Families of Autistic Children Rally Outside Hickenlooper's Office

Michelle Walker and her son, Vincent Zuniga, stand in the waiting room outside Governor John Hickenlooper's office on June 5.
Michelle Walker and her son, Vincent Zuniga, stand in the waiting room outside Governor John Hickenlooper's office on June 5.
Thomas Mitchell
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Families and supporters of a bill that would enable autism patients to qualify for medical marijuana are rallying right outside of Governor John Hickenlooper's office today, June 5, in hopes of persuading him to sign the bill.

Despite passing through both the Colorado Senate and House by vast margins, HB 1263 has yet to receive Hickenlooper's signature, and the deadline is approaching. Worried that their offspring will miss the chance to qualify for medical marijuana, around a half-dozen families of autistic children have gathered inside the State Capitol building, just outside of the governor's office, and some are pledging to stay until he signs the bill.

Hickenlooper did meet with the families, but did not tell them whether he will sign the bill.

"We are connected through autism and cannabis," says Michelle Walker, mother of a ten-year-old boy suffering from autism spectrum disorder. "You hear about the families with children with [qualifying conditions] who can make the trip up here. But what about the families with children who don't?"

Walker organized the rally "as a last resort," she says, and some families with severely autistic children drove nearly three hours to reach the Capitol. Although her son, Vincent Zuniga, qualifies for MMJ because he also suffers from epileptic seizures, around two-thirds of those suffering from ASD don't have epilepsy; as a result, they resort to such pharmaceutical drugs as Clonazepam, Abilify and Risperdal. The latter two carry black-box warnings of male breast growth, suicidal thoughts and other critical conditions as potential side effects.

Spirit Wilson and her husband, Stanford Parks, brought their sons, seven-year-old Chrome and two-year-old Kendal, to the Capitol. Both boys developed normally until the age of one, Wilson says, when they began to show ASD symptoms. Neither of them are verbal; while they have cognitive limitations and display physical outbursts, they don't have a qualifying MMJ condition. Both boys have been prescribed Risperdal, but she refuses to give it to them.

"I cannot, against my mother's instinct, give him an anti-psychotic drug," she explains. "CBD alone makes them more aggressive." The couple drove two and a half hours to meet with Hickenlooper today, in their second attempt to advocate for the bill. Their first, at a legislative hearing in the bill's early stages, was cut short when Chrome had an outburst.

"They're constantly suffering from an overload of senses. Imagine playing heavy-metal music all day long while messing with your vision," Parks says. "How are you supposed to learn your ABCs? How are you supposed to learn anything in that state?"

At a news conference today, Hickenlooper called the bill "one of the toughest" to decide on this year, citing concerns about "unintended consequences" that could range from potent marijuana products falling into the hands of ASD patients to the risk of THC inducing violent outbreaks.  "There are a lot of experts that say this intense-THC marijuana could trigger a bipolar episode that's not easily reversible," he said. "There's a whole process — there are studies going on right now."

Hickenlooper eventually met with a handful of autistic children and their families to discuss the bill.
Hickenlooper eventually met with a handful of autistic children and their families to discuss the bill.
Thomas Mitchell

Hickenlooper, who says that ASD and Asperger syndrome have affected his own family, said that before making a final decision, he was open to looking at the bill to figure out how to "protect" Colorado from any negative unintended consequences. "It is very clear how intense the urgency is that they have access to marijuana," he added. "Certainly, in those cases, I am convinced. I'm not a doctor, but I feel that this is something that is life-changing for not just the children, but for their families."

The bill faced opposition from the Colorado Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Society, Colorado Psychiatric Society and Children's Hospital Colorado, as well as Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk. Most of the objections were tied to the lack of clinical research regarding the subject, even though a 2017 study done in Chile found that oral cannabis extracts were "dramatically more effective than conventional medicines" at combating ASD, while studies in Israel have shown cannabis to improve behaviors among autistic patients.

As originally introduced by State Representative Edie Hooton, HB 1263 would have added acute pain to conditions qualifying patients for MMJ, but Hooton added ASD to the bill after being approached by Walker and other family members with children suffering from the condition. During the legislative process, acute pain was removed from the measure, but the autism portion of the bill remained. The bill passed its final readings in the House and Senate 53-11 and 32-3, respectively.

We'll update this post after the governor makes his decision.

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