Marijuana as a pediatric medicine is a highly controversial topic. Very little research has been done to examine the long-term effects of cannabis use on childhood brain development. But, when sick children face extreme odds, parents will jump through hoops to find effective medicine. In our first Children and Marijuana segment, we discussed the herb’s possible effects on the child’s brain. Now, we’ll go over pediatric conditions treated with cannabis.
Conditions Treated With Cannabis
When Sam Vogelstein was eleven-years-old, he and his mother flew over 5,000 miles for cannabis pills. No, these weren’t the capsules that you could pick up at your local dispensary. They were a highly concentrated and pure form of non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD).
This pure form of CBD was not available in the United States. But one British pharmaceutical company, GW Pharmaceuticals, has been able to extract the cannabinoid. The company created CBD pills just for Sam.
Why go to all of this trouble? Sam has a treatment-resistant form of epilepsy that caused him to have 100 seizures a day. In an editorial for Wired, Sam’s father Fred Vogelstein explains that they had tried two dozen treatments and autoimmune therapy before the family flew to London for the controversial treatment.
Pediatric epilepsy is one of the primary illnesses that has brought positive attention to medical marijuana. Back in 2013, Charlotte Figi made headlines when it was discovered that CBD extracted from the Charlotte’s Web strain drastically reduced seizures caused by Dravet syndrome. She was five-years-old and had up to 300 grand mal seizures a week.
Sam has a different form of epilepsy. Rather than whole-body, violent shaking, Sam appears to lose consciousness for bursts lasting up to 20 seconds. Though milder than a grand mal seizure, these small losses of consciousness happen ever three to six minutes when he’s unmedicated.
Fred explains a bit about his son’s experience:
“Sam couldn’t even cry without being interrupted: He’d skin a knee, cry for 15 seconds, have a 15-second seizure, then continue crying. Once, after watching a movie with me, he complained about the DVD being scratched. It wasn’t. It just seemed that way because he’d had so many seizures.” -Vogelstein
And what happened after Sam was given pharmaceutical-grade CBD extract?
“Sam’s seizures decreased so quickly, that two days after he took his first pill he was zip-lining 30 feet in the air are a carnival spread out over half a mile in Hyde Park.”
It took less than 24 hours for Sam’s seizures to start fading away.
If you follow cannabis news, it’s really not surprising that CBD worked so well on Sam’s seizures. Research on CBD and epilepsy was published by none other than Raphael Mechoulam back in the 1970s. Mechoulam is the man who first discovered THC. Of course, back then hardly anyone paid attention to the seemingly miraculous findings.
Finally, after several decades of silence, CBD is taking the limelight in epilepsy treatment. In 2015, researchers from the New York’s Langone Medical Center treated 162 patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy patients with Epidiolex, which is 99% pure CBD.
The treatment lasted 12 weeks, and participants continued their regular medication regimens throughout the process. A little over one-third (36.5%) of the patients reported reduced motor seizures. This is a rate similar to other common seizure medications. two percent of the patients became completely seizure free.
There is some surprising bad news, however. 79% of patients reported negative side effects, including sleepiness, fatigue, and diarrhea. These side effects were not severe enough to cause people to drop out of the study. Only three percent of participants discontinued treatment because of adverse reactions.
In children specifically, medical marijuana extracts are proving successful when other drugs have failed. Neurologist Dr. Francis Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain and former president of the American Epilepsy Society tells NPR’s Fresh Air:
“In cases of unrelenting epilepsy in very small children, we look for anything that will block these seizures. It turns out that there is a group of children with early life epilepsy such as Dravet and a couple of other of these disorders that actually appear to be positively responding to cannabidiol compound.” – Jensen
Two-year-old Landon Riddle had a sore throat. His parents took him to the doctor, who wrote it off as a viral infection. A couple days later, the lymph nodes in his armpits began to swell. Then his groin. Then his belly. He then began to have trouble breathing.
A trip to the ER confirmed the worst. Landon had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). This is the most common type of leukemia in young children, and rates of the blood cancer have been gradually rising over the past 25 years. Unfortunately, Landon became part of the epidemic.
Landon’s mother, Sierra Riddle, described Landon’s condition to CNN reporters:
“His whole chest was full of leukemia tumors, which is why he couldn’t breathe. They started him on chemo, but told us that he probably wasn’t going to make it.” – Riddle
Just as Sam’s father was desperate to find treatment for his son, Sierra had to do everything she possibly could to save her son’s life. Chemotherapy was effective for the first couple of months, but then Landon took a turn for the worse. The OxyContin and morphine he was given caused extreme side effects. At nearly three-years-old, Landon was suffering stomach failure, neuropathy, and excessive pain and vomiting.
Seeing the pain the treatment was causing her son, she decided to try cannabis oil. The impact was dramatic. Once starting the medicine, his red and white blood cell counts began to improve. After six months, Sierra decided to stop chemo. She told CNN:
“Once I took the chemo out, I see these amazing results. And no more need for blood transfusion and platelet transfusions.” – Riddle
Epilepsy may be spearheading the quest for cannabis medicines, but pediatric cancers are a close second. Pediatric cancers are the leading cause of death by disease among American children. Even in cancer survivors, the harsh nature of standard treatments can do significant damage to a young, growing body. Children often receive higher doses of chemotherapy and during a shorter time frame than would an adult.
Finding safer and kinder treatments to pediatric cancer is absolutely vital. In children battling for their lives, medical cannabis has been shown to provide relief.
“We need further research to determine the efficacy and correct dosing for cannabinoids, and we need to formulate cannabinoids safely as we do for any other medication. However, given that some children who may benefit from cannabinoids cannot wait for a meticulous and lengthy research process, the Academy recognizes some exceptions should be made for compassionate use in children with debilitating or life-limiting diseases.”
A wise statement from an institution with a known tough-on-marijuana approach. The AAP requested that the DEA move marijuana from a Schedule 1 substance to a Schedule 2 last year.
Though highly controversial, many parents believe that medical marijuana does a lot more than simply manage chemotherapy symptoms. A growing body of research from the Complutense University of Madrid has found that both THC and CBD have potent anti-cancer capabilities in animal models.
Given the sensitive nature of childhood leukemia, no clinical trials have put the herb’s cancer-fighting abilities to the test in pediatrics. However, Spanish researchers have discovered that THC was successful in reducing brain tumors in rats. The primary focus of the research team has been brain tumors, melanoma, and breast cancer.
But, the plant’s success in trials thus far is a positive sign for other forms as well. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Christina Sanchez explains that cannabinoids like THC cause tumor cells to auto-digest themselves in animal models. She tells Cannabis Planet TV:
“Cells can die in different ways, and after cannabinoid treatment, they were dying in the ‘clean’ way. They were committing suicide (also known as apoptosis), which is something you really want when you have an anti-tumoral effect. One of the advantages of cannabinoids and cannabinoid-based medicines would be that they target specifically the tumoral cells. They do not have any toxic effect on normal, non-tumoral cells. This is an advantage in respect of standard chemotherapy that targets basically everything.” – Sanchez
We’re still a long way off from pharmaceutical-grade, cannabinoid-based cancer treatments. And while children are pioneering the way, we may be even farther from developing successful cannabis therapies in pediatric cancers. Medical professionals do not encourage parents to stop chemo in exchange for medical marijuana. None-the-less, many parents have come out with bold claims about cannabis oil as a cure for their child’s leukemia.
Regardless of whether or not cannabinoids can fight cancer themselves, cannabis oil is still considered an effective medicine for managing cancer pain. One small Israeli study conducted back in the 1990s looked at delta8-THC as a pain and nausea fighter in pediatric leukemia patients. All of the participants had noticeable reductions in pain, nausea, and vomiting. None of the patients experienced adverse psychoactive effects.
Autism is a more controversial condition aided by medical marijuana. As autism is a spectrum disorder, there are wide variances in how the condition is expressed. There are arguably benefits to medical marijuana treatments in those with milder forms like Aspergers. But, in the case of pediatrics, medical cannabis is typically allowed for only very extreme cases.
One such case lies in Alex Echols. Alex developed autism as a result of another condition, tubular sclerosis. The disease caused lesions to develop on various organs in Alex’s body. Most notably the brain. These lesions cause seizures, which is why the Echols family was able to get a medical marijuana recommendation in their home state of Oregon. Alex became increasingly hostile due to his illness. This hostility was mostly self-directed.
Alex’s father Jeremy Echols explains:
“He went from hitting himself, bloodying his face. To, within an hour and a half, he would be playing with toys, using his hands. Something that was, at that time, almost unheard of.”
The majority of medical states do not list autism as a qualifying condition. This has not stopped desperate parents from fighting for the right to give their children the herb. In recent years, organizations like Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) have popped up. The advocacy work done by these groups and hard-working parents have caused some states to provide compassionate relief to children exhibiting severe, self-injurious behaviors.
In 2013, a study published in Neuron examined mice with autism-related mutations. What they found was quite surprising. The mice had deficits in endocannabinoid signaling. Endocannabinoids are compounds like THC and CBD that the body creates naturally. These endocannabinoids interact with a much larger endocannabinoid system (ECS), which regulates a wide variety of bodily functions and works to maintain internal homeostasis. The ECS plays a role in mood, cognition, appetite, sleep, emotion, immune response, and reward seeking.
Other research has linked irregularities in the ECS to dysfunctions in the immune system in children with autism. Immune dysfunction is thought to contribute to certain forms of autism. While we’re only beginning to chip away the tip of the iceberg when it comes to autism spectrum disorders, discoveries in the endocannabinoid system point toward the therapeutic potential of cannabinoid medicines.
When a child is faced with a debilitating, life-threatening illness medical marijuana is often a final, desperate line of defense. In addition to the three big conditions making headlines around the world, there are several other ailments that may find some relief in cannabis. All of these conditions deserve an article of their own, but for the purposes of this piece, we’ll give you a broad summary:
A while back, HERB shared the story of Grace Yeats. Grace was 13 when she was diagnosed with ganglia necrosis, a disease which suddenly caused motor neurons in her brain to die. She was paralyzed as a result.
Like many mothers, Tracy Yeats urgently needed to find a working medicine for her child. GW Pharmaceuticals came to the rescue again. This time with their well-known multiple sclerosis drug, Sativex. Sativex contains both THC and CBD. After just one spray, Tracy noticed results. “[Grace] said, ‘I feel happy. I feel good.’”
Grace continued to get better as she used the drug. While her arms were once locked with rigidity, she slowly began to regain her ability to use them. Grace’s success with the drug goes hand-in-hand with a wealth of research on cannabis and muscle spasms. Marijuana’s ability to reduce spasticity and rigidity in MS and similar diseases like cerebral palsy is now well-documented.
Israeli neuroscientist Dr. Ester Fride thinks that cannabinoid medicines may be effective treatments for cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is another disease linked to irregularities in the endocannabinoid system. Fride indicates that malnutrition and inability to keep down food are the primary symptoms resulting in mortality in the disease. She goes as far as to recommend testing THC as an appetite stimulator in children with this disorder. She explains:
“According to this hypothesis, CF patients display decreased levels of endocannabinoids and by elevating these levels, symptoms may improve. Indeed, a number of physiological mechanisms of cannabinoids and endocannabinoids coincide with the pathology of CF.
Thus it is suggested that potential benefits from THC treatment, in addition to appetite stimulation, will include antiemetic, bronchodilating, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrheal and hypoalgesic effects.” – Fride
Medical marijuana as pediatric medicine
Let’s return to Sam Vogelstein’s story. The Vogelstein’s access to wealth and elite social status gave them the opportunity to go the pharmaceutical route. Accessing pharmaceutical CBD in the U.S. cost them a whopping $120,000.
While Epidiolex may be on the market soon, we’ve still got a while to wait. The next best thing is to purchase tested cannabis products from a reputable medical dispensary. The only way to ensure product quality and consistency is to be picky about what you’re buying.
There’s hope in medical marijuana for treatment of serious pediatric diseases. Unfortunately, until the U.S. political climate evolves to develop some kind of standardization process, there’s a lot of uncertainty out there. When you’re a parent of a sick child, this uncertainty is something you won’t want to risk. If you live in a medical marijuana state, contact a local testing lab for information on high-quality products.
Medical marijuana will not work for everyone. Yet, thanks to this plant, many parents have been given the opportunity to get to know their children. There is risk involved and the odds of success are unknown. There are no guarantees in the marijuana world. But, getting to see your child smile again? That’s priceless.
Do you know a child who has been helped by medical cannabis? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.
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