Mesa Boy Who Sparked Medical-Marijuana Court Ruling Dies

A Mesa boy whose family won a major medical-marijuana court ruling in 2014 following threats from prosecutors has died at age 7.

The life and legacy of Zander Welton will be celebrated at a service on Saturday that will be open to the public, says his mother, Jennifer Welton.

"What he leaves behind is a chance for hope — the ability to hope for something better and to fight for the thing that you really believe in because it helps," Welton tells New Times. "Even though the seizures are what ended up taking his life overall, he was able to benefit so much from that medication."

Zander, who began having seizures before his first birthday because of a rare condition called cortical dysplasia, would never have received the concentrated-marijuana tincture that helped him if it were up to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act that voters approved in 2010 made marijuana "and any mixture or preparation thereof" legal for qualified users — wording that seems to legalize not only parts of the plants, like the THC-laden buds, but also preparations such as hashish or hash oil. No extra additives go into those marijuana derivatives — they're made only from marijuana, similar to how olive oil is made from concentrating the essence of olives.

The Weltons decided to try a tincture based on hash oil after watching CNN reporter Sanjay Gupta's 2013 piece, "Why I Changed My Mind on Weed," which discusses the potential benefits for kids prone to seizures.

Zander sometimes suffered from several violent seizures each night. By the time he was 5, he'd had two surgeries in which pieces of his brain were removed. The surgeries and various drugs tried by the Weltons never provided long-term relief. Desperate to try something new, the Weltons put a message on Facebook following the CNN broadcast telling friends and family — and the world — what they planned to do and how they'd need financial help to obtain the tincture. Importantly for the Mormon family, they received support for their idea from a bishop in the church.

Members of the local medical-marijuana community stepped up to assist the Weltons. Butch Williams of the White Mountain Health Center in Sun City had known Jennifer Welton's husband, Jacob, when they were younger. They hadn't spoken in years, but Williams contacted the Weltons after hearing their desire to treat Zander with marijuana. Together with the operators of another dispensary, Harvest of Tempe, the Weltons began receiving the tincture for their boy.

The medicine appeared to make a tremendous difference in Zander's life. He had fewer seizures, would try to play more with his two brothers, and focus more on various tasks and in his kindergarten class.

Then Montgomery, a staunch opponent to legalized marijuana, announced that as far he was concerned, the 2010 law applied only to marijuana plants, not the resin extracted from the plants that's used for hashish or hash oil. He wasn't the only Arizona prosecutor to make that determination, which was based on unscientific, decades-old Arizona law that defines marijuana resin as a "narcotic" subject to a harsher felony charge. But Montgomery was vocal on the issue, publicly announcing that he would prosecute anyone — even state-authorized medical-marijuana patients — caught in possession of marijuana extracts.

Facing the possibility of prosecution on the serious felony narcotics charge, the Weltons stopped giving their boy his medicine. But their supporters sought legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to take the case.

The Weltons and the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Montgomery and state officials in October 2013 asking the court to declare that the 2010 medical-cannabis law did indeed allow the use of extracts and to permanently block Montgomery or anyone else from prosecuting the family for treating Zander with marijuana.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper granted the family their wish in March 2014 after instructing Montgomery's office on the definitions of words like "any" and "preparation."

The ruling had far-reaching effect that went beyond the use of extracts for sick kids like Zander. Following Cooper's ruling, local dispensaries began stocking their shelves with all sorts of marijuana-extract products, like hashish, shatter, and food products that contain infused oils or other types of concentrated marijuana.

Zander at first used a tincture rich in cannabidiol, a compound seen to provide benefits for certain maladies without the psychoactive high that comes from another marijuana compound, THC. By using marijuana in the last two years, Jennifer Welton says, Zander "developed into a person" and became "a bit more of our little boy."

"I did not know my son until he started on that medication," she says. "I know I'm going to be fighting until my last breath to make sure I get this medication into the hands of people who could benefit from it."

That some patients now engage in recreational use of concentrates because of Cooper's ruling doesn't concern Welton, she says.

"That's about people being responsible for their own behaviors," she says, adding that marijuana shouldn't be taken away from patients who need it just because some people may abuse it.

Marijuana, like everything else the Weltons tried for Zander, seemed to lose effectiveness over time, she says. The Weltons switched to a more THC-heavy tincture with decent results, but he "adjusted" to that, too. The frail boy finally couldn't hold out anymore, and had his final seizure on Monday.

The Weltons are inviting the public to give their condolences from 12 to 12:45 p.m. Saturday and to attend a service that begins at 1. A family-only luncheon takes place after that. However, the family has not yet nailed down a location for the service following a scheduling mix-up. Welton says anyone interested in going this Saturday should check the family's Facebook page, Zander Welton's Journey, for the latest details.

UPDATE: On Friday, the family announced the location of the service and time set aside for guests:

9/19/2015 from 12-2 for guests, additional time after for family
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints
19413 S. Sossaman Road
Queen Creek, Az 85142
What to wear: this is a celebration of his life, so feel free to wear color in your outfits as we are celebrating his life, not morning the loss. He made big things happen for such a little guy and he was happy every step of the way, so we should celebrate in love and joy.
Thank you so much for your love and continued support.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern