Colorado pot aids kids with seizures, worries doctors

By Nicholas Riccardi

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 17 2014 11:27 p.m. MST

In this Dec. 5, 2013 file photo, marijuana matures at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeast Denver.

Ed Andrieski, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The doctors were out of ideas to help 5-year-old Charlotte Figi.

Suffering from a rare genetic disorder, she had as many as 300 grand mal seizures a week, used a wheelchair, went into repeated cardiac arrest and could barely speak. As a last resort, her mother began calling medical marijuana shops.

Two years later, Charlotte is largely seizure-free and able to walk, talk and feed herself after taking oil infused with a special pot strain. Her recovery has inspired both a name for the strain of marijuana she takes that is bred not to make users high — Charlotte's Web — and an influx of families with seizure-stricken children to Colorado from states that ban the drug.

"She can walk, talk; she ate chili in the car," her mother, Paige Figi, said as her dark-haired daughter strolled through a cavernous greenhouse full of marijuana plants that will later be broken down into their anti-seizure components and mixed with olive oil so patients can consume them. "So I'll fight for whoever wants this."

Doctors warn there is no proof that Charlotte's Web is effective, or even safe.

In the frenzy to find the drug, there have been reports of non-authorized suppliers offering bogus strains of Charlotte's Web. In one case, a doctor said, parents were told they could replicate the strain by cooking marijuana in butter. Their child went into heavy seizures.

"We don't have any peer-reviewed, published literature to support it," Dr. Larry Wolk, the state health department's chief medical officer, said of Charlotte's Web.

Still, more than 100 families have relocated since Charlotte's story first began spreading last summer, according to Figi and her husband and the five brothers who grow the drug and sell it at cost through a nonprofit. The relocated families have formed a close-knit group in Colorado Springs, the law-and-order town where the dispensary that sells the drug is located. They meet for lunch, support sessions and hikes.

"It's the most hope lots of us have ever had," said Holli Brown, whose 9-year-old daughter, Sydni, began speaking in sentences and laughing since moving to Colorado from Kansas City and taking the marijuana strain.

Amy Brooks-Kayal, vice president of the American Epilepsy Society, warned that a few miraculous stories may not mean anything — epileptic seizures come and go for no apparent reason — and scientists do not know what sort of damage Charlotte's Web could be doing to young brains.

"Until we have that information, as physicians, we can't follow our first creed, which is do no harm," she said, suggesting that parents relocate so their children can get treated at one of the nation's 28 top-tier pediatric epilepsy centers rather than move to Colorado.

However, the society urges more study of pot's possibilities. The families using Charlotte's Web, as well as the brothers who grow it, say they want the drug rigorously tested, and their efforts to ensure its purity have won them praise from skeptics like Wolk.

For many, Charlotte's story was something they couldn't ignore.

Charlotte is a twin, but her sister, Chase, doesn't have Dravet's syndrome, which kills kids before they reach adulthood.

In early 2012, it seemed Charlotte would be added to that grim roster. Her vital signs flat-lined three times, leading her parents to begin preparing for her death. They even signed an order for doctors not to take heroic measures to save her life again should she go into cardiac arrest.

Her father, Matt, a former Green Beret who took a job as a contractor working in Afghanistan, started looking online for ways to help his daughter and thought they should give pot a try. But there was a danger: Marijuana's psychoactive ingredient, THC, can trigger seizures.

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