Can Cannabis Treat Autism?
In the U.S., 1 in 45 children are born with autism spectrum disorder, which can come with many debilitating symptoms including impaired communication and social skills and/or compulsive, repetitive behaviors. And severely autistic individuals can behave aggressively, potentially harming themselves.
Currently, the U.S. has only approved two medications to treat the symptoms of autism. There’s just one problem: these antipsychotic drugs are not always effective, and can cause serious side effects.
In fact, a pioneering study conducted by the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem reviewed 120 children and young adults, ages 5 to 29, who had mild to severe autism. The study found that though nearly all participants had taken antipsychotics at one point, nearly half responded negatively to the medication—a poor track record for drug that is meant to treat such a prevalent condition.
The good news is that another treatment option is starting to gain traction: cannabis. The first clinical trial of cannabis for autistic children is taking place in Israel right now. For the trial, participants are given liquid drops of one of two different cannabis oil formulas, or a placebo. Neither oil has a high concentration of THC—marijuana’s main psychoactive ingredient—but is high in cannabidiol, aka CBD, marijuana’s main non-psychoactive compound.
So far, the trial results have been positive. According to USA Today, Tamir Gedo, CEO of Breath of Life Pharma, which provides the cannabis oil for the study, said one mother reported, “My child is speaking relentlessly . . . He never spoke before. And he’s 12 years old.”
What’s impressive is that this clinical trial was approved by the Israeli government in just six months, and it’s one of 110 cannabis clinical trials currently underway in Israel—the country now leading cannabis research. In a drastic comparison, the U.S. has blocked almost all clinical trials of cannabis. Though that’s not to say the U.S. hasn’t spent money on marijuana; according to USA Today, more than $1.4 billion has been spent on marijuana research since 2008, but $1.1 billion of those funds went to studying addiction, withdrawal and drug abuse rather than treatment options.
The only good news is that states are moving ahead on this issue without the federal government. Recently, Minnesota became the latest state to add autism spectrum disorder to the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana. And the state isn’t alone. Georgia places autism as a qualifying condition across the spectrum with no age requirements, and the same goes for Pennsylvania. In Oregon and Washington, D.C., autism falls under other approved conditions, giving physicians the right to prescribe cannabis as they see fit.
Still, it’s not enough, particularly since medical cannabis to treat autism is available in so few states. That means many parents face the choice between doing something illegal to potentially help their child, or letting them continue to suffer without hope. For Mark Zartler, there wasn’t a choice.
Mark’s 18-year-old daughter Kara is severely autistic with self-injurious behavior. She regularly experiences tantrums that can cause her to lash out and hurt herself and others. On top of that, Kara has Cerebral Palsy. It’s an explosive combination that requires Kara to take multiple pharmaceutical medications a day. At least, that was the case until 2011, when Mark decided to try cannabis vapor to treat Kara’s symptoms.
“Cannabis vapor can help within ten minutes, and the difference is drastic. Kara’s quality of life has improved in so many ways,” Mark told us. “We’ve been able to take her off unhelpful—and harmful—pharmaceutical medications that were causing her to digress mentally. Now, she only takes 2-3 medications a day, and she is more in this world with us. She pays more attention to her surroundings, giving her the desire to try to care for herself more—assisting us with bathing, dressing and feeding. She is also happier. She smiles more, sleeps better, she makes more eye contact, and looks at you when you are talking to her, like she is trying harder to understand.”
Unfortunately, as incredible as the benefits of cannabis have been for Kara, the challenges have been equally astounding. Mark and his family live in Texas, where marijuana is still illegal. This means they are forced to resort to the black market to get the medicine they need for Kara. It also means they have less control over the product they receive.
“Kara’s best therapy is a mixture of strains. She builds up a tolerance when we use just one strain, so we alternate familiar ones and even try new ones,” Mark explains. “The unfortunate thing is that we cannot legally get the exact strains needed for the conditions we are trying to help. As a patient in an illegal state, we do not have the ability to have a lab process or test the flower so that we know exactly what we are using.”
This means that, too often, treating Kara is a process of trial and error—a situation no parent should be forced into. But Mark isn’t alone. Marie Myung-Ok Lee, mother of a young autistic boy, told the Washington Post a very similar story. Though she lived in Rhode Island when she first began experimenting with cannabis and her son had a legal medical cannabis card, treatment was still a process of trial and error, thanks in large part due to the lack of research.
“It took me awhile to perfect the cookie recipe,” she wrote. “I experimented with ingredients: Blueberry, Strawberry, Sour Diesel, White Widow, Bubba Kush, AK-47—all strains of cannabis, which I stored, mixed with glycerin, in meticulously labeled jars on a kitchen shelf . . . After the cookies finished baking, I’d taste a few crumbs and annotate the effects in a notebook. Often, I felt woozy. One variation put me to sleep. When I had convinced myself that a batch was OK, I’d give a cookie to my 9-year-old son.”
Once Marie discovered the appropriate doses of marijuana, the results were astounding. Post-treatment, her son learned how to ride a bike—something every expert told Marie would never happen. It was a game-changer, until her family moved to New York City, which hasn’t placed autism on its list of acceptable medical conditions to be treated with cannabis. Now, she’s back to square one.
So, what can we do? Mark wants everyone to know that “all autism parents are desperate for help.” He continued, imploring, “For any cannabis user, I wish that they could continue to spread the word that cannabis is a medication. It has been used medically for thousands of years. Educate your family, friends and neighbors. It would really help the ill and disabled people in America.”
Autism Spectrum Disorder Statistics
- The prevalence of autism in children in the U.S. has increased by 119.4 percent since 2000, from 1 in 150 children with autism to 1 in 68 children with autism in 2010. This makes autism the fastest-growing developmental disability.
- More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined.
- The disease is also expensive. Autism services cost U.S. citizen $236-262 billion annually.