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Marijuana and Autism Debate Revisited - Drug Rehab and Alcohol Treatment

Marijuana and Autism Debate Revisited



In the face of growing news about prescription drug addiction and marijuana legalization, it is important to remember that the ways we look at drugs, addiction, and medical treatment are as influential as the solutions themselves. A perfect example of this is a story covered by Good Morning America about the use of medical marijuana to help people with autism.



The basic gist of the story is mother Mieko Hester-Perez saw that the medications for her son, Joey’s, autism weren’t working. Instead, he was not eating and she believed he was dying. She then started giving him marijuana in brownies, and “within hours” he was asking for food. Over the course of using marijuana, Joey has become more “calm and balanced” says Hester-Perez.


At the time the story aired, there were many articles written by autism and marijuana sites about the story. However, few, if any, focused on the lack of analysis given to the prescriptions Joey was previously taking for his autism.


Most notably, Dr. Sharon Hirsch, the “authoritative voice” on medical treatment of autism of the story, said that the boy shouldn’t use marijuana as a medication because


“He’s intoxicated. He’s stoned. It means he is under the influence of a drug and may have an addiction.”


30 seconds before, the report said that when the boy started using marijuana, he reduce his use of thirteen prescription medications to three. Thirteen prescriptions?! Does the doctor really believe he wasn’t intoxicated and possibly addicted to one of the thirteen different drugs pumping through his body?


medical marijuana


The doctor’s reaction implicitly says that, unless marijuana is legal and available for government inspection and approval (i.e. able to be manufactured and sold by pharmaceutical companies), like Vicodin or Oxycodone, it is dismissed as a viable solution to autism because it causes intoxication and may cause addiction – consequences also caused by FDA approved medications.


Furthermore, stereotypical phrases like marijuana makes the child “stoned” conjure up associations so far away from a professional and clinically tested solution, that marijuana is dismissed based on lowest common denominator clichés. In fact, Diane Lane recognizes Mieko Hester-Perez, the mother, and her visceral reaction to the term.


But two second later Lane goes right back to a fairly stereotypical reaction, asking Hester-Perez, “What were the behaviors that drove you to seek out this dramatic, if not controversial, [solution]?”


prescription pills

Photos courtesy of istockphoto


If considered logically, which is more dramatic – 13 medications versus 3? Giving your child a medication that comes from the earth or developed in a lab by combining chemicals, some synthetic, that you have no idea what they are, where they come from, how they affect your child’s brain?


In this report, the doctor’s lack of balance in the analysis of the pros and cons of marijuana as a treatment immediately shuts off a debate about the actual results of marijuana as a medication. Making marijuana look illegitimate eliminates the scrutiny needed to look at what the other medications have been doing to the child, why they didn’t work, and the real possibilities that they cause intoxication and addiction, maybe to an even greater extent then marijuana.


Granted, the doctor’s statement is a sound bite needed for the show and the limited in-depth discussion is probably due to time. This story was aired about a year ago and the debate has expanded in some ways. However, reexamining this story points to continued need for the community surrounding drugs, addiction, and rehabilitation to continually question available status quo answers or lack thereof.




ABC's The Practice, Marijuana & Autism


After tweeting this story, the folks at Challenges Rehab replied to say that the issue of using marijuana as a medication for autism was addressed in a recent episode of ABC's television show, Private Practice (linked to the specific episode).


In the episode, Justine Bateman plays the single-mother of a 12-year-old boy with autism. She has a prescription for marijuana for her own issues with headaches, but after going through many treatments and medications, she starts giving her son the marijuana. Upon telling this to her doctor and her son's doctor (after the child’s doctor questions his “glassy eyes”) (see cliché remark above), there's a surge of dramatic music, both doctor's say that she should not be giving him the marijuana because it is “irresponsible.”


Private Practice


When the mother stops giving the child marijuana, he reverts back to intense autistic symptoms. In the middle of a fit, the child's doctor holds him and says, "We'll find another treatment. We'll get through this." While the mother screams back, "No, we won't. I won't. Please just give him the drug." The doctor responds, "Sorry, I can't do that." Later, the doctor says he’s given him a sedative (a bong toke maybe?) to calm down.


It's unreasonable to expect a nighttime soap opera to honestly portray the nuance and the grey areas in an issue like using marijuana to treat autism symptoms - especially when the next scene is Taye Diggs running shirtless on the beach. But, after the episode was aired, the show's web discussion board and several bloggers fumed in disgust at the outcome of the child being taken away by child services because the mother gave him pot from the street, which was laced with PCP.


private practice

Photos courtesy of


What about prescription pill intoxication and addiction?


The bloggers' analyses noted the ways in which the mother was portrayed and what it means to take care of an autistic child. However, what the criticisms missed is questioning the doctors' reactions to using marijuana as a viable medication, which is the argument we made about the doctor in the Good Morning America story.


In both instances, there is a total disregard of the doctor's responsibility to give substantive reasons why marijuana should not be used, besides the fact that it can intoxicate the child and may lead to addiction. Both these arguments against marijuana are not substantive because, what the doctors in both shows refuse to admit is that, one or several of the multiple medications that the doctors will prescribe can cause intoxication, may become addictive, and don’t even effectively treat the patient.


This lack of analysis on the doctors' part shows a laziness in not expressing the legitimate medical and chemical reasons why marijuana should not by used. It also is negligent to not acknowledge the ramifications of prescription drug use, despite the fact that these medications are legal. For both marijuana and prescription medications (which are a growing cause of addiction), there should be much more discussion about the doctor's responsibility and role in suggesting and prescribing (or not prescribing) medications that effectively treat autism, based on results and patient wellness, not taboos and clichés.


What are your thoughts about this debate? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!

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