There's been a lot of talk since the medical cannabis system started in Arizona—even before it started—that it was a sham. Naysayers have claimed all along that it's nothing more than a thin veneer of fake compassion laid over a deep well of recreational use.
But even if what Arizona Department of Health Services Director Will Humble believes is true—that our state system is a hybrid recreational-medical system—it doesn't change the dramatic ways cannabis is helping people, even children. Just ask Aari Ruben, director of the Desert Bloom Re-Leaf Center on East 22nd Street.
Last year, a mother walked into Ruben's shop looking for some cannabis high in the cannabinoid cannabidiol, or CBD, for her son, who is 6 and suffers from a rare form of epilepsy. Her son was having hundreds of seizures per week despite a long list of dangerous drugs that didn't work. They decided to try cannabis when doctors told them the next step in her son's treatment was a hemispherectomy, or literally removing a large portion of her son's brain.
Not so fast, she said.
Ruben found a strain called Harlequin for her, and it helped. Since then he has added three other children—one of whom just turned a year old—to the list of kids he is helping at no charge. Others with children have approached him and are considering it, some, they say, after physicians suggested it.
"Doctors who heard from their colleagues about this are quietly closing the door and telling parents to try it," Ruben said. He is frustrated that no doctors are coming out to work openly with him to guide the children's treatment.
The effectiveness of cannabis against epilepsy was brought to national attention when CNN's chief medical correspondent, former cannabis doubter Dr. Sanjay Gupta, flipped. He decided to actually study medical marijuana, so he traveled around the world talking to actual doctors who were using it in treatments. What he found made him change his mind, and he now supports medical cannabis.
One patient Gupta highlighted in last summer's documentary, Weed, was Charlotte Figi, a child in Colorado whose parents tried cannabis after dozens of other drugs failed to stop their daughter's 300 gran mal seizures per week. Her seizures all but stopped after she started using oil made from a strain of cannabis called Charlotte's Web. There is mounting anecdotal evidence that CBD is highly effective against seizures, though as with any ailment helped by cannabis, there is little clinical proof.
Two of Ruben's patients have seen dramatic improvement.
His first epilepsy patient saw a reduction from hundreds of seizures per week to a handful almost immediately. He can pay attention in school, he plays more, he talks more. Another patient, a 13-month-old girl, is now having just one seizure per week, Ruben said. He expects similar results for the other two children after they stabilize dosages.
Charlotte's Web was developed by a group of six brothers named Stanley at their legal grow in Colorado. Originally, the strain was called Hippie's Disappointment, because while it is high in CBD, it's very low in THC, which as most of you know is responsible for getting cannabis users high. Charlotte's Web has about 1 percent THC and about 20 percent CBD. This is especially important for children, because no one wants to get kids high unless they have to.
Pharmaceuticals already do that, which is a key reason many of these parents want to try cannabis. Harlequin, the most effective strain Ruben can find in Arizona, has about 9 percent CBD and 4 percent THC, a ratio of roughly 2 to 1. What Ruben needs is a ratio closer to Charlotte's Web's 20 to 1. But he can't get it. The strain isn't available yet in Arizona and there is no way to legally import it. Federal law prevents cross-state traffic, even between states where cannabis is legal.
"It's like having Silicon Valley that can only make chips for California," Ruben said.
Ultimately, this situation is going to work itself out. I believe the federal government is going to lift interstate commerce restrictions in the cannabis world in the next couple of years. I think they'll come around, just like Sanjay Gupta did, and parents here will be able to get whatever strains they need.
Isn't that the right thing to do?