State panel endorses medical pot for autism

Detroit News wire services and staff

Lansing — Michigan may become the first state to allow medical marijuana for children with severe autism if a Snyder administration senior official accepts the recommendation made Friday by a state advisory panel.

The state’s Medical Marijuana Review Panel voted 4-2 to recommend autism as a condition that qualifies for the drug.

Only one condition, post-traumatic stress disorder, has been added to those that qualify since Michigan voters approved marijuana for the side effects of cancer, glaucoma and a few other conditions in 2008.

Supporters say oil extracted from marijuana and swallowed has been effective in controlling extreme physical behavior by kids with severe autism. Pot wouldn’t be smoked.

Critics say they sympathize with families trying to help their autistic children, but there isn’t solid evidence that the use of medical marijuana can be safely recommended.

The panel was influenced by comments received earlier from some Detroit-area doctors, especially the head of pediatric neurology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and from parents desperate for relief. Many of the three dozen spectators cheered and applauded after the vote.

The recommendation now goes to Mike Zimmer, director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, who has until late October to make a final decision. Zimmer, who was appointed in December, is a longtime state regulatory official.

“Once the final determination is made it will be posted on the website,” a Licensing and Regulatory Affairs spokesman said Friday.

A spokesman for Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who has a daughter Reagan with autism and who has been an advocate on the disorder, said he declined to comment, deferring to the state agency.

The state panel in 2012 and 2014 rejected allowing medical marijuana for autism. It led to a court battle and a challenge by Attorney General Bill Schuette before the panel accepted the latest formal request in the spring.

The proposal is being pushed by an organization called the National Patients Rights Association, a statewide nonprofit group based in Grosse Pointe.

A 31/2-year-old boy, Brunello Zahringer, ran around and squealed as the panel discussed the issue Friday. He wore a shirt that said, “Keep calm it’s only autism” on the front, and “Let my daddy decide!” on the back, a reference to the use of marijuana oil.

“I wanted them to see what autism is, what I live with, what my wife lives with,” the boy’s father, Dwight Zahringer of Clinton Township, said later. “I’m not trying to sell this on the street. I’m trying to look for a correct way to complement all the treatments we’re getting.”

Michael Komorn, a lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of a mother in southeast Michigan, said no other state allows medical marijuana for severe autism.

The state’s decision will be important, Komorn said, because it would affect mostly kids whose families are desperate because other remedies aren’t working. But two families at the hearing were parents helping adult children in their 20s for whom nothing else has helped.

The autistic children would need to take the oil because they can’t smoke. Its legal status is uncertain because state lawmakers haven’t approved legislation allowing edible marijuana — a situation that makes Komorn angry.

“It should be a no-brainer,” he said Friday after the hearing. “I don’t believe the 3.2 million people who voted for medical marijuana in Michigan didn’t think somebody would eat a brownie.”

Dr. David Crocker, a panel member who voted in favor of allowing it, noted two doctors need to give their approval for a child to get a medical marijuana card from the state.

“We have a pretty good checks-and-balances system,” he said.

Michigan’s chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells, serves on the panel and voted no. She’s unconvinced that there’s enough research on the topic, especially the long-term effects of marijuana on children.

“These things are things we do not know until we have enough experience with these medications in a controlled trial. … I don’t think we have those checks and balances,” Wells said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and a nonprofit group called SAM (Safe Alternatives to Marijuana) oppose further legalization of medical marijuana.

Three Boston Children’s Hospital experts wrote in the February edition of the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics and cautioned that marijuana for kids with severe autism might be at best a “last-line therapy.”

There is a lack of studies showing any clinical benefit of cannabis for young patients with autism, while there is strong evidence that the regular use of marijuana harms the developing brain, they argued. Regular cannabis use by adolescents has been linked to persistent declines in intelligence and increased risk of addiction, anxiety disorders, major depression and psychotic thinking, according to the study.

“But in using medicinal marijuana, they (parents) may be trading away their child’s future for short-term symptom control,” wrote Dr. John Knight, the study’s senior author.