Hemp oil successes tempered by some risks

Twenty-one states and Washington, D.C. have legalized some form of medical marijuana, and if Gov. Jay Nixon signs hemp oil legislation within the next few weeks, Missouri will be added to that list.

A bill awaiting Nixon’s approval seeks to allow cannabidiol (CBD) oil as treatment for children with “intractable,” or hard-to-treat, epilepsy. The cannabis plant would be grown with a high percentage of CBD and a low percentage of THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a high.

This particular epilepsy treatment has worked in Colorado, as well as several other states.

Two and a half years ago, when Paige Figi’s daughter, Charlotte, was 5 years old, Paige discovered CBD oil in Colorado. Charlotte was suffering from Dravet syndrome, experiencing 1,200 seizures a month.

“She was brought home on a hospice, do-not-resuscitate (status), with feeding tube and oxygen,” Figi told the Missouri Senate’s Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “(She) had lost all life skills. We had nothing left to try — we had tried over a dozen treatments.”

Paige and her husband did some research and found animal research suggesting CBD as a possible anti-convulsant.

As an end-of-life comfort measure for her daughter, Paige approached the Stanley brothers in Colorado Springs, who had done some botanical breeding to treat cancer patients.

“And they had bred a plant extremely high in CBD and extremely low in THC,” Paige said.

“It qualified as hemp. It’s below that .3 THC Level. And it has no psycho-active effect.”

The Stanleys tested the plant multiple times, turned it into an oil and gave it to the Figis — who then gave it to Charlotte.

Her seizures stopped instantly.

“I really didn’t think it was going to work,” Paige said. “I thought that it was just going to give her this end-of-life, last couple months of no suffering, and it actually stopped her seizures.

“And, fantastically, she was still in there — she hadn’t lost everything from all the brain damage from the medicines and the seizures.”

Other parents caught wind of how the CBD oil had helped Charlotte and about a year later, the Stanley brothers’ operation became a nonprofit — the Realm of Caring Foundation.

The specific CBD oil is now known as “Charlotte’s Web.”

“I’m here from Colorado to say this is working,” Paige told the Senate committee Wednesday. “We have over 500 patients in our program. We keep the cost at a non-profit cost.”

Others, like Charlotte, have benefited from the CBD oil, and Dr. Margaret Gedde — a Stanford-trained physician who specializes in medical cannabis in Colorado — sees individuals every day at her practice.

“I think we’re seeing when people have access legally, they do find medical benefit,” she said. “I think if you allow more access, people can get a better sense of it and what it can be.”

While Colorado law doesn’t allow her to prescribe and dispense cannabis, she advises patients on what to obtain and how to use it.

“I guide them on obtaining the appropriate oil, and then I work with them on dosing it and helping them get control of not only seizures, but other issues as well,” Gedde said. “Behaviors or cognition, like their intelligence, and their ability to interact are a lot of things that can be taken away by seizures. It (cannabis) helps them to be able to develop.”

Gedde said she can split the children she’s advised for the use of CBD oil into two groups.

“One are those who are sensitive and can have some adverse reactions to the cannabis oil,” she said. “They may be sensitive to medications in general, but they’re sensitive to the oils.

“You have to be really careful to go low doses, and go slowly, and let it give benefits over time.”

The other group is the kids that can take the oil increasingly in larger doses and not have any adverse effects, such as an increase in seizures or other sicknesses.

“So, there are kids who don’t have a problem with it, so you can get the dose up fairly quickly over a number of months and really get very good seizure control,” Gedde said. “I would say it’s about a quarter of the kids who it goes like that and goes very smooth from the beginning. But, about three quarters have to go more slowly and carefully.”

She said about a quarter of cannabis oil patients have found the treatment has too many side effects for them, and they can’t get the benefits without problems.

“We’re learning as we go,” Gedde said. “We’re hoping to improve those numbers.”

Sen. Rob Schaaf, also a family physician, said finding the correct treatment — one that works without hurting a patient — can be tough.

“Sometimes, the treatments don’t work,” said Schaaf, R-St. Joseph. “This (CBD oil) is the answer for some of them.”

He hopes the taboo associated with marijuana is one day nonexistent.

“You know, people ought to have access to any drug that helps them — including marijuana,” he said. “If you have a medical condition, you’re suffering, and marijuana can help you, your physician ought to be able to prescribe it for you.”

Schaaf’s not a believer in recreational marijuana.

“But, I think that there are many people who could benefit from it,” he said. “And this oil is just one example.”

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