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Advocates Want Medical Marijuana Treatment For Severe Autism Patients Regardless Of Age

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Some advocates want all Iowans with severe autism to be able to use medical marijuana, not just children. State regulators must approve any changes to Iowa's medical cannabis law.

Iowa public health officials are considering allowing medical marijuana access for some children with severe autism. But advocates are pushing to expand that access to all patients regardless of age.

The Iowa Board of Medicine is formally considering approving a rule that would allow certain children with autism to use medical cannabis, if they qualify as having "severe, intractable pediatric autism with self-injurious or aggressive behaviors."

Some family members of people with autism consider the limitations to be too strict. A parent's initial petition to state public health officials was to approve medical marijuana use for patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder writ large.

The Iowa Office of Medical Cannabidiol ultimately pared down the plan to cover only children with severe autism. But some advocates want that access available to everyone with severe autism, whether they’re 9 or 49.

"Autism is a lifelong condition and we need to have access for patients who qualify from childhood through adulthood." - Mary Roberts, parent of two adult children with autism

Mary Roberts is the mom of two adult children who she says are on the "more affected end" of the autism spectrum. She is also on the board of the Autism Society of Iowa and a cofounder of the group Familes and Autism Advocates for Cannabis Treatment or FAACT. Roberts says her kids deserve more treatment options than what's available to them right now.

“My kids for over 20 years have been on cocktails of benzodiazepines and anti-psychotics and often prescribed meds simply to counteract the side effects of other medications," Roberts said. "It really becomes pretty complex and potentially compromising to their well-being.”

Roberts says people with autism regardless of age could benefit from medical cannabis.

“Autism is a lifelong condition and we need to have access for patients who qualify from childhood through adulthood,” she said.

Roberts says FAACT plans to file a proposal with the Iowa Office of Medical Cannabidiol this week requesting access for adults with severe autism. That board must approve the language before passing it on to the Iowa Board of Medicine.  

That agency is considering adding severe pediatric autism to the state's list of debilitating conditions that qualify for medical marijuana treatment. Two medical professionals penned letters of support for the change, family medicine doctor Jon Ahrendsen and physician assistant Karn Johansen, who are both based at the Iowa Specialty Hospital Clinic in Clarion.

In a letter to the state Board of Medicine, Ahrendsen says parents ask him about the potential benefits of medical marijuana.

"Physicians, like myself, who treat childen with autism are often queried by the parents if 'medical marijuana' would be helpful for their child. It would be an advantage to be able to offer this treatment option for those patients with severe autism," Ahrendsen wrote. "I strongly encourage the Board of Medicince to approve severe autism as [sic] certifiable condition for medical cannabidiol."

"I believe parents and physicians in Iowa should have the right and legal protection to explore medical cannabis as a treatment option, especially in severe autism." - Karn Johansen, physician assistant in Clarion, Iowa

Johansen wrote that medical cannabis could be a good treatment options for patients and families who say their current medication regimens aren't working.

"[M]any parents whose children have failed multiple pharmaceutical and behavorial interventions, have inquired if medical marijuana would be an option to trial [sic] for their child's aggression and severe autism symptoms. I believe parents and physicians in Iowa should have the right and legal protection to explore medical cannabis as a treatment option, especially in severe autism," Johansen wrote.

The Iowa Board of Medicine is scheduled to review the rule proposing access for children at a meeting next month.

Under the state's current law, only patients with cancer, seizures, Crohn's disease, untreatable pain, Multiple Sclerosis, AIDS or HIV, ALS, Parkinson's disease or terminal illnesses can qualify for medical cannabis.

State regulators recently approved adding ulcerative colitis to the list of qualifying conditions as well.  Officials are still implementing the change but patients are expected to be able to access their prescriptions sometime this spring.