Medical Marijuana and Young Patients

Nov 23, 2009

ADHD, autism, Charles Lynch, Media, New York Times, science

Lately there has been a small burst of media fascination with what by most accounts is a rare occurrence: Use of medical marijuana recommended by a physician by patients under 18. Any psychoactive drug, including marijuana, should be used with caution in children, but there is no reason that these infrequent cases should be shocking. Indeed, they should be taken as signposts on the road to urgently-needed research.

Sad as it is to contemplate, kids do get deadly illnesses like cancer and AIDS. Medical marijuana dispensary operator Charles Lynch faced an enhanced federal prison sentence for providing medical marijuana to 17-year-old cancer patient Owen Beck, who survived his cancer partly thanks to Lynch’s help, and who attempted to testify on Lynch’s behalf but was barred from doing so. And millions of young people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been prescribed stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, whose side effects can include psychotic symptoms and interference with growth, not to mention sudden death when used by patients with some preexisting heart conditions.

Unfortunately, a story in Sunday’s New York Times looking at marijuana as a treatment for young people with ADHD managed to avoid shedding much light on the issue. Instead, the focus seemed to be on sensational quotes ("worst idea ever," "safer than aspirin") rather than a serious look at the science.

Writer Kathy Ellison did briefly reference a study in the journal Schizophrenia Research, but without properly explaining it. Of the 25 young people with ADHD in this study, the marijuana users scored healthier than non-users on nearly every measure of mental functioning, including specific measures of hyperactivity and disorganization. This was particularly striking because in the same study a separate group of individuals at genetic risk for schizophrenia were made worse by marijuana. The published study includes a discussion of the biochemical mechanisms by which marijuana might help ADHD. This is consistent with published case reports that have found a beneficial of THC on ADHD.

Meanwhile, ABC’s “Good Morning America” did a more respectful job in reporting on the mom of an autistic child who says that a small amount of marijuana, administered under a doctor’s care, has literally saved her child’s life. Others have told similar stories.

We don’t know nearly enough yet to state definitively that marijuana is helpful for youthful ADHD and autism. But we do know enough to say that proper research is urgently needed, and that this is a serious enough issue that the media need to treat it seriously.