Elizabeth will turn 8 years old in June. Last fall she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of childhood cancer. As she shakes her doctor’s hand this morning, she can barely stay awake. She’s been struggling with headaches, stomach pains, and severe nausea at night—side effects of the chemotherapy drugs she’s been taking. Unfortunately, at just 7, Elizabeth is old enough to know that today’s visit to her doctor’s office, and the medicines he’ll prescribe her, aren’t going to alleviate her symptoms very much.
Sadly, just outside her doctor’s office on South Broadway in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York (behind the Planet Fitness and across from the public library), there’s a government-managed indoor marijuana facility where acres of a drug are being cultivated that can help manage her side effects. However, Elizabeth’s parents aren’t considering that option. They know that if they did, they could be arrested.
Medical Marijuana for Minors Is a Complicated Issue
Initially celebrated, California’s Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, was the start of a new challenge for young patients, their parents, and proponents of medicinal marijuana. Though medical-grade marijuana was legalized by the majority of California voters, Proposition 215 did not supersede federal laws. It removed criminal penalties at the state level for patients and their caregivers, but gave little or no direction on issues such as: Who would pay for the cost of a patient’s “medicine”? Where would minors get their medical marijuana if a parent couldn’t (or wouldn’t) grow it themselves? What would a safe and legal distribution plan implemented by state and local governments look like?
20 Years Later, Many Questions Are Being Answered
While legal issues vary on the federal level, state rulings on the legalization of marijuana have begun to shine light on its many uses in minors. Medical-grade marijuana is legally prescribed to minors (with parental consent) in 20 states plus the District of Columbia. Parents are now flocking to states such as California, Arizona, and Colorado, not for their exceptional lifestyles, but rather to obtain legalized medical marijuana for their ill or dying children. Today, minors suffering from nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy, the chronic muscle pain of multiple sclerosis, prolonged epileptic seizures, and autism-related conditions of the brain are being treated with high-grade medical marijuana.
Still Weighing in on the Benefits vs the Risks
While “medical-grade marijuana” does have a nice ring to it, doctors and researchers are still divided. Many doctors who are already prescribing medicinal marijuana to adults say they will not prescribe it for their patients under 21 unless they have a life-threatening illness such as cancer or AIDS. Some medical professionals are particularly worried about the risk of dependency, already an issue in the teen population. Others point to the downsides of recreational marijuana use, including memory issues, nervousness, confusion, and difficulty completing complex tasks.
A “Godsend” for Some
Still, medical marijuana seems to be a “key” for some minors struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ADHD has been diagnosed in more than 4.5 million children in the US. Patients and physicians alike are reporting that the treatment of ADHD with medical-grade marijuana helps to alleviate the anxiety and anger associated with the condition. According to one 16-year old ADHD patient, the benefits of marijuana are clear: “My brain works. I can think.”
- 20 legal medical marijuana states and DC. Medicinal Marijuana website. Updated December 13, 2013. http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000881.
- Americans for Safe Access websitehttp://www.safeaccessnow.org/.
- Deem R. The medical “benefits” of smoking marijuana (cannabis): a review of the current scientific literature. God and Science website. Updated March 19, 2013. http://www.godandscience.org/doctrine/medical_marijuana_review.html.
- Medical cannabis. Washington State Medical Association website. https://www.wsma.org/medical-cannabis.