By Bill Laitner
Gov. Rick Snyder's top state regulator on Thursday rejected a state panel's advice to allow medical marijuana as a treatment for autism. The decision followed three years of efforts by parents of autistic children, their lawyers and supporters to have Michigan become the first state to specify that marijuana could be used to treat autism.
Mike Zimmer, appointed in December as director of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs -- LARA -- said he was concerned that an approval would apply not just to serious cases of autism but to all cases. And he said that parents applying to use medical pot would need the approval of two medical doctors, yet there was no requirement that either doctor be experienced in treating autism.
In a four-page "Final Determination," Zimmer said that allowing the use of medical marijuana for autism might do more harm than good to mildly afflicted autistic children. That view followed corroborating testimony in Lansing by Dr. Harry Chugani, chief of pediatric neurology at Children's Hospital of Michigan and a national authority on autism.
In July, Chugani told the Free Press that "the vast majority of kids with autism do not need pot, and I won't sign for it." He said the drug should be reserved for those with "very bad behaviors, aggression, meltdowns." Chugani could not be reached after the release of Zimmer's order.
Zimmer's order also said there was insufficient scientific research to justify using cannabis for autism. That's a concern about many of the conditions that are clearly aided by the drug, since marijuana research has been largely illegal to conduct under state and federal drug laws, said Robin Schneider, a spokeswoman for the National Patients Rights Association, a medical-marijuana advocacy group based in Grosse Pointe Farms.
"But in this circumstance, the petitioner did an incredible job of putting together a great deal of scientific information," Schneider said. The petitioner was Lisa Smith of Van Buren Township, mother of Noah, a 6-year-old boy with autism.
"It's my understanding that she is leaving the state," Schneider said. Smith declined to be interviewed, her lawyer told the Free Press in July.
Autism, said to affect 3 million Americans, refers to a wide range of brain disorders that generally cause difficulties in speaking, socializing and learning, and which may lead to repetitive behavior and seizures, according to the website of the Autism Society. Although there is no cure, the symptoms of autism often ease in adulthood, allowing many with the condition to work successfully and to live independently or within a supportive environment, the website says.
Hearing of Thursday's decision, LARA panel member David Brogren said: "Frankly, I'm sad." At a meeting held July 28, the panel voted 4-2 to approve cannabis for autism, with Brogren voting yes.
The vote occurred eight days after the panel's scheduled July 20 vote on autism had been postponed when representatives from LARA admitted to panel members that they had omitted from information packets about 800 pages of research papers filed in support of the autism petition.
"I dare say, this is not over. I will continue to work with the parents and families who face this challenge," said Brogren, 61, a retired insurance agent who lives outside Lansing and who treats his multiple sclerosis with medical marijuana.
A Clinton Township father of a preschool-age son with autism who told his family's story to the Free Press this summer said he was "obviously disappointed" by the decision.
"I'm going to have to keep looking at more treatment options and to be part of the movement to educate these people in Lansing," Dwight Zahringer said.
"I feel like we've had a lot of politics involved in decisions like this," Zahringer said.
No state specifically allows medical cannabis for autism, although California and Washington, D.C., allow using the drug for any condition that a medical doctor believes it may help, said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit group that favors legalizing marijuana.
Zimmer's four-page decision also said he worried that parents who treated their children might violate state law if they chose to administer medical marijuana by any means other than by smoking or eating the marijuana plant. Some parents who testified at hearings about how marijuana helped ease their children's seizure disorders said they administered the drug by alternative methods; some used marijuana-infused skin lotions, cooking oils or sweetened oral tinctures, said to be commonplace among Michigan's medical-marijuana users.
Yet, as Zimmer pointed out in his directive, those means remain illegal, according to a controversial 2013 decision of the Michigan Supreme Court. In that ruling, the court cited state law in specifying that only "the dried leaves and flowers" of marijuana plants constitute the medicinal drug.
"The court appears to be excluding other forms and products," Zimmer said in Thursday's order.
A bill that would broaden Michigan's medical marijuana act to allow other forms of medical pot -- House Bill 4210, sponsored by state Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, R-Alto -- has been in the House Judiciary Committee since February, after a similar bill failed to pass last year.
Michigan and Montana are the only states that don't allow alternative means of administering medical marijuana, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
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