Children and Medical Marijuana

Lindsay Beyerstein

The Oregonian is trying to gin up a moral panic over a little girl with leukemia who manages her pain and nausea with medical marijuana.

Seven-year-old Mykayla Comstock is one of 52 children enrolled in Oregon’s medical marijuana program. Her oncologist and her mother have signed off on this treatment plan. Reading between the lines, it seems like Mykayla’s story got in the paper because her parents are divorced and her non-custodial father doesn’t approve of her mother’s decision.

The Oregonian argues that marijuana can cause developmental side effects. The story alludes to a study that found that smoking up several times a week for 20 years was correlated with an average IQ drop of 8 points. It’s unlikely that Mykayla will need the drug for nearly that long.

All drugs have side effects that have to be weighed against their medical benefits. Malnutrition and chronic pain have long-term developmental consequences, too. The Oregonian doesn’t bother to ask whether any of the alternative anti-nausea drugs have developmental side effects of their own. For all we know, the pharmaceuticals are as bad, or worse.

If Mykayla needed morphine, no one would bat an eye. It’s a heavy drug, but then again, leukemia is a heavy disease.

The only potential problem flagged by the Oregonian is that medical marijuana dosage is left up to the parents. Mykayla’s mom is a pot evangelist who believes the drug, as opposed to the chemo, put her daughter in remission. She’s given Mykayla up to 1.2 grams of edible cannabis oil in 24 hours, which the Oregonian breathlessly informs us is the equivalent of 10 joints.

A less hackish story would put that dosage in perspective. Do experts think that’s excessive for a girl of her age, weight, and tolerance level? How does this all-time high dose compare to her typical dose?

What does the equivalent of 10 joints” even mean when you’re comparing eating and smoking? I don’t know about cannabis, but normally, you’d expect to need a higher dose for a swallowed drug vs. a smoked drug because smoking is a much more efficient way to get a drug into the bloodstream. Saying that 1.2 grams of oil has the same amount of THC as 10 joints doesn’t necessarily mean that it will have the same effects.

Mykayla’s mom comes across as an anti-vaxxing, homeschooling flake. Maybe she is overdoing it. If so, child welfare should get involved, just like they would if a mother was giving her kid way too much over-the-counter cold medicine – which, unlike marijuana could easily kill a child. The fact that some parents go overboard doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t be allowed to have a potentially helpful medicine.

Medical marijuana occupies an awkward position in the pharmacopia because patients and parents have to decide the dosage themselves, often with little or no medical guidance. Even where medical marijuana is legal, most doctors aren’t trained in the therapeutic use of cannabis and many are hesitant to make recommendations without research to back them up. The solution is more research and better training for doctors, not prohibition for kids. 

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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