Autism and Marijuana

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Marie Myung-Ok Lee gives her autistic son pot:

Last summer, we reached the six-month mark in our cannabis experiment. We’d been using medical marijuana to help quell our autistic son’s gut pain and anxiety, and we were seeing some huge changes in his behavior and, presumably, his happiness. J was smiling, interacting (one of home-based therapists said she’d never encountered such an affectionate autistic child), even putting his dirty dishes in the dishwasher — rinsing and everything! — not only without being told, but without ever having been asked to do such a thing. The more I’d been reading, along with J’s doctor, about the effects of cannabis — analgesic, anti-anxiety, safe — the more it seemed a logical choice.

When their grower moved away for the summer, and they were using a grab-bag of his leftovers, they learned that they couldn’t give their son just any pot:

In the meantime, cracks started to appear in J’s cannabis-aided serenity. One day, his frustration boiled over into a tantrum. Next, hits. An occasional bite. Then the fabric-ripping screaming, sitting with toes pointing down at the floor — his clearest pain sign. Next, he woke up at night, crying and screaming when he had to go to the bathroom. One day, I noticed — could it be? — toothmarks on the neckline of his pajama top (pre-cannabis, he used to chew and eat his shirts and bedding).

I went over his diet with a fine-tooth comb, looking for possible allergens I’d overlooked. I even upped his cannabis dose a bit by adding one more pot cookie. It only made him alternately a bit silly and belligerent. The number of reports he brought home for acting aggressive at school started to tick upward. For Karl and me, this backslide was awful, like when J was 2 years old and started to lose his words. I couldn’t believe it was happening.

I called Organic Guy, to see if he had any ideas.

“It could be because he’s not getting any White Russian,” he said. “The stuff you have is, well, a mix of all the stuff I had left.”

If it weren’t so tragic, it would sound like a bad 1970s comedy sketch. Anyway, there are apparently two major types of marijuana:

Sativas are the leggy plant with the five-pointed leaves, the cover girls of cannabis — they can make you feel more social. Indicas are squat and bushy with gigantic resinous buds that sparkle like Christmas ornaments and tend to induce pain relief and sleepiness. Organic Guy had started J on a variety of both sativas and indicas.

We hit the magic combination with White Russian, a hybrid of two strains: AK-47, a sativa that’s peaceful despite its aggressive name, and White Widow, an indica/sativa hybrid. This seemed to be a perfect balance, giving J pain relief and making him more social without sedating him. The boy who used to push us away had begun to cuddle!

Eventually they got hold of something comparable to White Russian:

Gardening Girl, let’s call her, was licensed. But she had only seedlings in her nursery so far. And she was not growing White Russian.

But Gardening Girl did have a giant resinous ball of an exotic Afghani strain called Kush, an indica with such effective pain-relief properties that it was chosen by a British pharmaceutical company making a medical cannabis product. (Meanwhile, in the United States, a Republican congressman introduced legislation to increase the penalties for selling Kush, tagged as “super pot.”) Gardening Girl had procured the Kush for a patient who’d changed her mind about wanting it, and so she donated it to us, with the license numbers neatly typed out.

I didn’t want to waste a molecule of the Kush, so I divided it between a batch of olive oil and glycerin (a favorite way to extract herbal properties into a naturally sweet, gluten-free base). This filled the house with the smell of pot while I stirred the simmering brews for hours, heating it enough to get the materials to react without making it burn, which would ruin everything. J loved the sweet stuff, which he took from a dropper, and I used the oil for his cookies. But after a week, the results were spotty. J was somewhat happier and in less pain, but he was still irritable and violent, mixed with unending laughing fits. The Kush wasn’t organic, so I didn’t know if J was reacting to the difference between it and the White Russian or to pesticides or other contaminants.

Salvation came in late October when Organic Guy managed to score some White Russian from a protégé. We bought a baggie of dried leaves, which Organic Guy did me the favor of making into an extra-strong batch of olive oil for J’s cookies. Within two weeks, the number of times J was marked for behaving aggressively at school dropped back to the single digits, even zero on some days. This was all the scientific evidence we needed. We’d learned an object lesson: helping J manage his pain, and the aggression it caused, wasn’t as simple as merely giving him some pot, any pot.

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