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Connor Sheffield, Maryland
At 15, Connor isn’t old enough to have a driver’s license, but he finished 7th overall in the local micro-sprint kart race series. “Without racing, who would I be?” Connor wrote at the end of 2019. Without medical cannabis, likely not even alive.
Afflicted from a very young age by digestive and eating problems, Connor was finally diagnosed at age 11 with pediatric gastro-intestinal dysmotility, a rare autoimmune disorder that had him in and out of hospitals for much of his young life. Connor’s slow GI system results in pseudo-obstructions of his bowels and other painful, life-threatening problems.
In 2018, after years on a feeding tube, he spent a month in the hospital where he was fed through his veins for 20 days. His doctors at Johns Hopkins had given up hope and suggested to his family that there was nothing left to try. It was time for palliative care.
That’s when a family friend urged the Sheffields to consider cannabis. They’d exhausted their options, including many types of alternative medicine, but they remained deeply skeptical of cannabis.
“We didn’t think it would work,” Connor says. On December 27, 2018, they tried it anyway, administering a medicinal cannabis tincture containing 15mg of THC.
“Within 20 minutes, I felt better,” Connor says. “No pain, no nausea, and I had an appetite.”
Over the next month, Connor’s parents continued the cannabis treatment and carefully monitored and recorded his daily progress, documenting weight gains from the mere 76 pounds he’d dropped to during his month in the hospital. But they kept it secret from everyone out of fear of arrest or loss of custody to Child Protective Services.
When on their next visit his doctor said “Wow, Connor, you look amazing,” and began to pat himself on the back for Connor’s recovery, his mother, Tricia, knew it was time to tell him what had actually made the difference.
“His doctor was like, ‘Really?!’” Trica recalls. “He said he couldn’t sign off on it, but keep doing what you’re doing.”
Where the family got the most resistance was from Connor’s psychologist, who tried to talk them out of using cannabis to treat him.
“She was concerned about how it might affect his developing brain, but she’s a believer now.”
She was not the only to be persuaded by Connor’s experience. The dramatic improvements were undeniable to everyone who had been following his journey, of which there were many.
After missing on average 150 out of 180 days of school over the previous five years, in 2019, Connor was able to return to school full time. In this, his sophomore year in high school, he’s only missed 12. What makes that possible is the regimen of cannabis tincture, which he needs every four hours in microdoses.
Unfortunately, Maryland prohibits cannabis on school grounds for any reason, so he can’t go to the school nurse’s office to take his medicine the way he could if he had been prescribed steroids, Ritalin, or even an opioid narcotic. A parent has to come to school, sign him out, and take him completely off school grounds to give him the medicine that’s not just keeping him alive but helping him thrive. That’s possible some days, but there are others when his parents have to travel for work, and Connor has to skip his medicine.
Connor’s family is not alone in confronting this grave dilemma. Maryland currently has nearly 200 school-age children enrolled in its medical cannabis program, but none of them can take their medicine at school.
On January 20, 2020, a bill to fix that was introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates. If enacted, HB 331 and companion Senate Bill 0605, also known as Connor’s Courage, would remove that barrier for the state’s sick children.
When interviewed for this article, Connor was again at the Maryland statehouse, lobbying for the bills.
“I’m a living example that this works,” Connor says. “If I want to see this passed, they have to see me. I have to express the issue.”
Connor notes that there are currently only 11 states that allow school children to use the medicinal cannabis they’re legally entitled to on school grounds. Neighboring Washington, D.C. just added the provision, as has Virginia. The Sheffields are hopeful Maryland will join them this year.
“Being a public advocate is a little stressful,” Connor admits, but says that once people know the facts, “nobody is really going to oppose it.”
As many other patients also report, Connor says his microdoses of cannabis do not leave him feeling high, just out of pain. Tricia says cannabis has transformed her son’s life, not just helping him eat and digest food but allowing him to grow more confident and social. And in the last year using cannabis, he’s grown a foot in height. Connor finally had his feeding tube removed last month, and is excited to get back to racing.
“He’s well,” says Tricia. “He’s not sick anymore.”
This profile was originally published in the February 2020 ASA Activist Newsletter
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