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The Ultimate Herbal Remedy: Can Cannabis Improve Autism?

Posted Nov 08 2009 10:01pm


The debate over its risks has split political and scientific opinion in Britain. But American mother Marie Myung-Ok Lee says cannabis isn't only safe enough for her autistic son - it's dramatically improved his condition



My son, J, has autism. He's also had two serious operations for a spinal cord tumour and has an inflammatory bowel condition, all of which may be causing him pain, if he could tell us. He can say words, but many of them - "duck in the water, duck in the water", for instance - don't convey what he means. For a time, anti-inflammatory medication seemed to control his pain. But in the last year, it stopped working. He began to bite and to smack the glasses off my face. If you were in that much pain, you'd probably want to hit someone, too.
J's school called my husband and me in for a meeting about J's tantrums, which were affecting his ability to learn. The teachers were wearing Tae Kwon Do arm pads to protect themselves against his biting. Their solution was to hand us a list of child psychiatrists. As autistic children can't exactly do talk therapy, this meant using sedating, antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal.
Last year, Risperdal was prescribed for more than 389,000 children in the US - 240,000 of them under the age of 12 - for bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism and other disorders. Yet the drug has never been tested for long-term safety in children and carries a severe warning of side-effects. From 2000 to 2004, Risperdal, or one of five other popular drugs also classified as "atypical antipsychotics", was the "primary suspect" in 45 paediatric deaths, according to a review of US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data by USA Today. When I canvassed parents of autistic children who take Risperdal, I didn't hear a single story of an improvement that seemed worth the risks. A 2002 study on the use of Risperdal for autism, in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed moderate improvements in "autistic irritation" - but the study followed only 49 children over eight weeks, which limits the inferences that can be drawn from it.
We met with J's doctor, who'd read the studies and agreed: No Risperdal or its kin. The school called us in again. What were we going to do, they asked. As an occasional health writer and blogger, I was intrigued when a homeopath suggested medical marijuana. Cannabis has long-documented effects as an analgesic and an anxiety modulator. Best of all, it is safe. The homeopath referred me to a publication by the Autism Research Institute describing cases of reduced aggression, with no permanent side- effects. Rats given 40 times the psychoactive level merely fall sleep. Dr Lester Grinspoon, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has been researching cannabis for 40 years, says he has yet to encounter a case of marijuana causing a death, even from lung cancer.
A prescription drug called Marinol, which contains a synthetic cannabinoid, seemed mainstream enough to bring up with J's doctor. I cannot say that with a few little pills everything turned around. But after about a week of fiddling with the dosage, J began garnering a few glowing school reports: "J was a pleasure have in speech class," instead of "J had 300 aggressions today."
But J tends to build tolerance to synthetics, and in a few months we could see the aggressive behaviour coming back. One night, I went to the meeting of a medical marijuana patient advocacy group on the campus of the college where I teach. The patients told me that Marinol couldn't compare to marijuana, the plant, which has at least 60 cannabinoids to Marinol's one.
Rhode Island, where we live, is one of 13 states where the use of medical marijuana is legal. But I was resistant. My late father was an anaesthesiologist, and compared with the precise drugs he worked with, I know he would think marijuana to be ridiculously imprecise and unscientific. I looked at my son's tie-dye socks (his avowed favourite). At his school, I was already the weirdo mom who packed lunches with organic kale and kimchi and wouldn't let him eat any "fun" foods with artificial dyes. Now, I'd be the mom who shunned the standard operating procedure and gave her kid pot instead.
I thought back to when J was 18 months old. We were vacationing on the Cape, and, although he just had the slightest hitch in his gait, I was sure there was something wrong. His paediatrician laughed. I called back repeatedly until a different doctor agreed to see us. J was taken in for emergency surgery, to remove a tumour that was on the verge of inflicting irreparable damage. Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut.
And yet, I still hesitated. The Marinol had been disorienting enough - no protocol to follow, just trying varying numbers of pills and hoping for the best. Now we were dealing with an illegal drug, one for which few evidence-based scientific studies existed, precisely because it is an illegal drug. But when I sent J's doctor the physician's form that is mandatory for medical marijuana licensing, it came back signed. We underwent a background check with the Rhode Island Bureau of Criminal Identification, and J became the state's youngest licensee.
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