autism.
She worries that regular medical marijuana use, especially among adolescents with developing brains, could have unforeseen consequences.
“Medications in general, be they natural or not natural, are never without side effects,” she said.
A 2013 study published by the National Institutes of Health said that frequent cannabis users are twice as likely to experience schizophrenia and other psychotic symptoms.
That study cited another report published in “Nova Science,” which showed that frequent marijuana use causes psychotic symptoms in 40 percent of users.
“That’s really high,” Iversen said of the data.
She points to the higher potencies of marijuana and unchecked dosages among medical marijuana patients as possible causes of these side effects.
Dickson’s son, now 22, leads a successful life. He works at a hardware store in town and is passionate about woodworking. In particular, he enjoys building birdhouses.
While she eventually had to move away from medical marijuana to treat James’ disorder, Dickson remains a proponent of its use.
“It’s purely empirical, but the results were absolutely positive,” she said.
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