Political activism can create strange bedfellows. In this case, a conservative Christian organization is teaming up with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws to advocate for medical marijuana access for kids—and adults—with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Both Arizona NORML and Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism are supporting state legislation to allow autism as a qualifying condition for a MMJ patient card, but due to "gatekeepers" in the Arizona Senate, a bill to make that happen has been stalled and there is no telling when the opportunity will come again.
House Bill 2154, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Diego Espinoza (D-LD19), Rep. Regina Cobb (R-LD5), Rep. Jennifer Jermaine (D-LD18) and Rep. Kevin Payne (R-LD21), seeks to add any debilitating condition of ASD to the list of qualifying conditions to the medical marijuana program.
MAMMA, founded in 2014, is an organization started in Texas by a group of Christian women who were searching for answers to ease the pain their autistic children endured as a result of the ravages of the disorder.
According to the CDC, ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
"There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people," states the CDC website.
"The learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged. Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives; others need less."
Autism symptoms can include many social interactive problems and in extreme cases autistic children can also fly into violent rages, often hurting themselves and their parents.
Brandy Williams, a Phoenix-area mother who is a longtime member of Arizona MAMMA, has worked to try to get relief for other parents that she has seen with her 11-year-old son Logan Simpson.
"I've seen him put his head through a glass window and I've seen him hit a concrete sidewalk so hard I thought his head was gonna cave in," Williams said of the self-harm Logan has done over the years. "He's had black eyes, and all the doors in our house [at one point] had holes in them."
Logan would open and close doors throughout the house over and over again, until many of the doors and hinges on cabinets in the kitchen were broken. Williams herself suffered injury from Logan's outbursts and would often be rebuked in public because she could not control her son.
The Williams family went through all of the medical solutions available to families with autistic children, namely therapy and heavy doses of various drugs and narcotics intended to treat symptoms. But she worried they would ultimately do more harm than good.
"I couldn't take my son anywhere, he would just scream and rip my hair out and people would just stare," she said. "There was no restaurants, there was no movie theaters, there was no playground. There was no grocery shopping. When he was three years old, his pediatrician handed me a 'script for Risperdal and a 'script for a protective helmet and said, 'Good luck.'"
Their living situation became so bad that Williams' daughter asked to move in with her grandparents when she was 16 years old.
With nowhere to turn, Williams decided to give cannabis a try after seeing the positive effects it had on her father, who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and who had treated it with medical marijuana since it became legal in Arizona.
"I really didn't know the implications that cannabis would have on autism because I didn't really know about it," she said. "I just wanted to remove one drug from his life, and that was his seizure medicine, so we tried CBD."
She realized CBD wasn't sufficient but was still hesitant to get his card, associating the medical marijuana program as a way for stoners to get hassle-free drugs.
"At first I didn't really know if I should go get a card," she said. "I was a little nervous because the doctors—what were they gonna say?"
Williams finally acquired Logan's medical cannabis card with a diagnosis of epilepsy when he was 5. This took place just a few months after Arizona law changed to legalize marijuana derivatives.
"I gave him his first dose in June 2015 and within 20 minutes, it started providing relief. No kidding," she said.
Williams still faced criticism because of the perception that parents of autistic children are just getting them stoned so they don't have to deal with them, but she says that is not the case.
"It's a lot more than 'just doping them up,'" she said. "People don't understand what the levels of severe anxiety, fear and rage are doing to these young kids."
Autism affects the endocannabinoid system, one of the major regulatory systems of the body that helps control movement, hence the use of cannabis for those suffering the effects of Parkinson's Disease.
It also helps regulate sleep. Williams said that one of Logan's "tics" was that he was always moving and was not able to sleep, therefore no one in the family was able to get much sleep either.
"He would literally spin around in circles, run back and forth and open and close doors all day long," she said. "His body did not rest ever, ever: I used to have to sleep on the floor in front of the door with one eye open."
Within months, of his first use of MMJ, Logan was making progress. He began to be able to speak in something approximating sentences. He was even able to go to school and learned how to read within a year.
Unfortunately, due to coronavirus, Logan has regressed, but that has not affected Williams' desire to see changes in laws surrounding cannabis.
"We had about four good years where there was no police, there was no acts of aggression at school and he was not banging his head anymore," she said. "Everything was decreased in severity."
Williams said things are improving again, and thinks if she would have been able to go to Phoenix directly as HB2154 worked its way through the process, it may well have passed.
"Only 19% of people with autism actually live outside of their parents' home, and less than 10% of people with autism can hold a job," she said. "A lot of these parents will have to care for their kids for the rest of their life, so the divorce rate in autism is around 80%."
Another issue that affects parents of autistic children, as well as the taxpayers of Arizona, is the need for services such as various forms of therapy, special schools and help with care.
According to Arizona NORML board member AJ Jacobs, who has been working with MAMMA for two years and is the father of two autistic sons, the cost of that care is roughly $120,000 annually per child paid by the state.
Jacobs, an Air Force veteran and former Arizona state trooper, uses cannabis to treat pain from a back injury, but he has not been able to try cannabis on his sons because it is illegal. But he has seen the positive effects MMJ can have on kids suffering from autism and hopes to bring disparate groups together for sensible legislation.
"It's gonna take all of us coming together, giving representatives good science and good information and trying to talk to them," he said. "And get them to understand the fact that we're just parents that are wanting the best for our children."
Aside from his work with NORML, Jacobs has created a podcast attempting to use his law enforcement background to change perceptions about the "Devil's medicine."
"I'm trying to bring the communities together and educate the cannabis community and also educate law enforcement officers," he said.
As to the bill, Jacobs thinks it was close to getting the legislative support it needed, but perceptions about "Reefer Madness" killed it.
"We had the House of Representatives that came together with bipartisan support, and we had Senate members as well," he said. "It was 100% there and they just [killed it] based on bad information and bad science."
Jacobs' podcast can be found at facebook.com/BluetoGreenpodcast. Links to his Instagram page may be found there as well.
More information on MAMMA and its #cannabis4autism campaign can be found at mammausa.org.