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The moms who want autism to qualify for medical marijuana


For children with autism, it can be hard to relax. - COURTESY MAMMA
  • Courtesy MAMMA
  • For children with autism, it can be hard to relax.
We ought to listen to moms. They often know more than we do, do more than we know, and we all know more than a few who would give their lives for their families.

That’s the idea behind Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA). Originally founded in Texas, there are now 13 chapters across the nation, including one in our Centennial State. This advocacy group of devoted mothers began their campaign (#cannabis4autism) in hopes of changing state laws to provide legal access to organically grown, whole plant cannabis under a doctor’s guidance for the treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Over 3 million individuals are affected by autism, but only three states — Delaware, Georgia and Pennsylvania — allow medical marijuana as a treatment. Just under half of the states have legalized the whole-plant use of medical marijuana, but contrary to common misconceptions, it’s not a free-for-all — patients need a qualifying condition and a doctor’s recommendation. Autism doesn’t qualify under constitutional or statutory law in Colorado, leaving families to apply under comorbid conditions (a child would have to have a legally qualifying condition in addition to autism). In Colorado, children with the disorder can use cannabis as treatment only if they also experience seizures, persistent muscle spasms, severe nausea or severe pain.

A lot of children, especially, slip through the cracks in the law.

Although there’s not much in the way of research saying unequivocally that cannabis heals autism, MAMMA members say their argument is rooted in science, since underlying conditions of the disorder include oxidative stress, neurodegenerative diseases and inflammation — all symptoms shown to be alleviated with cannabis use.

The MAMMAs of Colorado, as they call themselves, many of whom are transplants to this state, decided it was time to raise public awareness about how the healing plant has changed their children’s lives. They gathered at the Tim Gill Center for Public Media for an advocacy event with a small audience hosted by the community-powered radio station, KCMJ (93.9 FM), on Saturday, Aug. 19.

MAMMA’s director of state chapters, Michelle Walker, shared her son Vincent’s story. He was diagnosed with autism around the age of 2. The disorder rendered him nonverbal with the expectation of other developmental complications. When a neurologist suggested he be sent to an institution, the Walkers rejected the advice, opting instead to keep their child at home, under their care.

But Vincent started seizing and became combative. Unlike self-injurious behavior that can sometimes count as a qualifying condition, Vincent’s aggression was directed toward his family. He began to punch, kick and choke his mother. Out of desperation, she began administering cannabis to him.

Walker said with a big breath, “Now he talks more and smiles. His demeanor was different. The stress and edge melted away.”
Left to right: K.C. Stark and the KCMJ crew, the Colorado MAMMAs and the Original Hemp Cafe crew. - KIMBERLY HOADLEY
  • Kimberly Hoadley
  • Left to right: K.C. Stark and the KCMJ crew, the Colorado MAMMAs and the Original Hemp Cafe crew.
MAMMA operations director Rose Terlaje said she had a similar experience with her son Tonio’s battle for effective treatment.

“We want to trust our doctors, their sincere recommendations, and the pharmaceuticals shoveled across the counter, but it’s a rocky path many parents have endured,” she said.

Like Walker, Terlaje’s son was diagnosed around the age of 2. Tonio began banging his head against the walls while she and her husband constantly restrained him throughout the day.

First, they tried FDA-approved medication for autism — namely, Risperdal and Abilify. But the side effects of the drugs he was taking included the chance the toddler would grow breasts, and warnings that behaviors may worsen, not improve, as the child ages. Within a matter of weeks, Tonio’s symptoms worsened. His aggression amplified, though he sometimes slipped into zombie-like phases too. The natural depression and anxiety that followed led him to be prescribed Zoloft, Prozac and a dozen other pharmaceuticals.

There had to be an alternative, Terlaje thought. She hoped marijuana might help, and moved to Colorado to access it. Now medicated with cannabis, Tonio can function and attend school full-time. Terlaje sees the light in her son again, adding, “Marijuana is helping the whole family even though the whole family isn’t using.”

MAMMA emphasizes the importance of accessing the whole plant’s benefits. Inclusion of the whole plant in medicine is necessary for proper CBD to THC ratios that let the user attain the full benefits of the healing plant, the MAMMAs say.

Although people and policymakers have warmed up to CBD, since it’s non-psychoactive and now well-known for treating epilepsy, it’s actually the entourage effect with THC that’s working wonders for autism patients, the moms say. The personal testimonies may not immediately effect legislative change, but among the audience, it’s enough to keep building the movement.

To learn more, check out MAMMA’s website for pages dedicated to education, science and policy.

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