There are three levels of autism spectrum disorder, ranging from Asperger syndrome to pervasive developmental disorderEXPAND
There are three levels of autism spectrum disorder, ranging from Asperger syndrome to pervasive developmental disorder

Colorado Bill Would Qualify Autism for Medical Marijuana

Michelle Walker moved her family to Colorado from Texas in 2017 looking for relief for her son, who suffers from severe autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and epileptic seizures — and she found it. Walker says that her ten-year-old boy, Vincent Zuniga, has made astonishing progress since they moved to Colorado in order to get access to medical marijuana. As a result, they've been able to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, Coors Field and other public places they wouldn't have dreamed of going to before Vincent's new medication.

"We could never do these things without medical cannabis," Walker explains. "It allows us to live this quality of life the best we can." Because of his seizures — one of the nine qualifying medical conditions for cannabis in Colorado — Vincent qualified for a medical marijuana card; as a result, Walker is able to give her son high-CBD cannabis medication.  According to the Epilepsy Foundation, approximately one-third of those suffering from ASD also have epilepsy.

Many severely autistic children who aren't epileptic still suffer from debilitating conditions, Walker notes, but MMJ isn't an option for them because ASD doesn't qualify as a medical marijuana condition in Colorado.

Vincent Zuniga couldn't go on public trips before using medical marijuana because of his aggression, according to his mother.
Vincent Zuniga couldn't go on public trips before using medical marijuana because of his aggression, according to his mother.
Courtesy of Michelle Walker

Because of Vincent's ASD, she says, "He's limited verbally. He's very aggressive. He would attack us daily, and he would hit, kick and pull hair. It was beyond his control, so he was very limited in what he could do. We can say that cannabis definitely helped."

And if a bill recently introduced in the Colorado General Assembly passes, Walker believes more people with ASD will have that option, too.

Introduced by Colorado State Representative Edie Hooton in March, HB 1263 would add ASD and acute pain to Colorado's list of qualifying medical marijuana conditions. ASD is known for creating severe communication and behavior disorders, causing those who suffer from it to lash out physically while struggling to express their emotions. Since she began administering cannabis orally to Vincent a little over a year ago, Walker says, his violent outbursts and extreme behavior have almost stopped.

"Many of our kids have great receptive language, and they have full understanding of what's going on, but they can't communicate. What if my son is depressed or suicidal but can't communicate it to me?" Walker asks.

The United States Food and Drug Administration currently approves two drugs for ASD, Abilify and Risperdal, both of which have black-box warnings that suicide and other fatal conditions are potential side effects; class-action suits have been filed by patients who've used the drugs. Using cannabis has severely decreased Vincent's pharmaceutical intake, Walker reports, adding that his neurologist thinks he'll be completely off epileptic medication by the end of April.

A 2017 peer-reviewed study in Chile found that oral cannabis extracts were "dramatically more effective than conventional medicines" at combatting ASD, while studies at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem have shown cannabis to improve behaviors among autistic patients.

"My son is not high [on cannabis]. I can tell you what gets my son high; it's the drugs they're already prescribing our kids," Walker explains. While working for the nonproft Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, Walker approached Hooton in hopes of adding ASD to a bill that the state rep was already crafting; that bill would add acute pain to Colorado's medical marijuana conditions list, a move that Hooton hoped would help fight the opioid epidemic.

"I'm supportive of legalization. This [bill] came about from the whole conversation about how we can reduce the opioid crisis, because there are many things that can be done," Hooton says. "Kids with autism, they also have a lot of symptoms that currently fall under the approved conditions list — seizures, muscle spasms. But until it becomes legal, we're trying to put in more conditions."

Hooton believes that adding acute pain would decrease the amount of opioids prescribed for those recovering from painful surgeries and medical procedures. Although chronic pain is a qualified condition for medical marijuana in Colorado, acute pain lasts for a finite amount of time. "Chronic pain is a long-term problem, like a chronic back problem, whereas acute pain is just for a period time from something like oral surgery or knee surgery," she says. "This would provide a physician an option over an opioid prescription to recommend marijuana."

The bill's first hearing will take place on Thursday, April 5, in front of the House Health, Insurance & Environment Committee, and Hooton expects it to pass out of committee although she anticipates some amendments to the bill on its way to the House floor to get "full deliberation from legislators and stakeholders." But with emerging studies and publicity on CBD's medical benefits and 2016's passage of a law that allows marijuana in schools for medical use with strict conditions, Hooton believes both the public and lawmakers are educated enough on the subject to approve her bill.

"The mothers of these children with these intractable symptoms came to us; we didn't come to them. They were desperate and unhappy with the limited pharmaceuticals, and they read about the studies in Chile, Israel and the Netherlands, and they're just desperate to improve the quality of their children's' lives," the lawmaker explains. "We often let parents lead the way. They try all kinds of things — non-evidence-based things because of desperation — but there's so much evidence of the efficacy of medical marijuana."

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