Is Marijuana a Valuable Treatment for Autism?

by Bernard Rimland

marijuana plantI am not an advocate for drugs, either legal or illicit. I have never smoked and I don’t care at all for alcohol. I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.”

Recently, our newsletter, Autism Research Review International, published a letter from a father in New Jersey whose teenage autistic son had become extremely assaultive, sending members of his family to the hospital and requiring police intervention on a number of occasions. Like that New Jersey father, thousands of parents are dealing with autistic children who are so out of control, and so violent to themselves and others, that they can make their own lives and those of their families hellish.

We then heard from a mother in Florida whose very large autistic son had changed from a sweet, loving boy to a teenager who flew into unpredictable rages that “were usually associated with self-injury, aggression and property damage. At times I had to lock myself in the bathroom; otherwise he would attack me. We gave him many medications, but nothing worked.”

A friend suggested a solution: a brownie with marijuana baked into it. “Soon after he ate the brownie,” she said, “my son’s anxiety disappeared, and his sweet, loving behavior returned. He shows no signs of being under the influence of a drug. He now receives one marijuana brownie and several doses of Marinol, which contains the active ingredient in marijuana, each day. This has clearly saved my child’s life and my family’s life.”

Some severe behavioral problems in autistic children have improved remarkably when the child is given a treatment of high-dose vitamin B6 and magnesium, which has been proven to be safe and effective in more than 20 research studies. But in many cases that treatment does not work. Drugs such as risperidone (Risperdal) are often used to control severe behavior problems in autistic individuals, but they have a large range of highly toxic effects. It seems to me that if one is going to need to use drugs because the safe nutritional supplements do not work, one ought to consider a relatively safe drug such as marijuana, if research bears out the good results that a number of parents have reported.

While medical marijuana is not a drug to be administered lightly, compare its side effects to the known effects of Risperdal, which include massive weight gain, a dramatically increased risk of diabetes, an elevated risk of deadly heart problems, and a host of other major and minor problems. Other psychotropic drugs are no safer, causing symptoms ranging from debilitating tardive dyskinesia to life-threatening malignant hyperthermia or sudden cardiac arrest. Of all drugs, the psychotropic drugs are among the least useful and most dangerous; in comparison, the benefit/risk profile of medical marijuana seems fairly benign. Moreover, the reports we are seeing from parents indicate that medical marijuana often works when no other treatments, drug or non-drug, have helped. Among the comments received:

“I know it’s not the end-all answer, but it’s been the best answer for the longest time for us in [comparison] to all the other medications. I cannot tell you how many months we would go on a medication wondering if it was doing anything, anything at all. Here we can see the difference in 30 to 60 minutes.”

“My son (who is almost nine years old) has been on medications to address his severe autistic behaviors. . . . None of the medications has ever made a difference, except for making his behaviors worse. . . . A few months ago we tried the prescription drug Marinol and noticed a drop in the severe episodes, no fits and little to no aggression toward his teacher and family members on a daily basis. A few weeks ago we started him on cannabis and stopped the Marinol. He has been in a much better mood and is much easier to keep on task in the classroom now. . . . He still has days when he gets angry and moody, but we can adjust the dose to help him through those days. . . . I feel much more comfortable administering cannabis than something like Risperdal.”

Medical marijuana is not legal in most states. Information on whether or not medical marijuana can be legally prescribed in your state is available on the Internet at www.mpp.org. Additional information can be found at www.maps.org/mmj, www.NORML.org, and www.druglibrary.org.

It is important to keep in mind the distinction between legalizing marijuana for medical uses, which has been done in some states, and “recreational” drug use, which is illegal throughout the US. Judging from the evidence in hand, I believe legalization of medical use is justified. Legalizing marijuana for nonmedical use, as has been done for tobacco and alcohol, is quite another issue.

Even if medical marijuana can be legally prescribed in your state, doctors are likely to be very reluctant to help you obtain it. You might be able to obtain information or help from local AIDS awareness and advocacy groups, which have been in the forefront of making medical marijuana available to the public.

Again, I stress that I am strongly opposed to drugs in general, and consider them a last resort, to be employed only when safer and more efficacious treatments fail. But while I am not “pro-drug,” I am very much “pro–safe and effective treatment,” especially in cases where an autistic individual’s behaviors are dangerous or destructive. Early evidence suggests that, in such cases, medical marijuana can be a beneficial treatment, as well as being less harmful than the drugs doctors routinely prescribe.

A two-page letter provided to the Autism Research Institute (ARI) by a parent, providing additional information about medical marijuana and a list of more than 20 websites on the topic, is available on request. Fax ARI at 619-563-6840, or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Autism Research Institute, 4182 Adams Avenue, San Diego, CA 92116. Specify that you would like information about Marinol.

Bernard Rimland, PhD, the father of an adult autistic son, is the founder of the Autism Society of America and the Director of the Autism Research Institute. He was chief consultant on autism for the 1988 film Rain Man.