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Should a 7-Year-Old Use Medical Marijuana?

One of Oregon's youngest medical marijuana patients, who suffers from leukemia, stirs controversy.
 
 
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Seven-year-old Mykayla Comstock was diagnosed with leukemia last year. To deal with the debilitating side-effects of chemotherapy, Mykayla has turned to another medication: Cannabis oil.

"It helps me sleep," Mykayla told the Oregonian,"The chemotherapy makes you feel like you want to stay up all night long." Cannabis has also been widely credited with reducing pain, nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients, benefits Mykayla’s mother Erin Purchase says are impossible to ignore. "She's like she was before," Purchase told the Oregonian. "She's a normal kid." A medical marijuana patient herself, Purchase grows her family’s medicine and administers cannabis oil pills to Mykayla daily. She credits the plant with her daughter’s recovery.
 
According to ABC News, Erin Purchase enrolled Mykayla in Oregon’s medical marijuana program within three days of her leukemia diagnosis last July. Initially, doctors were concerned Mykayla did not respond well after treatment and suggested she might need a bone marrow transplant. Mykayla started taking the cannabis oil pills, and Purchase says that by early August, Mykayla was in remission and the transplant was no longer necessary. "I don't think it's just a coincidence," Purchase said. "I credit it with helping -- at least helping -- her ridding the cancer from her body."
 
Still, the thought of such a young medical marijuana patient does not sit well with everyone. After a visit with his daughter this August, Mykayla’s father Jesse Comstock, who lives in North Dakota, took issue with the treatment.

"She was stoned out of her mind," Comstock said. "All she wanted to do was lay on the bed and play video games." Comstock employed the help of a private lab, which detected THC in his daughter’s system. He contacted the Gladstone police. After reviewing Mykayla’s medical marijuana paperwork, the department told Jesse their hands were tied. 

For a minor to legally enroll in Oregon’s medical marijuana program, a guardian must consent and agree to the role of caregiver. Purchase says she will continue to give Mykayla cannabis for the duration of the two to three years of chemotherapy she has left.

Mykayla's father objects. "She's not terminally ill," Comstock pointed out. "She is going to get over this, and with all this pot, they are going to hinder her brain growth. It's going to limit her options in life because of the decisions her mother has made for her."
 
A video of Mykayla paints a different picture of her cannabis use. In a clip posted to the "Brave Mykayla" Facebook page, Mykayla articulates a youthful understanding of how "cannabis cures sickness," saying that “It can help you eat; it can help you sleep...and it also helps you to feel like a normal person.” She looks like a normal, happy kid, but where most 7-year-old girls have hair, Mykayla wears a brown and pink knit hat.
 
Comstock’s fears for his daughter are in line with many other Americans who are concerned that exposing a developing brain to marijuana’s psychoactive effects could be harmful. Like many other medications, the long-term effects of adolescent use of marijuana are unknown. Opioids like Oxycontin and Percocet are used to treat pain in cancer patients, including children. They are also far more potent than pot and regularly linked to overdose. Marijuana, however, is known to be a relatively benign substance, with zero deaths and few health risks.
 
Still, weighing the pros and cons of medical marijuana is a complex task. Research has linked adolescent pot use to neurospychological damage, but it has also linked cannabis to cancer-combatting activity. Cannabidiol (CBD), one of many cannabinoids in cannabis, shows especially promising potential to treat a range of conditions. In California, 6-year-old Jayden David relies on a carefully constructed ratio of CBD to THC to treat his life-threatening seizure disorder, Dravet's syndrome. And Mykayla is not the only tiny medical marijuana patient in Oregon. According to ABC News:
There are currently four other patients enrolled in the Oregon medical marijuana program between the ages of 4 and 9, six between the ages of 10 and 14, and 41 between the ages of 15 and 17, according to the Oregon Public Health Division. Severe pain, nausea, muscle spasms and seizures are among the top conditions cited for medical marijuana use.

A recent O’Shaughnessy’s article examined the use of medical marijuana in a high-functioning kindergartener with brain cancer and a 7-year-old with pediatric diabetes and ADHD. Cannabis made their daily routines more manageable, helping them to function and interact with other kids at school -- a key component to childhood development.

Maia Szalavitz summarizes the medical complexity in Time:

The American Academy of Pediatrics...opposes the use of marijuana to treat young children, citing its addictive potential and the many unknowns about how it may affect developing bodies. The Institute of Medicine (IOM), a scientific group of experts consulted by Congress, analyzed the available data and since 1999 has acknowledged that certain legitimate medical uses of marijuana are worth additional study. While the panel noted that many effective treatments already exist to relieve nausea and cancer pain, it recognized that for some patients who may not respond to these therapies, the components in marijuana may be helpful. The group’s main objection to the drug was its use in smoked preparations, which is not an issue in this case.

The IOM’s report highlights the need for much more research into understanding medicinal uses of marijuana—including for which symptoms or conditions it might be most effective, and for which patients. Those concerns are magnified when it comes to treating children like Comstock, who often are not included in clinical trials because of their young age, and who may have many more years to contend with any possible side effects of the drug. Some experts point out that not all of marijuana’s components, and their effects on the body, have been studied, not to mention well understood. Without more research, both doctors and parents will continue to face the difficult decision of giving youngsters a compound and hoping it will do more good than harm.

As Allan Badiner recently wrote on AlterNet, the healing potential of marijuana is largely untapped, and often requires more sophisticated means of extraction than smoking. Nonetheless, the benefits of marijuana’s lesser-known compounds, like CBD, may be the most remarkable. “Researchers Sean D. McAllister and Pierre Desprez, who conducted studies of CBD's effect on cancer cells for California Pacific Medical Center, suggest that these non-psychoactive compounds from the cannabis plant might, in short order, render chemotherapy and radiation distant second and third options for cancer patients,” wrote Badiner.

In the end, how people feel about a 7-year-old child's medical marijuana use may depend upon which research they have read.

 

Kristen Gwynne is an associate editor and drug policy reporter at AlterNet.  Follow her on Twitter: @KristenGwynne