December 20, 2013

Our View: Federal regulators lagging on medical marijuana

Putting the plant in the same category as heroin and LSD prevents study that could aid Maine families.

They’ve been described as an electrical storm in the brain.

click image to enlarge

Meagan Patrick plays with her daughter, Addelyn, at their Acton home earlier this month. The 13-month-old has severe epilepsy, and her mother is taking steps to become a resident of Colorado, where the family wants to try treating the child with a strain of medical marijuana that’s produced there but can’t legally be brought back to Maine.

2013 file photo/Gabe Souza

Seizures occur when large numbers of the cells that transmit information to muscles fire uncontrollably, causing everything from staring spells and twitches to falling, loss of consciousness and full-body convulsions. Anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of children with a seizure disorder – also known as epilepsy – experience seizures that can’t be relieved by pharmaceutical medications.

Now these young patients’ parents think they’ve found something that can repress the seizures. The problem is that it’s illegal under federal law. The federal prohibition against marijuana intersects with Maine’s medical marijuana statutes in a way that poses major roadblocks to families and shows the need for federal action to ease these draconian limits.

The strain of marijuana that’s been in the spotlight is called “Charlotte’s Web,” named for the child who was having 300 grand mal seizures a week but is 99 percent seizure-free after two years of treatment with the substance.

Charlotte’s Web is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC – which produces the classic “high” – and rich in cannabidiol, or CBD – which is believed to be medicinal. (In children, the drug is taken in a liquid form that can be put into food or under the tongue.)

But Maine parents have had a hard time obtaining Charlotte’s Web. It’s apparently not being grown here. And it’s illegal to buy clones of the plant in Colorado, where it was developed, and bring them back to Maine. Anyone who imports a federally outlawed substance across state lines (even to take a child to an out-of-state doctor) could be charged with trafficking. Because of these strictures, an Acton woman whose child has severe epilepsy is setting up a second household for her family in Colorado. (About 100 families from across the country have relocated to Colorado for the same reason.)

Meanwhile, federal regulators have denied that marijuana is a medicine, while obstructing the research process that medications must undergo to get federal approval. Of the Schedule I controlled drugs (with no known benefits and a “high capacity for abuse”), LSD and heroin can be produced by private labs for scientific research – but marijuana can’t. Just one federal facility can produce and distribute the plant for federally approved study.

What’s more, the mission of the agency that oversees the facility is to demonstrate the harms of drug consumption. This drastically slows research into marijuana’s medical properties.

It’s good news that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the first formal U.S. trials of cannabidiol, in the form of a high-CBD medication for severe epilepsy in children. To encourage more such study, some want to remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances altogether (a bill to do that went nowhere in the U.S. House last session). Others want to recategorize it as a Schedule II drug, like certain opioids and stimulants, with both a risk of abuse and accepted medical uses.

Right now, reclassifying the plant, we believe, is the least the U.S. government can do to facilitate the kind of rigorous evaluation that’s needed to determine the appropriate, physician-supervised doses and uses of medical marijuana – and to give patients and their families the relief they haven’t been able to find elsewhere.

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