SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Children in Illinois will be eligible for medical marijuana prescriptions, according to rules announced by state health officials in late December.
The rules by the Illinois Department of Public Health amend the medical marijuana pilot program approved by lawmakers in June. A handful of parents subsequently spearheaded a campaign to open the program to children under age 18, especially those who suffer from epileptic seizures.
Medical marijuana products are not yet available in Illinois. The state is still in the process of approving applications for cultivation centers and dispensaries. Industry experts anticipate medical marijuana products will be available by late spring or early summer.
Under the new rules, which went into effect on New Year’s Day, children diagnosed with a qualifying debilitating condition will be able to obtain marijuana-infused products but not raw marijuana for smoking. To obtain the treatment, children need a signature from their own physician, an additional doctor’s review and authorization and parental permission.
Since 1996, 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws creating medical marijuana programs. An additional 11 states have legalized the limited use of low THC, high CDB treatment for adults and minors with specific conditions.
Supporters see the Illinois action this as a step toward allowing children the potential benefits of medicinal marijuana. A hybrid marijuana strain called Charlotte’s Web has a growing following of parents who believe it’s an effective treatment for children suffering from severe seizures. The strain was developed by a Colorado company to be low in THC, the psychoactive ingredient that causes people to get high, and heavy in CBD, a compound in the marijuana plant with supposed medicinal qualities. Two U.S. drug companies have launched studies into the effects of CBD on childhood seizures but results will not be available for years.
In the meantime, skeptics question whether the treatment is truly helpful.
“There is good evidence of long-term harm of chronic marijuana use on the developing brain under 18 years of age,” said Leslie Mendoza Temple, a Chicago doctor who lectures on medical marijuana for the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians. The treatment is so experimental it should only “be considered when all other therapies have been exhausted and failed, and if the child is quite debilitated,” Temple said.
Others say Illinois doctors may be hesitant to put their name behind authorization for a child to take an experimental treatment.
“I know there are a lot of parents who feel desperate, and my heart certainly goes out to them,” said Joel E. Frader, a bioethicist and pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
“In Illinois, there has been pressure put on the state legislature and the regulatory process to increase the scope of use for medical marijuana by families who look at this as their last hope.”