Medical marijuana, which is currently legal in 17 states and Washington, D.C., has gained recent interest and criticism for its use in treating children. A number of states that have legalized medical marijuana also allow prescriptions for children under parental supervision in treating conditions such as epilepsy, autism and cancer. Zaki Jackson, a child suffering from a severe form of epilepsy, is one such patient.
Diagnosed at 6 months of age, Zaki’s condition caused him to have up to 250 seizures per day.
“He would stop breathing,” said his mother, Heather Jackson. “All the air leaves his lungs and he does not take another breath until that seizure is over.”
As he grew older, his epilepsy markedly limited his ability to engage in many normal kid activities.
By the age of 10, Zaki had tried 17 different medications to treat his condition, none of which seemed to help alleviate his seizures. In a departure from standard epilepsy seizure treatments, his doctor then wrote him a prescription for medical marijuana. Zaki’s parents were, at first, surprised and disturbed.
“We are Christians,” his mother said. “We are conservative. And we’re using medical marijuana. That’s kind of a big hump for people to get over.” But the years of watching Zaki struggle with his condition made her more open to the prospect.
“Despite the stigma with cannabis, we owed it to Zaki to give it a try,” Jackson said.
The effects of the drug were immediate and dramatic.
“I probably stared at him for a good three hours after his first dose and then I fell asleep,” Jackson said. “I didn’t feel any seizures after his first dose.” It has been eight months since Zaki’s last seizure, and he is now starting to engage in the activities, like riding a swing, in which he was previously unable to participate.
Zaki’s medicine is bred specifically for him with lower levels of THC and higher levels of cannabidiol, or CBD. The two cannabinoids both address pain, nausea and seizures, but CBD is not psychoactive like THC, according to Dr. Margaret Gedde of the Clinician’s Institute for Cannabis Medicine. That means that Zaki is not getting high but rather treating his symptoms directly. Zaki takes his dosage — an extract of purified cannabis oil high in CBD — every day in the form of a syrup he ingests.
In very basic terms, the process for patients such as Zaki works something like this. Human brains produce substances called endocannabinoids, which are responsible for balancing cell activity across a number of our fundamental body systems, including the nervous system. Endocannabinoids are released when human cells become overactive, thus preventing incidents such as seizures. But for some people, including epileptic patients like Zaki, this process is interrupted.
“It’s a balancing system and it’s what keeps seizures from happening in healthy brains,” Gedde said. “In these kids the system is overwhelmed. It needs a little extra help.”
The cannabinoids found in marijuana function similarly to the endocannabinoids secreted by our own brains. For Zaki and other patients, the cannabinoids appear to provide that extra help that their bodies so desperately need.
However, many critics say that not enough research has been done on marijuana’s long-term effects on children for it to be a safe alternative to standard prescription drugs. Opponents believe that clinical trials and testing need to be conducted to prove its safety.
“I worry that we just don’t know enough about it," said Dr. Sharon Levy of the Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School. "I think they’re putting their child at risk of long-term consequences of marijuana use that we don’t fully understand. A couple of generations ago, physicians were recommending tobacco as a good method of relaxation or to relieve stress. It seems unbelievable now."
“This is a substance that’s been used for thosuands of years and it has a known safety profile,” Gedde said.
Though initially hesitant about the treatment, Zaki’s mom is now convinced of its positive effects.
“Medical marijuana is definitely saving Zaki’s life,” Jackson said. “It’s saving his life and it’s giving him a quality of life.”