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As success stories of kids fighting seizures with cannabis oil mount, legal landscape is changing

By Dave Philipps

The Gazette (MCT)

Published: Friday, May 9 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Retail marijuana grows at 3D Cannabis Center, in Denver, Thursday, May 8, 2014. With federal laws making medical marijuana research nearly impossible, none of the oil’s healing properties have been scientifically verified, and the families have sometimes been dismissed as desperate kooks.

Brennan Linsley, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Swann family moved from Alabama to Colorado last fall to try save their daughter’s life with marijuana. It appears to have worked. And in the process, the Swanns and others like them have changed laws across the country so more children can have the same chance.

Fourteen-year-old Allie Swann was having up to 100 seizures per day that years of treatments, including surgery to remove part of her brain, and debilitating drugs had not helped.

“She was on the same stuff they use for lethal injections in Alabama,” her father, Butch Swann, said. “It couldn’t go on.”

So they came to Colorado. Like 115 other marijuana refugee families, as they call themselves, from 43 states, they left family, jobs and homes so they could try oil made from a special strain of cannabis that reportedly quelled the seizures in a handful of kids in Colorado Springs.

With federal laws making medical marijuana research nearly impossible, none of the oil’s healing properties have been scientifically verified, and the families have sometimes been dismissed as desperate kooks.

Now, six months after the first big group of children started using the oil, many families like the Swanns say they see remarkable improvements. A handful of families have returned home, some because of the strain of having uprooted to move here, others for other reasons.

For many of the kids, their seizures are dropping in number and intensity, and kids long lost to their medical conditions — or the powerful drugs used to treat them — are rediscovering the world.

News of the success has spread across the country, prompting the medical establishment to reassess cannabis and legislators to rewrite laws.

This spring, 18 traditionally conservative states, mostly in the South and Midwest, introduced medical marijuana bills narrowly tailored to epileptic children. Seven have been made law, with several more close to passing.

Butch Swann spoke repeatedly to radio and TV stations in Alabama about how the oil, which cannot get users high, has helped his daughter and could help thousands of others in the state. State legislators approved a bill giving children access to the oil unanimously.

“I hope this Alabama-led medical study can bring relief to children,” Alabama’s governor said at the signing.

Butch Swann laughs when asked about it.

“I wouldn’t have thought in a million years Alabama would pass medical marijuana in any form,” he said. “But I think people can see this is different.”

Maybe soon, he said, his family can return to Alabama. But in the meantime, he is enjoying a new life with his daughter.

Allie, who has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old, used to fly into rages daily, screaming for hours and biting her hands until they bled. Now she has a new air of calm contentment. Her hands have healed. An EEG brain scan from a year ago showed a nonstop quake of seizure activity. An EEG done a few weeks ago in Denver shows none.

On a recent warm evening she sat on the front steps of the family’s rented house in Fountain, Colo., with her father, watching her younger brothers play ball.

“This is something we could never do before, just sit and enjoy life. Her life was just a storm,” Butch Swann said. “Now we can take her shopping, go out to eat, just be a family together. It’s the answer to our prayers.”

Allie leaned over and silently gave him a kiss.

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