Lawyer slams decision to deny cannabis to autistic kids

Gary Heinlein, and Chad Livengood

Lansing — Michigan’s regulatory director on Thursday rejected the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of children with severe autism.

Michigan was poised to possibly become the first state to allow medical cannabis consumption for children with severe autism when the state’s Medical Marijuana Review Panel voted 4-2 earlier this month to recommend autism as a condition that qualifies for the drug.

In this photo taken on Friday, June 26, 2015, Ida Chinonis helps her daughter Bella take her cannabis based medication at their home in Grand Blanc, Mich.

Mike Zimmer, director of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, said he rejected the request because of the lack of medical evidence showing marijuana helps with treating autism. He cited the opposition from the state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Eden Wells.

“This lack of scientific evidence is more concerning when considering the broad scope of the petition, which does not limit medical marijuana treatment to overly severe cases of autism,” Zimmer said in his four-page letter.

Michael Komorn, a lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of a mother in southeast Michigan, called the decision disappointing and misguided. He said he’s considering seeking judicial review of the decision in Ingham County Circuit Court, where a judge’s prior ruling led to the review panel decision.

“He calls out the 55 parents and calls them all criminals. How dare you?” Komorn said of the impact of Zimmer’s decision on families seeking legalization of marijuana for autism treatment. “These parents are all in because their children are sick.”

Komorn said Zimmer’s concerns about a lack of controlled trials “is the red herring we’ve been fighting for a long time.”

Parents, he said, “are coming forward with anecdotal evidence” their children are being helped. The proper starting point for a clinical trial would be allowing them to continue, Komorn said.

Dr. David Crocker, a Kalamazoo physician who recommends cannabis use for patients with chronic pain, serves on the state’s medical marijuana board and questions its purpose if Zimmer can overrule Michigan’s marijuana “experts.”

“If you’re going to assemble a panel of experts for the purposes of determining this, why wouldn’t you go with their recommendation?” Crocker said. “I thought that our advice would be heeded in this case.”

But Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who has a daughter with autism, supported the decision.

“While I fully support finding new treatment options, there are neither sufficient studies nor scientific trials demonstrating its clinical impact to justify approval at this time,” Calley said in a statement.

Paul Welday, head of a marijuana advocacy group seeking reforms of Michigan’s medical marijuana law, said Zimmer’s decision “has met with universal disdain by virtually everyone who has been watching this issue.”

Welday said his organization, the Michigan Responsibility Council, “will be talking with our attorneys/drafters to include both autism and Parkinson’s as eligible conditions” for medical marijuana in reforms it is proposing lawmakers adopt this fall. The organization wants to work with lawmakers on pending legislation that also would set up a regulatory regime governing medical marijuana policies.”

State law doesn’t appear to allow the use of marijuana oil or juice — two methods that advocates described as ways children could take medical marijuana, Zimmer said.

He also worried that allowing autistic children to use medical marijuana could cause an explosion of use with unknown health consequences, considering the prevalence of autism in Michigan.

The director added that autistic children who experience seizures because of their condition may already be eligible to use medical marijuana as a treatment under state law.

Supporters argued oil extracted from marijuana and swallowed has been effective in controlling extreme physical behavior by kids with severe autism.

But Michigan’s 2008 voter-initiated law did not explicitly legalize oil-based cannabis products. Supporters of marijuana for children with autism said the drug could be ingested orally instead.

“The reality is there are other ways of ingesting it besides the oil form that can be just as effective,” Crocker said. “I don’t think that the fact the oils are illegal should preclude autism from being a qualifying condition.”

The panel that initially approved the use of marijuana for autistic children was influenced by comments from some Detroit-area doctors, especially the head of pediatric neurology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and from parents desperate for relief.

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.

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