This article has been re-posted from the March – April 2004 Cannabis Health Journal.
by Lisa A Kirkman
The complexity of issues surrounding medical marijuana use are staggering and the pain of knowing you can do little to help ease the suffering of your sick child is immeasurable. So why do parents choose to or choose not to risk absolutely every- thing to offer cannabis as a medicine for their children?
In case there are those prohibitionists out there who still believe that medical marijuana is simply an excuse for stoners to get stoned, let me tell you about my son.
Issac (not his real name) is tall for his age, dark and handsome (not a mother’s bias — really!). He’s very strong and active; some might even call him hyper sometimes, but not all the time; sometimes he’s extremely focused. Issac is really into cars and skateboarding and anything really physical. He’s very intelligent and has been gifted with some pretty smooth verbal skills. In fact sometimes, you’d swear he’s the most polite, charming and winning soul you’ve ever met.
Then you wait a while, usually for some kind of transition in the day like leaving the house or eating dinner and then the change happens. Just like that — I’m having to physically restrain someone who is trying to bite, punch, claw, kick me and/or destroy the room around him and/or get at anyone else unfortunate enough to wander by like the dog, or his 19 month old sister. Issac has put holes in the walls of every house we have lived in, left scars on my body from altercations and gets sent away from school on a regular basis because of his out of control behavior. Why not kick him out and teach him a lesson about respecting the rules? Because Issac is only five years old and he, like millions of other children in North America and throughout the world, suffers from juvenile-onset mental illness.
Since the dawn of modern science, medicine has focused almost completely on adult mental health issues. Even with the focus on the adult, there are stigmas attached to mental illness to this day. One need only look to the streets or to our prison system to find out what happens to too many sick people who cannot find proper treatment. Attach the mental health stigma to a child, and you exponentially increase the complexity of the issues and raise the stakes.
Once you decide to turn to the community or the medical profession for help, your parenting skills will come into question. Perhaps you created a bad child? Perhaps you are a bad parent? If I walked into the hospital and said, there’s something wrong with my child’s heart, the whole hospital, even the whole community in some cases, would rally behind my family. But when there’s something wrong with the way his brain works, sorry, we can’t have a telethon for a bunch of crazy kids! Not cute enough.
Issac’s problems began when he was about 18 months old, when he would get so violent he would literally scare all the other children at the daycare under the table. I would regularly have to have “team” meetings with day- care staff, various government agencies and medical professionals in order to plan out how to take care of and educate Issac in the safest possible way for him, the other children and staff. He was kicked out of one day- care where he apparently bit the cat.
Aside from every parenting program known to mankind, Issac has been to naturopaths, Chinese herbalists, chiropractors, homeopaths, has had allopathic and naturopathic allergy testing done, reiki, healing touch, LED light therapy and traditional native sweat lodges. He’s had an obsession about not eating sweets since he was three, so he eats very little sugar. We have no junk food whatsoever in the house; little white flour and even that’s organic. My family are not vegetarians or health food fanatics, but we try to at least eat more good than bad and we put hemp hearts and hemp oil onto and into absolutely everything.
Yet, like a sizable and quickly growing group of children, Issac continues to suffer horribly, unable to control his impulsive and violent outbursts and obsessions. Unfortunately, he seems to be getting worse. What makes creating an action plan so difficult with Issac, so we can begin the healing process, is that, along with many other children battling the same issues, he has yet to have a firm diagnosis. The list of his possible, co-morbid conditions include: depression, conduct disorder (CD), oppositional- defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit disorder with hyperactivity (ADHD), panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Tourette’s syndrome (TS), intermittent explosive disorder (IED), bipolar disorder (BPD).
Another problem parents that have children with mental health issues face is that many of the doctors themselves do not believe that some of the diagnosis even exist in children, and are actually other disorders altogether, as in the case of bipolar disorder. It is estimated that 90% of bipolar children are misdiagnosed, usually with ADHD (you can be bipolar and have ADHD, too). The result is that there is much in-fighting between paediatric specialists and some of the children are given the wrong medications that can actually worsen their condition.
There is no doubt that some form of medication may be necessary to manage these medical conditions that take the lives of 10% to 18% of sufferers. The erroneous idea that someone may control their mental illness with sheer willpower is ludicrous. Would you tell your diabetic child to “will” her insulin levels up? The problem is that very few studies have been conducted on the efficacy, let alone the safety of many childrens’ medications.
Medications can include mood stabilizers like the familiar Lithium and the anti-convulsants used as mood stabilizers such as Divalproex Sodium or Valproic Acid (Depakote), Carbamazepine (Tegretol), Gabapentin (Neurontin), Topiramate (Topamax) and Tiagabine (Gabitril). Then there are antipsychotics like Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel. Calcium channel blockers (Verapamil, Nimodipine, Isradipine) have recently received attention as potential mood stabilizers for treating acute mania, ultra-ultra-rapid cycling and recurrent depression which are markers of juvenile- onset bipolar disorder. For anxiety, we have Klonopin, Xanax, Buspar, and Ativan.
The side effects of the above run the gamut from sleepiness to insomnia, nausea to neuralgia, liver and kidney dam- age, rashes, loss of appetite, stunted growth, tardive dyskinesia (very serious, sometimes permanent slowed and halted movement), severe mood swings amongst others and, all of them can cause death
The most controversial pharmacological medications used in child psychiatry today are stimulants and anti-depressants. Even the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States put out a paper cautioning that perhaps we might be over-using stimulants such as Ritalin, Dexedrine, Concerta and Adderall.
Health Canada put out a warning in 2003 that children under 16 should not be given any anti-depressant in the SSRI (selective serotonin re uptake inhibitor) family such as Prozac or Paxil, because studies have proven a high risk for suicidal thoughts in children, even where there were none before.
The book “Jeffrey’s Journey” by Jeffrey’s mother, Debbie Jeffries paints a very similar picture to my family’s experience with juvenile mental illness. From Debbie’s website www.laraynes- place.net: “At seven years old, he had been asked to leave over eight day care/preschools, had been banned from the county day care system, had been treated by over 16 different doctors and had been on at least 16 psychotropic drugs (alone or in combination), had been admitted on three separate occasions to a psychiatric hospital, and had spent a year in a highly supervised and therapeutic residential care program.
After having exhausted absolutely every treatment known for Jeffrey, Debbie Jeffries looked to cannabis. It worked very well, though soon after her son began using it, the state accused Debbie of child endangerment and threatened to take Jeffrey away.
Keep in mind that where it would be devastating for any typical child to be removed from his or her parent, for a child with mental health issues it would be tantamount to destroying his world and could send them into an even deeper crisis. Thankfully, Debbie eventually won her case and her family’s story has been profiled in main- stream American media, on 48 Hrs. Investigates and Sally Jesse Raphael.
Debbie Jeffries is correct in her assertion that cannabis is acting as a mood stabilizer for her child. In the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Volume 30 (2), April/June 1998, Harvard Psychiatry professor Dr. Lester Grinspoon and James B. Bakalar present several anecdotal stories of bipolar men and women using cannabis to immediately curb both manic and depressive states and also to mitigate the serious side effects of the pharmaceuticals they had been prescribed. One woman claims that it curbed her manic rages and conversely helps her get out of bed to deal with the day when she finds herself in too much of a depressed state to do so.
For years scientists have been aware of the human endogenous cannabinoid system, though exactly what role it plays in our mental health is still relatively unclear. One thing that we all can agree on is that humans have been affecting their mental state with cannabis since time immemorial.
The beauty of cannabis as a medicine for children is that it has no known toxic levels and relatively manageable side affects. While never a panacea and usually to be used in conjunction with the pharmaceuticals that are required, cannabis can greatly reduce the number of medications a child is on, therefore reducing the complexity of his or her situation. The problem with many of the medicines used for mental health is that the side effects sometimes mimic the symptoms that we are trying to suppress.
It was obvious, I needed to give Issac pot!
Believe me, I’ve thought about it. I’ve even handed “Jeffrey’s Journey” out to some of the staff who work with Issac, who have been working with special needs children for over thirty years and they think he should try cannabis. They know that the drugs they usually prescribe for children like Issac do harm, physically and emotionally; not just to the child, but to the entire family.
The major irony of my life is that from October of 2001 until August of 2002, I had founded and operated the Sunshine Coast Compassion Club, a non-profit medical cannabis dispensary and resource center in the small coastal community of Gibsons, BC. When the club was shut down in August and I was arrested for trafficking, we had 70 members, two of whom were minors.
Eleven months later the Department of Justice dropped my charges. I guess something about my situation angered the RCMP because prior to dropping all the charges they decided to cause my family and I more legal and financial grief by sending ten officers over to our house to cut off our electricity for a week. They called the Ministry of Children & Families and falsely claimed that there was a closet grow-op in my son’s closet-less bedroom.
My husband is a long-time medical marijuana user. Both he and I have been outspoken activists regarding not only medical use, but the end to prohibition as a whole. I’ve worked at Cannabis Culture Magazine and have written articles for them, was campaign manager for Federal Marijuana Party candidate Dana Larsen and ran for the BC Marijuana Party myself in the Columbia River-Revelstoke riding. I have appeared in media from the CBC to the Miami Herald. I have starting my own cannabis-based business, CannaGuide Publishing, and have established a good reputation already in the local community through my involvement with Community Futures. In other words, people and the establishment know me, though they associate me with pot.
The RCMP already believe that I am giving Issac cannabis. They said so in their police report from our home raid. Issac’s medical records will prove otherwise and that’s why they haven’t tried very hard to take him away from us. If Issac were to begin using cannabis and the wrong person found out, not only would they immediate- ly take him away, they would take our daughter away as well.
Next they would go after my husband who is an American citizen applying for permanent resident status. They would jail him for child endangerment, which because of his severe neurological condition would threaten his life, and they would kick him out of the country. As strong as my belief that cannabis will help, choosing to try cannabis for Issac could further damage my fragile and vulnerable child and surely destroy our family.
While I ran the club, and long after it closed, I received many emotional emails from parents. They described many chillingly similar situations to Jeffery and Issac’s. One mother was so desperate to treat her son with cannabis, she was willing to take a four day round trip once a month, just to use the services of a Canadian compassion club and then smuggle the medicine back over the border. Another mother, while her child is legally allowed to use cannabis to treat his illness, has to go to his school everyday and physically remove him from school property just so he can take his encapsulated cannabis at the proper time.
There is one notable exception where cannabis could actually worsen a mental health condition if there is any psychosis present, or if there is a family history of schizophrenia. Formal studies, as well as anecdotal evidence suggest that both adults and children who experience these symptoms should stay away from cannabis strains that contain particularly high THC levels in relation to CBD levels, as is the case with most pure Sativa strains such as those found in equatorial regions.
I love my children in such a way that any pain they feel, whether physical or emotional, I feel tenfold. As an adult, I have benefited from the glorious healing powers of cannabis to ease both my physical and emotional pain. Prohibition is the evil and not being able to help my suffering child is like a knife in my heart.
Lisa A. Kirkman attended the universities of Lethbridge, Calgary & Poona, India majoring in Religious Studies. She was Assistant to the Editor of Cannabis Culture Magazine, Founder & Director of the Sunshine Coast Compassion Club, campaign manager for the Federal Marijuana Party and ran for the BC Marijuana Party in 2001. She is a member of Canadian Cannabis Coalition and Executive Publisher of CannaGuide, North America’s first cannabis directory & events guide.