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- Medical marijuana helps autistic children manage their emotions, some parents say.
Months before Gov. Jared Polis would sign the legislation into law, a group of mothers gathered at the Capitol on Jan. 23 to plead with state legislators to approve a bill that could change their families’ lives.
“We are out of safe options for treating my son’s behaviors,” testified Wendy Carter, a former registered nurse who said her autistic young son suffered episodes of aggression and self-harm, triggered by sensory overload.
“What if medical marijuana is his way back to us?” she asked legislators, adding that research showed the drug might help alleviate her son’s anger and anxiety, and improve his communication skills.
Margaret Terlaje testified that her own son — who used to harm himself so badly he’d had surgery to fix self-inflicted damage to his ears — had found relief through medical cannabis.
“We moved here for cannabis,” Terlaje said, after FDA-approved medications for autism left her son with kidney and liver problems. Terlaje’s son, unlike Carter’s, had access to the treatment because he had another condition that qualified him for a medical card.
“His [self-harming] behaviors have drastically decreased,” Terlaje testified, adding that she and her husband no longer had to hold her son down “24/7” to keep him from hurting himself.
“He will always live with me and I will always take care of him and I know that,” Terlaje said, her voice shaking. “He’s a very special, special boy.”
It wasn’t the first time that many of the mothers at that Jan. 23 committee hearing advocated for legislation that would allow them to treat their children’s autism with medical marijuana.
Then-Gov. John Hickenlooper’s decision to veto House Bill 1263 on June 5, 2018, came after a group of parents from MAMMA, Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, met with Hickenlooper for hours at the state Capitol. Several brought their children who have severe autism.
Last year, the bill — which would have added autism to the list of disabling conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana — passed easily in the Colorado House and Senate with widespread support from both Democrats and Republicans.
But Hickenlooper’s concerns about a lack of medical research into marijuana as a treatment for autism, and the possibility of increased marijuana use among teenagers, won out that day.
At the time, then-gubernatorial candidate Polis issued a statement promising he would sign such a bill. When he eventually did, on April 2, all but four state lawmakers out of 95 had voted in favor of the 2019 legislation. (Those holdouts included Republican Sens. Bob Gardner and Paul Lundeen of El Paso County.)
Colorado joined nine other states that list autism as a qualifying condition (according to MAMMA’s website) and six more considered “autism-friendly” because they allow doctors to treat autism as a “debilitating condition” eligible for medical marijuana.
Families who submit two physician certifications and pay a $25 application fee can now treat their autistic children with medical cannabis.
“[The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] was ready for this because they knew it was going to pass,” says Michelle Walker, MAMMA’s Colorado director. “It was implemented the very next day.”
Part of the reason autism wasn’t yet listed as a qualifying condition in Colorado until now is due to the way the state’s medical marijuana program was implemented, Walker explains.
In 2000, voters approved Amendment 20, which created a medical marijuana program written into Colorado’s Constitution. It included the “debilitating conditions” of cancer, glaucoma, HIV, cachexia, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures and muscle spasms.
The amendment specified that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would review petitions to add new debilitating conditions. But over 20 years, the department’s board has not approved a single new addition.
After a petition to add PTSD to the list of conditions was denied in 2015, medical marijuana advocates found success through another tactic. Rather than change the constitution through the cumbersome rulemaking process, they pushed for a statute change through legislation. In 2017, a bill making PTSD a “disabling condition” eligible for medical marijuana treatment passed in the Assembly and was signed into law by Hickenlooper.
But the language of that bill made it nearly impossible for pediatric PTSD patients to receive the treatment, Walker says.
“In the constitutional program, a pediatric patient has to see two doctors and get two recommendations for their medical marijuana card. That’s it,” Walker says. “When PTSD was passed and they created that statutory program, they added language that one of those recommending doctors had to be a psychiatrist or the child’s pediatrician. And it’s extremely restrictive. It’s so restrictive that in the entire, in the last three years, only seven patients with pediatric PTSD have been approved.”
Walker says pediatricians don’t often feel comfortable prescribing medical marijuana — even if they believe the treatment will help — because they don’t want the stigma that comes with it.
So, when lawmakers this year passed House Bill 1028 to add autism as a disabling condition, they changed the language of the statutory medical marijuana program so that pediatric patients with autism or PTSD can see any two doctors to get an MMJ card.
An amendment added to the bill in February specifies that if the doctor prescribing marijuana to a child isn’t the child’s primary care provider, they should “review the records of a diagnosing physician or licensed mental health provider” before writing the prescription. That ensures that a marijuana doctor can’t diagnose a child they haven’t seen before with autism and say, “Yeah, you’re autistic, here’s your weed,” Walker explains.
Research out of Tel Aviv University in Israel has shown that marijuana can alleviate many of the underlying medical conditions associated with autism, such as neurological, gastrointestinal and immune system problems. It can also help with aggression, sleep issues and pain that are often symptoms of autism.
“What’s interesting with autism is every person is affected differently and their autism manifests differently,” Walker says. But Walker says that marijuana’s positive effects for her autistic son, Vincent, are similar benefits to those she’s heard about from other families.
Before Vincent began taking medical marijuana, he had difficulty handling his emotions, which could manifest in physical aggression.
“He would choke me and hit me and pull my hair, and it was beyond his control,” Walker says. “Now my son will stop, he’ll kind of back up and he’ll say, ‘Vincent’s angry.’”
Besides being able to manage his emotions in a healthy way, Walker says Vincent has had “huge cognitive gains” that include learning to read, and is able to spend more time outside in the community.
It wasn’t until Walker moved her family to Colorado from Texas, a little over two years ago, that Vincent was able to get medical marijuana. But the autism wasn’t what qualified Vincent for a red card — it was only because of his epileptic seizures that he could access the life-altering treatment.
To Walker, that just wasn’t fair.
“We had this huge community of people with autism, and none of these other children qualified,” she says. “And so I kind of said, ‘Well, this doesn’t make sense. We’re in Colorado. Let’s facilitate this change.’”
Walker worked on the bill for two years, lobbying it herself at the state Assembly with the support of other MAMMA parents in Colorado and across the country.
“I’m just a mom who wanted to see some change because others deserve the same opportunity that my son had and my family had, because it changed our lives so significantly,” Walker says.