Prescribing Marijuana for Autism: A Good Idea?

An Arizona lawmaker wants to add autism as a qualifying ailment for medical marijuana.
An Arizona lawmaker wants to add autism as a qualifying ailment for medical marijuana. 7th Dwarf via Pixabay
A proposed bill would allow autism spectrum disorder to be a qualifying ailment under the state’s medical marijuana law, despite previous rejections of the idea and limited research to support the practice.

State Representative Diego Espinoza, a Democrat from Tolleson who filed the bill on December 9, said it was a response to some parents’ desire to use the drug as a treatment alternative for certain symptoms associated with autism, in lieu of giving children with the disorder prescription drugs.

The proposed bill comes despite a lack of empirical evidence proving marijuana is effective in helping children with autism and national recommendations that marijuana not be prescribed as a treatment until more conclusive research on its risks and impacts is available.

click to enlarge Diego Espinoza - RAY STERN
Diego Espinoza
Ray Stern
Currently, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, approved by voters in 2010, allows doctors to recommend marijuana use to patients who suffer from certain preapproved conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease, AIDS, nausea, and chronic pain. The Department of Health Services, which oversees the program, is allowed under the law to add any conditions it deems medically justifiable to the list, though it has only done so once — for post-traumatic stress disorder, in 2014.

While medical marijuana can be prescribed to treat certain conditions occasionally found in people with autism, like seizures, autism alone is not currently an approved medical condition in the state.

“We want to give parents the option,” Espinoza said, stating he had heard from parents who believed the drug would be more effective than the long list of medications they were currently giving their child.

He said the current requirements to treat children with autism who experience nausea or seizures were too restrictive, and that autism itself should be recognized as an “ailment” occasionally needing marijuana treatment. He declined to provide specific symptoms associated with the disorder that such a prescription was intended to treat, saying that was the parents’ story to tell.

“It would obviously be on a case-by-case basis,” Espinoza said. “That’s why we’d still have medical staff making these decisions. But having that consideration is a great option. It may not work for everyone, but if it improves the life of one Arizonan, then absolutely.”

Two years ago, a group of moms with autistic children petitioned to have the condition added to the list, but the plea was rejected. The decision was upheld last year, after a state hearing officer found the petition “failed to provide evidence that the use of marijuana will provide therapeutic or palliative benefit to an individual suffering from ASD.”

The legislation would circumnavigate the process, eliminating the need for Health Department approval or empirical research before doctors can prescribe the drug.

When asked if he was concerned if passing a bill before definitive research materialized might create avenues for malpractice by doctors who may over-prescribe marijuana to autistic kids, whether or not they had any associated illnesses, Espinoza said he welcomed a research requirement be added into the proposal. He believes there is already good research to support marijuana’s use to treat autism.

“Why not add some reporting data to be included into the proposal, to ensure what we’re doing is best for the state of Arizona and the lives of those individuals that are being treated?” Espinoza said. “And if it’s not, then that’s something we can review, and if it’s something that needs to be rescinded because of the lack of evidence or the lack of improvement in those patients, then we should talk about that. But by not having this [proposal] as an opportunity, where are we at?”

He pointed to Colorado, where he said many families were moving from other states, including Arizona, because of the state’s passage of a law earlier this year that added autism to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.

The House bill would also allow medical marijuana prescriptions for people suffering from opioid use disorder.

Autism Speaks Arizona and Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center did not respond to requests for comment.
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Hannah Critchfield was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.