A Step Forward For Epileptic Children Whose Lives Might Depend On Cannabis Medicine

Photo: Dave H - "Cannabis II" - https://www.flickr.com/photos/drome/ - Flickr Creative Commons


by Monica Thunder

on December 29, 2014

3-year-old Autumn Bay has severe epilepsy. On average, she cycles through five different drug cocktails a year — and with them has hallucinations, decaying teeth and organs, trouble sleeping, irritability and reduced appetite.

Since many children with epilepsy have found seemingly-miraculous results from taking highly concentrated, non-psychoactive cannabis extract, her mother thinks whole plant cannabis extract is the best treatment option for Autumn. But they have one big issue: they live in Kansas.

In Kansas, Autumn’s condition doesn’t qualify her for medical cannabis. If her mother were caught with the substance, she would face prison time. Her five children could go into protective custody, where Autumn could easily die without a guardian who knows how to properly handle her condition.

In the United States, medical cannabis is only legal in 23 states. In other words, more than half of the country’s medical patients don’t have access to medicinal cannabis. That’s a lot of Autumns.

On the other side of the world, in New South Wales (NSW), the government took a step that gives hope to Australian children who suffer from Autumn’s condition. The NSW government allocated about $9 million to treat epileptic children, terminally ill adults and patients undergoing chemotherapy with medical cannabis, the Australian Associated Press reports.

At least three trials will be conducted to determine the usefulness and impact of cannabis for hundreds of eligible patients. These trials will be conducted at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and Sydney’s Children’s hospital.

The first Australian state to legalize medicinal cannabis, NSW is leading the way in cannabis reform in Australia. Formerly known as one of the toughest states when it came to cannabis legislation — after being caught twice, someone in possession of cannabis faces criminal charges — this is a welcome step for patients across the state who, like Autumn, had reached the end of the line in terms of legal treatments. Victoria, NSW’s neighbor to the south, is pushing for similar reforms.

NSW police have also been given a new set of guidelines. Now and in the future, police will have more discretion about whether to charge medical cannabis users. Whereas in Kansas — and several other Australian and U.S. states — a police officer is legally obligated to criminally charge someone in possession of cannabis, with these new rules in NSW, the officer may choose against charges if the person in question has an eligible medical condition.

While this is an important step forward for medicinal cannabis users, recreational cannabis remains illegal.

“The government will continue to reinforce the message that recreational use of cannabis is illegal and will not be tolerated,” said NSW premier Mark Baird to reporters.

The NSW government has assumed full responsibility for supplying medical-grade cannabis. If it isn’t possible to import it from overseas, such as from Europe or the U.S., they will look into growing it on Australian soil.

“If we have evidence that medical cannabis has the potential to change lives, then we need to do something about it,” premier Baird said to reporters.

Though the trials themselves are a done deal, Health Minister Jillian Skinner said it could take years for medical cannabis to be approved for mainstream use, AAP reports.

“Clinical trials have to go through very rigorous ethics standards, controls have to be approved by the therapeutic goods association, which is a Commonwealth body, so it could take months if not years,”  Skinner said to reporters.

The opposition feels that the process is going to move too slowly to make a difference for people who have limited time.

“The terminally ill have little to look forward to from these clinical trials, which could take years that many people simply do not have to wait,” said deputy opposition leader Adam Seale to reporters.

In Autumn’s case, no one knows which seizure will kill her. It could happen this week, next month, ten years from now — or today. Whole plant cannabis extracts could make an immense difference in her life and for her family members, but she needs it immediately.

While hundreds of Australian children will qualify for treatment during the trial period, like Autumn, hundreds won’t. At present, the Australian public has only to wait and see.