Autism and Cannabis: Here’s What the Science Says

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Many parents have seen firsthand the calming, clarifying effect that cannabidiol (CBD) has on their autistic children. Yet most mainstream medical professionals remain skeptical about the effectiveness and safety of using medical cannabis to treat autism. Even politicians are divided: Earlier this month Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have added autism as a condition that qualifies for medical cannabis.

What does the science say? Like many conditions treated with medical marijuana, the personal experience and anecdotal evidence currently runs far ahead of the peer-reviewed scientific research.

Autism is often accompanied by epilepsy, leading some to suspect that CBD could allay both conditions.

It doesn’t help that headlines around the issue tend to reek of reefer madness (“Desperate Parents Of Autistic Children Trying Cannabis Despite Lack Of Studies”) or sensational cures (“Marijuana may be a miracle treatment for children with autism,”Why I Give My 9-Year-Old Pot”).

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are lifelong neurodevelopmental conditions that involve differences in language, behavior, and social interaction. It’s worth acknowledging that autism can be a highly contentious issue. The very definition of ASD/autism can spark debate among parents and experts. An emerging neurodiversity movement, for instance, has coalesced around the idea that conditions such as autism, ASD, and ADHD aren’t pathologies to be treated but differences to be respected. Autism has long been defined as a cognitive deficit. For those in the neurodiversity movement, it’s a cognitive difference.

Parents Searching for Relief

Brandy Williams’ experience is typical of the parents who use medical cannabis as part of their child’s treatment. Williams is the parent of an 8-year-old son, Logan, who was diagnosed with ASD a few years ago. By the age of five, Logan had exhibited countless examples of aggressive behavior: biting her, banging his head more than 150 times a day, and worse. Logan had even knocked out his own teeth—twice. Williams tried nearly 50 hours of therapy, but it didn’t seem to help.

In addition to ASD, Logan also suffered from epileptic seizures. That’s not unusual among people living with autism. Researchers have noted that ASD is often accompanied by other neurological disorders, which could arise from an underlying central nervous system condition.

Epilepsy is commonly reported to occur in about one-third of people with ASD, but scientific studies have turned up a wide spectrum of co-morbidity ranging from 5% to 46%.

In Logan’s case, his epilepsy diagnosis actually helped his overall situation with regard to medical marijuana.

In Arizona, Epilepsy Qualifies

Williams and her son live in Arizona, one of the many medical marijuana states that do not include autism as a condition that qualifies for medical cannabis. Arizona does include epilepsy on the list, however. (Leafly has a full list of Arizona’s qualifying conditions here.)

Years ago Logan’s mother tried to calm his symptoms by giving him hemp-derived CBD. That proved ineffective. But in June 2014, Arizona legalized the use of medical-grade cannabis for pediatric epilepsy patients. So Williams obtained a medical marijuana card for her son.

After a single dose of oil containing terpenes, CBD, and other cannabinoids (including a tiny amount of THC), Williams noticed a tremendous difference. Logan stopped rocking back and forth. His flapping hands calmed. After being completely nonverbal, Williams recalled, “Logan said 180 words in the first two months” of medical cannabis therapy.

Brandy Williams is one of many parents who have found medical cannabis to be effective in treating their child’s condition. Yet autism has yet to be accepted as one of the foundational conditions that qualify for medical marijuana in the 30 states that legally allow healthcare professionals to recommend it.

Only five states—Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Georgia, and South Carolina—specifically include autism as a qualifying condition. A few others, including Michigan, California, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, don’t specifically include autism but allow doctors to recommend medical cannabis at their discretion as they see fit. Some parents of autistic children have accessed medical cannabis for their child to treat a qualifying co-morbid condition (such as muscle spasms or pain) and found that the cannabis allays some of the negative symptoms of autism as a side benefit.

Williams and her local chapter of MAMMA (Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, a group with active chapters in six states) have pushed Arizona regulators to add autism to the state’s MMJ list, but they’ve met with resistance from state officials.

Most states don’t allow it, and yet some parents are adamant in their belief that it works. Why the disparity? Because the published research on cannabis and autism isn’t thin, vague, or contradictory. It’s practically nonexistent.

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