Journeys With Jeffrey

Jeffrey's Journey (Quick American Press) is a remarkable story of a mother's struggle to treat her young son's medical condition. A conservative Christian who enlisted in the U.S. Navy and planned to study medicine, author Debbie Jeffries instead met her future husband in boot camp and soon gave birth to her son, Jeffrey. Before his first birthday, Jeffrey started to exhibit behavioral problems, which escalated into severe ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder) coupled with obsessive/compulsive behaviors and violent tendencies.

A bright and charming boy when not in one of his rages, Jeffrey was diagnosed with a heartbreaking number of disorders. Doctors tried treating him with at least 16 different prescription drugs, everything from Ritalin and antidepressants to drugs prescribed for adult schizophrenia and epilepsy. None seemed to help and many worsened Jeffrey's condition or had serious side effects. He was institutionalized three times and nearly suffered a fatal overdose of drugs.

When Jeffrey was seven, Debbie's life changed when she heard a student debate about medical marijuana at a school where she worked.

"Up until then, I'd been completely in the dark about the subject. I had never used marijuana; I didn't know anyone who did (or so I thought); and my family and I were conservative Christians who had voted against Proposition 215, which passed in 1996, legalizing marijuana for medical use in the state of California. ... Any exposure we'd had to marijuana was what we'd gotten from the mainstream media. Our general view was that 'pot,' 'dope,' 'grass' – whatever you wanted to call it – was part of a counterculture movement that didn't have much value."

Debbie was amazed to learn that marijuana has been used to treat mental disorders, dating back to ancient times. When she had exhausted other options and was given a 30-day deadline to find a new school or send Jeffrey to an out-of-state residential program, she stepped up her research.

Jeffries found that, under Proposition 215, her son could legally use marijuana in California if recommended by a physician. She launched an exhaustive internet search and found WAMM, the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, which connected her with Dr. Mike Alcalay in Oakland. After extensive evaluation, an experimental treatment plan was recommended for Jeffrey.

"On May 21, 2001, with nine days left before I would almost certainly lose him, Jeffrey had his first dose of medical marijuana, baked into a muffin provided by WAMM. He was seven and a half years old. In some ways, I've felt like that was the first day of Jeff's life. ... It was a 45-minute trip to his school during rush hour traffic. I merged into the right lane to exit the freeway, and as I entered the city streets, I felt something strange happen between our clasped hands. Jeffrey's grip, always tense and restless, suddenly just loosened. It startled me – usually he clutched my fingers. I glanced over at him, and he was smiling. He said calmly, 'Mommy, I feel happy, not mad. And my head doesn't feel noisy.' ... Within half an hour of ingesting that first piece of muffin, I had a new child. I didn't know whether to keep on driving or pull over and cry."

Jeffrey's teacher sent home a note from school that day that began, "It was wonderful!" The teacher reported he had shown no aggression, and that he had been very compliant and responsive to redirection.

Jeffrey continued using marijuana for the next several months. The book relates how the family managed to standardize a dosage of the sativa/indica mixture, cooking it on baking sheets and packing it into pills he could swallow after he objected to the taste of his muffins. Debbie's mother, who initially was strongly opposed to the idea of medical marijuana, came to embrace her role as the "Pill Packin' Grandma" after witnessing the remarkable change in her grandson.

"Six months later, my eight-year-old son wasn't angry at the world," Debbie writes. Soon she had "the mother/son relationship I had dreamed of."

Jeffrey had been overweight (a side effect of his previous medications) before beginning marijuana therapy and as an interesting effect of his new regimen, he ate less until he returned to his normal weight. "The change in Jeffrey was phenomenal," wrote Debbie. "He had more energy and he was enjoying himself." The county school that had given Debbie a 30-day ultimatum was now expecting to be able to mainstream Jeffrey in a year or two.

Although Jeff still showed anger and defiance at times, and he lacked certain social skills, the issues were finally being addressed and real progress was made. When he had to be taken off marijuana – such as when he was hospitalized for a tonsilectomy – Jeffrey's bad behaviors would escalate rapidly. Within an hour of re-administration of marijuana, the symptoms would subside. "It seemed to all of us that Jeff was learning how to really think about his problems for the first time. He was becoming introspective," Debbie wrote.

Debbie received a surprising (to her) outpouring of support and understanding from her friends, church members, even her pastor. However, after only a month and a half of the new therapy, someone reported her to Child Protective Services and a court battle began, culminating in a trial in July 2001. That December, in a landmark ruling, the case was dismissed and the headlines read, "Mom Keeps Son on Marijuana Regimen."

After 48 Hours ran a story on Jeffrey's case in March 2002, 88 percent of viewers who called in voted for allowing Jeffrey to use marijuana. Over the following weeks, Debbie received numerous phone calls and e-mails from across the country from parents in similar predicaments. Other parents had also had success treating autistic and aggressive behaviors in their children with Marinol or marijuana.

Debbie's battle wasn't over. She remarried and relocated, and Jeffrey's new school district claimed they would be in danger of losing federal funding if his meds were administered on campus. She was able to overcome the obstacle by driving to his school at lunchtime and giving him his medicine herself.

Then, in September 2002, the DEA raided WAMM and destroyed the crop that belonged to its 250 member/patients. This cut off the only source of medicine for Jeffrey, who received his medicine free of charge from WAMM. He gained 20 pounds in a matter of months and the extra weight added strength to his violent episodes. A second formula was tried, but it only worked for a few weeks.

Again, Debbie was in a race against time. Doctors told her if Jeffrey's problems weren't brought under control by the time he reached puberty, they could be unsolvable. As the book closes, she has tearfully chosen to send Jeffrey to a ranch in Utah for troubled boys. Angry at her government, but with characteristic courage, she is hopeful the time Jeffrey had with marijuana therapy will help him get through the next stage of his life.

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