A Los Angeles doctor’s license is reportedly at risk after he told a father give his four-year-old a cannabis-infused cookie to control his temper tantrums. The incident, which emerged last month, captures the concerns of legalization opponents who fear easier access will lead to increased use among children, in this case facilitated by what the California medical board called “grossly negligent” doctoring.
Just about everyone agrees minors shouldn’t use cannabis. But what does changing policy mean for children’s use of the drug?
Legalization opponents don’t want to normalize the drug in children’s eyes, while supporters say the best way to keep weed away from kids is to sell it in stores where only adults can shop. After all, illegal dealers don’t ask for ID.
The argument was central to the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s successful push to legalize the drug last year. (Most of the US data I’ve seen shows that legalization has led to increased use by adults, but not by minors.)
When new markets write their laws, children remain a central concern. Proposals about how far dispensaries need to be from schools and whether companies can make edibles in animal shapes are nightly news staples. Cannabis companies have generally been accommodating, eager to avoid any perception that they are targeting underage customers.
With cannabis, the instinct to protect young people is amplified by the scientific literature. The data shows marijuana poses the greatest danger to people under 25, whose brains are still developing. In the significant US markets, the current buying age is 21, compared with 18 or 19 in Canadian provinces.
From a public health perspective, then, it might be smart to experiment with a buying age of 25, though this would cut into the industry’s core demographic. If, say, New York state, which is expected to debate legalization this year, proposed a buying age of 25, the industry would almost certainly counter that raising the legal age would prop up the illegal market, which sells to everyone.
While keeping pot away from kids is a widely shared priority, stories in which children benefit from medical marijuana have helped the legalization movement spread its message.
The 2013 CNN documentary Weed featured the story of Charlotte Figi, a little girl who suffered from a debilitating childhood seizure disorder. After Charlotte’s parents exhausted their other options, they connected with the Stanley brothers, a Colorado family of marijuana growers.
Charlotte began taking oil from a strain of cannabis low in intoxicating THC but high in CBD, and her condition dramatically improved. The strain she took became known as Charlotte’s Web.
The documentary inspired a number of similarly afflicted families to uproot their lives and move to Colorado where they could access the medicine. For the families who didn’t move, smuggling networks arose to disperse the oil.
Last year, a pharmaceutical form of CBD called Epidiolex, produced by the UK company GW Pharmaceuticals, won approval from the US Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for patients like Charlotte, making it easier and safer to access the medicine.
Perhaps more than any other patient’s, Charlotte’s story helped shift US public opinion in favor of medical marijuana. This year the cannabis company Acreage Holdings tried to air a commercial featuring a similar story during the Super Bowl. Though it was rejected, it still went viral.
Now parents of kids with some other complex disorders, such as severe autism, have called for their children to have access to cannabis oil. Dr Peter Grinspoon, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and board member of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, said decisions about recommending cannabis for children were “taboo and emotionally charged”. But in cases of severe autism, he said, there was promising research that cannabis may help control behavior.
“You always have to ask what else you would be using,” he said. In cases of low-functioning autism, the argument for using cannabis may be stronger because the patients instead receive “heavy anti-psychotics that turn people into zombies”.
Stories like Charlotte’s are undeniably affecting. They demonstrate the need for more research to be done. “There are a lot of indications where it’s too early to tell,” if cannabis has any benefit, Grinspoon said. “We don’t know what the consequences are, but we’re desperate for the benefits.”