Epilepsy Foundation Lobbying for Medical Cannabis

Steph Sherer spoke at the Epilepsy FoundationToday, almost 14 months since the Epilepsy Foundation issued a call to action on medical marijuana, ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer spoke as part of the organization’s Medical Cannabis Panel on the eve the Foundation's lobby day on behalf of medical cannabis legislation.  

In those 14 months, 15 states have passed new legislation allowing medical use of cannabis or specialized extracts of the plant, with the vast majority specifying epilepsy or other seizure disorders as the reason for the law and frequently the only qualifying condition.

Only Minnesota and New York allow for a spectrum of qualifying conditions (and whole-plant medicines), while intractable seizures are the target condition for treatment in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Ever since CNN aired neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s documentaries on how cannabis extracts have successfully treated children, interest has been intense in how cannabis and its constituents, particularly cannabidiol (CBD), may be able to control seizures when other medications fail.  Parent groups of children with severe seizure disorders such as Dravets Syndrome have lobbied their state legislatures for solutions, and many of these new laws are the result of their heartbreaking stories of failed treatments and the new hope cannabis offers.

Tomorrow, the Epilepsy Foundation is holding a national lobby day to encourage Congress to pass the CARERS Act, groundbreaking bipartisan legislation introduced in both the Senate and the House last month. The CARERS Act would remove the current barriers to research -- as the Epilepsy Foundation called for last February -- and make CBD extracts legal throughout the US. It would also lift the threat of federal prison that hangs over state-qualified medical cannabis patients and those who provide their medicine where it is legal under state law.

Those are important steps for all Americans, not least the 2.8 million who live with seizure disorders that can lead to disability, injury and death. Cannabis may not be the best medicine for all of them, but one third of those with seeizures get little or no relief from conventional medications. And cannabis has provided extraordinary relief for some, such as Charlotte Figi, the child featured in the first CNN documentary who was experiencing nearly 50 convulsive seizures a day but saw that reduced to only two to three per month and has now been weaned off her other anticonvulsive medications.

That should not be as surprising as it is. The anticonvulsant properties of cannabis were first described over 1,000 years ago and were discussed in 19th-century medical literature. The first modern case study of a patient achieving relief with cannabis was published in 1949, it’s been 40 years since the first animal study showed that cannabis significantly reduced seizures, and double-blind placebo-controlled studies have shown positive results in humans since 1978.

It has been just over a year since the American Herbal Pharmacopeia released its Therapeutic Compendium on the history of using cannabis to treat seizure disorders. Last June, the medical journal Epilepsia devoted its entire issue to medical cannabis and cannabinoids as treatment for seizure disorders, including an article on Charlotte written by her mother and Edward Maa, MD, Chief of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at Denver Health and Hospitals. Currently, the FDA has approved a very limited trial of a dose-controlled CBD extract, Epidolex, with children who suffer from severe seizure disorders, and preliminary results released today show extraordinary promise.

But the FDA process is a long one, fraught with bureaucratic barriers. Congress can act now to make a difference.