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Can Marijuana Help Kids with Autism?

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This mom says giving her kid pot has made all the difference.


Gina Kaysen Fernandes: As the mother of an autistic child, Marie Myung-Ok Lee is navigating uncharted territory as she struggles to manage her son's condition. She has bravely come forward to share her son's battle with this mysterious disorder, and to discuss how medical marijuana has brought them both back from the brink of despair.

During what Marie calls the "dark phase," her son J had unpredictable mood swings that could erupt into fitful rages. Her 9-year-old would scream during lengthy tantrums, he refused to eat and threw his food on the floor. J broke plates, windows, and other household items as a way of expressing his pain and frustration. The family would hide out within the confines of their home until the darkness passed.

J's behavior disrupted his school performance and terrified the staff. "The teachers were wearing tae kwon do arm pads to protect themselves against his biting," Marie said. The school monitored J's daily outbursts on an "aggression chart" that documented as many as 300 episodes in one day that involved hitting, kicking, biting, or pinching another person.

With her son in crisis, Marie had no choice but to perform an intervention. But the only solution offered by child psychiatrists came in a pill bottle. "His school tried to force us to medicate him," says Marie, who feared the risk of dangerous side effects associated with commonly prescribed antipsychotic drugs like Risperdal. Many of the FDA-approved drugs on the market used to treat symptoms of autism have no proven safety track record for use in children.

Despite the unknown risks, more kids are using prescription drugs than ever before. The number of children on psychiatric meds has skyrocketed in recent years, according to reports in medical journals such as Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Prescription drug use is growing faster among children than the elderly and baby boomers. But when it comes to medicating kids with marijuana, the issue becomes taboo.

"There's no such thing as a harmless drug, but marijuana is much less harmful than other drugs," said Lester Grinspoon, M.D., a professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Grinspoon is a leading expert in the field of medical marijuana, who has authored several books on the subject. "No one in the world has died from marijuana," insists Grinspoon, who has spent four decades researching the illicit drug.

Undeterred by the social stigma, Marie pursued this more natural approach to calm J's demons. After discussing her wishes with J's pediatrician, Marie decided to check out Marinol, a synthetic form of THC, which is the primary cannabinoid in marijuana. After fine-tuning J's dosage, she began hearing praises like, "J was a pleasure to have in speech class," instead of complaints about his violent episodes.

After a few months, J built up a tolerance to the drug and his unruly behavior returned. "The drawback of taking Marinol is that it's only THC. That's the most powerful cannabinoid, but it may not be the most relevant," said Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany. Earleywine says there are about 70 different cannabinoids in the marijuana plant, many of which have medicinal value. Marie decided to take a chance on the real deal.

All it took was a signed prescription and a background check for J to become the youngest person in Rhode Island to obtain a license for pot. After buying some marijuana-infused olive oil, Marie made a batch of pot cookies. That night, J ate half of one cookie and "he was tired and conked out," said Marie, who checked hourly on his sleep, "half-expecting some red-eyed ogre from Reefer Madness to come leaping out at us." To her relief, J slept soundly and appeared happy and mellow the next day.

Over the past four months, Marie has documented her son's progress in an online blog entitled, Why I Give My 9-Year-Old Pot, Part II. While she doesn't believe marijuana is a cure for autism, it "allows J to participate more fully in life without the dangers and sometimes permanent side effects of pharmaceutical drugs." Dr. Grinspoon has seen positive results with a number of his autistic patients who are undergoing pot therapy. "I can confidently say to a parent that marijuana relieves some types of pain. It's not going to hurt them if you use it responsibly," Grinspoon says. Ingesting the drug works better because the effects can last up to eight hours. "A little goes a long way," says Earleywine, who reminds parents that the drug can take up to an hour and a half to kick in, "so wait a little while before administering any more."

While a growing number of distressed parents are turning to the herbal remedy, many moms with autistic kids are skeptical. "I feel it does more harm than good," says Trish, the mother of a 7-year-old boy with autism. "You are sedating the child, not treating the cause of the rage." Trish believes that medicating kids with pot is a cop-out. "Nobody said parenting was going to be easy, or that the solution to every problem is to get our children stoned."

The mainstream medical community shuns the subject, and the government refuses to fund any research that would legitimize marijuana use in treating autism or aggression disorders. "Marijuana is a very loaded subject," says Cara Natterson, M.D., a pediatrician and mother of two. "As a parent and as a pediatrician, I feel a responsibility to know that what I am putting into a child -- mine or someone else's -- is safe and tested."

The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes the legalization of marijuana, but does support further research into the potential medical benefits of cannabis. "We need to make sure the treatment is safe -- we haven't done that," Natterson adds. The doctor can sympathize with parents who desperately want to help their child. "But wanting to advocate for your child and making sure your child is safe are two different things," Natterson said.

Marie is confident that she has made the right choice when she sees J's transformation. "He doesn't look stoned. He just looks like a happy little boy."

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124 comments so far | Post a comment now
GNFnLrX July 23, 2010, 7:59 PM


A..J. July 25, 2010, 8:09 AM

A bi-polar patient has to take dipocode(sp) to control their condition. They have to take it for THE REST OF THEIR LIVES.

Some even have to take lithium, theres conditions out there that there simply is not a way to avoid taking some form of drug.

There is no controversy here, they need it, so they take it.

However, when it comes marijuana, it is all taboo. I think that this may be a case that he has to take it for the rest of his life.

If that is the case, why should it carry such controversy? Unless you’re willing to carry the same controvery over to other needed medications…

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Laurie September 4, 2010, 11:38 AM

As a pediatrician, does Dr. Natterson actually believe the pharmaceuticals on the market to treat autism are all “safe and tested”? That strikes me as the height of naivety! Maybe medical professionals are even more brainwashed than the general public. When I had cancer, my oncologist had me on a cocktail of six different antinauseants and anti-anxiety meds. Good thing I had a good drug plan because it would have cost me thousands of dollars. After my third course of chemo, when none of them worked, she finally prescribed Nabilone a synthetic cannabinoid in addition to the other meds I was taking. Not only did this work it eliminated my nausea entirely, relieved my anxiety and gave me back my appetite (after I had lost 20 pounds). Not only that, I sensed immediately that it was the only drug that was working and stopped taking the other meds entirely. When I asked my oncologist why she hadn’t prescribed it sooner, she replies that “some people are uptight about taking marijuana”! I replied, “oh, really well you should have asked me, as I’m not one of those people”. Turns out, she was the one who was uptight about prescribing it. The moral of this story - the medical community has to get out of the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry and get with the program. Marijuana has been used far longer than pharanmaceutical (for millenia), with great efficacy and very few side-effects. In fact, the greatest side-effect is in the smoking of marijuana. If it was legal, it could be produced in various safe ways (patch, sublingual, etc).

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secret September 29, 2010, 5:30 AM

I can believe it. When i was younger starting around 5ish my mind went weird. I became a zombie kind of(you know how people are drugged out, “zombified”?) naturally.

This caused problems in school, made me an easy target for a verbally and physically abusive teacher(I still can’t talk about it, this is actually the first time I ever mentioned it), which in turn made it seem “ok” in the mind of my peers to be beyond cruel(I was never disruptive nor violent, I was and always am kind of a gentle giant). That made me further withdrawal into myself.

After my parents split up we ended up moving to a city and I met new friends. For awhile everyone thought I was a super stoner or secret pill popper or something because of my behavior, but after I started to toke I slowly started to improve till it became a group joke that I acted stoned while sober and sober while stoned. In my Junior year I thought to myself, I am gonna go straight edge and focus on my studies more(was a minor honor student{mostly B’s}). That year(and my senior year) I ended up falling apart at the seams culminating in a break down that damn near sent me back to square one.

After high school I toked off an on and eventually stopped from 21-23 1/2; as did all my mental, emotional and intellectual progress(from 18-20 I had a semi-awakening, feels weird prior to that time period I doubt I was really self aware). Then from 23 1/2-25 I toked casually and reached my current point where I feel like I outran the fog finally. The only downside is that I can now fully see and feel my wounds. I don’t think I can really go too much further in my development and due to legal reasons I recently decided to stop.

I hate to necro, but this just seems relevant to me.

free roulette systems October 11, 2010, 7:14 AM

Yikes this definitely takes me back, needed some more pictures maybe.

Dad of a violent Autistic 8 year old October 16, 2010, 10:42 AM

It is amazing to me that people have such a negative reation to the use of marijuana as a medicine. It’s not “geting stoned” as the ignoramus in the article characterized it. Medicinal use of marijuana is no different from using any other drug for valid medical reasons. It is a drug, just like prozac, risperidal, ridilin aderall and all the others that these same parents are so willing to accept as valid treatments. I guaurantee that the responsible use of marijuana as medicine is much less harmful than the psychotropics that have been cooked up but the multi-billion dollar pharmaceuticals with the FDA in their pocket. By analogy, oxycontin is a legitimate drug that helps many people in need of chronic pain releif. It is also one of the most abused drugs in this country. Does that mean that the people who are taking it for legitimate medical reasons by way of a doctor’s prescription are the same as the dope heads buying it on the street to “get high”? The FDA and the drug companies have this country completely “brainwashed”. It’s really pathetic.

Chase October 18, 2010, 6:47 PM

@chels I know what you mean, its hard to find good help these days. People now days just don’t have the work ethic they used to have. I mean consider whoever wrote this post, they must have been working hard to write that good and it took a good bit of their time I am sure. I work with people who couldn’t write like this if they tried, and getting them to try is hard enough as it is.

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