Higher Ground: A mother's instincts

Jun 10, 2015 at 1:00 am

Lisa Smith is outspoken about the good effect that medical marijuana has on the symptoms of her son Noah's autism. She's so passionate about it that she spoke at a public hearing before the state committee charged with making recommendations on adding qualifying conditions under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act.

Actually, there may not have been hearings had it not been for Smith. A couple of years ago the committee voted against autism as a qualifying condition, and once they do that the issue is usually not revisited. But after seeing the effect that marijuana had on her son's autism after she used it to treat his epilepsy, Smith sued the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), which oversees medical marijuana certifications, to force the office to take another look at it.

"My physician knows that I use this for my son, and he said as long as it's helping him he's all for it," says Smith, a single mother.

Noah, now 5, was diagnosed with Dravet syndrome when he was 2. It's the form of epilepsy brought to public attention in Dr. Sanjay Gupta's "Weed" program on CNN. Noah's days were filled with seizures, and he didn't respond to conventional medications. He even had a vagal nerve stimulator implanted. The device sends electrical impulses to the brain in an attempt to control seizures.

"If he does have a seizure, you swipe a magnet and it should stop the seizure," Smith says. "Sometimes it works, sometimes not."

Noah's case is more complicated because he is also autistic. Not only did he have seizures on a daily basis, but his self-destructive and violent behavior was a problem. He pulled his hair and ran into walls; sometimes he would punch and kick his mother. He wasn't making developmental advances.

Desperate for something to help, Smith began researching and found other parents who were successfully treating their children with marijuana. Using marijuana to treat epilepsy, particularly with children, is a new frontier that is not well-understood. But autism itself is not well-understood, and the idea of treating it with marijuana is even sketchier. Most of the states that allow medical marijuana have epilepsy or seizures as a qualifying condition. None of them list autism as a qualifying condition.

Pushed against the wall in early 2013, Smith began searching online for something she could do for her son. She found anecdotal testimony from other parents who were using marijuana.

"I was tired of my son declining; there was a lot of regression," she says. "We were running out of options. I had to do something to save him and bring my boy back."

Michigan allows medical marijuana to treat epilepsy, so Noah qualified. In November 2013 his treatment with Rick Simpson Oil, an extraction of marijuana cannabinoids, changed their lives. The number of seizures dropped dramatically, and the few he has are less severe. Surprisingly the symptoms of his autism improved too.

"He calmed down quite a bit, started to refocus, and regain skills," says Smith. "He used to have a really bad oral sensory problem that has decreased considerably. He is able to sit at the table and do puzzles and follow directions. He's more alert, more focused."

The violent behaviors stopped. And the quality of their lives improved.

"Life is less stressful and more enjoyable because I'm seeing my little boy come back," says Smith. "I'm watching him grow and develop rather than regress."

Smith stays in communication with other parents who treat their children with marijuana, sharing information, comparing methods and results. One of her vehicles for that is parents4pot.org. They need each other, medical marijuana is new, and we're not exactly sure where it fits into our society. And giving it to children hits a raw nerve in some.

Smith and her son are part of a rare breed in Michigan. There are fewer than 200 children younger than 18 certified for medical marijuana use in the state. It requires the signatures of two doctors and a parent. Though there are so few child patients, they take up a lot of attention on the drafting of laws. Everybody wants to keep it away from the children. Their parents face a tough fight with social perceptions, lack of medical certainty, and legal issues. But when they see how their children's lives have improved, these parents are ready to do whatever it takes.

"Parents need to be persistent with the doctors if they want to go this route," says Smith.

Noah's case runs a little contrary to the narrative on medical marijuana for epilepsy. Most folks are seeking strains of marijuana with high CBD and low THC. CBD and THC are two of the dozens of compounds in marijuana known as cannabinoids. They interact with receptors in the human body. The strain that Noah uses is a little higher in THC than in CBD.

"Noah seems to do a little bit better with a higher THC content," says Smith. "That's what I've found so far."

What Smith, who says she does not use marijuana for herself, has seen in Noah has made her a little bit of a reluctant activist.

"Lisa Smith is an incredible person," says Dave Brogren, director of a group called Cannabis Patients United and who sits on the state board that recommends new conditions for medical marijuana. "She brought a lawsuit against LARA. It's really quite brave of these parents to come forward. All these parents who came forward were really breaking the law and could face the wrath of child protective services or aggressive policemen."

But what wouldn't you do for your kids.

Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.