Epilepsy agency, doctor back medical marijuana

February 21, 2014 Updated: February 21, 2014 at 6:25 am
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Jesse Stanley, one of six brothers who have pioneered the use of medical cannabis for pediatric use to treat seizures, holds up Mia Halabi's first dose Wednesday, October 23, 2013 at the brothers' Denver laboratory. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

Spurred by the promising results of families in Colorado who are treating epileptic children with cannabis, the Epilepsy Foundation and one of the leading researchers in the field are calling for access to medical marijuana nationwide.

"If a patient and their doctor feel that marijuana is their best treatment option then they need to have safe, legal access to medical marijuana and they need that access now," the foundation said in a strongly worded statement released Thursday.

"As I doctor, I would gladly prescribe marijuana products for many of my patients who failed existing therapies if it were legal in my state," said neurologist Orrin Devinsky of New York University in a companion statement. He is considered an authority on treating epilepsy.

The endorsement of medical marijuana was prompted largely by what has taken place in Colorado Springs in the last year. More than 100 families of children with epilepsy and other similar health problems have moved to Colorado for an oil made from a special strain of cannabis. It's called Charlotte's Web and is low in THC - the compound that makes users high - but high in a compound called cannabidiol that plays a role in regulating brain signals. Many taking the oil report significant improvements and some have had seizures almost disappear.

While medical marijuana is legal in 20 states, this oil can't be sent across state lines, and is illegal under federal law, which means it is available to few people.

"The end to seizures should not be determined by one's ZIP code," the foundation said in its statement. "Our current situation as an epilepsy community is not acceptable."

The foundation also called on the Drug Enforcement Administration to ease restrictions on marijuana, which it said "hamstrings research and access." Marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug, defined as having no accepted medical use. The foundation wants it changed to a Schedule 2 drug, which would make it easier to have clinical trials.

This spring, 12 state legislatures are considering laws that would legalize the oil.

The foundation vowed to support the changes to state laws.

Devinsky called for rigorous scientific studies to show whether marijuana works and document its side effects. In the meantime, he said, doctors should not have to wait to be able to recommend marijuana.

"This is very exciting," said Paige Figi, whose daughter, Charlotte, was the first local child to use the oil. "It will go a long way to ease fears."

Having the backing of the establishment will help push legislatures to legalize the oil, she said, while at the same time encouraging skeptical neurologists to accept marijuana as a treatment option.

"We have people here whose old doctors have stopped seeing them because of what they are doing. This is a huge validation for us."

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