This Man’s Desperate Quest to Cure His Son’s Epilepsy—With Cannabis

This is Sam. He’s my son. His epilepsy caused him to have up to 100 seizures a day. After seven years we were out of options. Our last hope: an untested, unproven treatment. The only problem? It was illegal.

The hospital pharmacist slid three bottles of pills across the counter, gave my wife a form to sign, and reminded her that this was not the corner drugstore. The pharmacy knew how many pills had been dispensed, he said; it would know how many had been consumed; and it would expect her to return the unused pills before she left the country. The pharmacist made it clear that he was not only in touch with our doctor but with the company supplying the medication. They would know if she broke the rules.

I had found this story in WIRED & felt it could be shared with others because it has a happy ending for the family.

Evelyn said she understood and slipped the brown glass bottles into her purse. She and our 11-year-old son, Sam, were jet-lagged. They’d flown from San Francisco to London the previous day, December 19, 2012. Now, 30 hours later, it was just after 7 pm. They’d been at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children since midmorning. Sam had been through a brain-wave scan, a blood test, and a doctor examination. Some gel left in his hair from the brain scan was making him grumpy.

Evelyn was terrified. They’d come 5,350 miles to get these pills, medicine we hoped might finally quiet Sam’s unremitting seizures. He was to take a 50-milligram pill once a day for two days, increasing the dose to maybe three pills twice a day. Evelyn was to keep a log of his symptoms during their two-week stay. They would need to revisit the hospital two more times before they returned to San Francisco on January 3, 2013. That meant two more rounds of brain scans, blood tests, and doctors’ appointments.

We were confident the medicine wouldn’t kill Sam or hurt him irreversibly, but the prospect still made us nervous. The pills contained a pharmaceutical derivative of cannabis. People have been smoking cannabis medicinally for thousands of years. Deaths are rare. But Sam would get a specific compound made in a lab. The compound, cannabidiol, known as CBD, is not an intoxicant. (Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the stuff in pot that makes you high.) Nevertheless, US drug laws made it nearly impossible to get CBD at this purity and concentration in the States.

It had taken four months of phone calls, emails, and meetings with doctors and pharmaceutical company executives on two continents to get permission to try this drug. Sam wasn’t joining an ongoing clinical trial. The company made the pills just for him. It believed CBD was safe based on animal studies. It also said it knew of about 100 adults who had tried pure CBD like this over the past 35 years. As a percentage of body weight, Sam’s dose would approach twice what anyone else on record had tried for epilepsy. Would it make him vomit or become dizzy, or give him a rash or cause some other unpleasant event? We didn’t know. We’d volunteered our son to be a lab rat.

Then there was a bigger question: Would the medicine work? No one knew. The reason Evelyn, Sam, and others in my family—including Sam’s twin sister, Beatrice, and Evelyn’s sister, Devorah—traveled to London during Sam’s winter vacation was that two dozen other treatments we’d tried had all failed. (I stayed behind in San Francisco, scrambling to meet an end-of-year book deadline.)

The one thing we were certain about: This was not going to be a bargain. We’d already spent tens of thousands of dollars on consultants to help Sam’s doctors set up the visit, and we were still at the starting line. The best-case scenario was that the medicine would work and eventually we’d be allowed to import it into the US. We secretly hoped that this would encourage the company to make the drug easily and cheaply available to others. We also knew this was quixotic. Our previous experience with medications suggested the whole venture would end in failure. This much we knew: Importing an experimental cannabis-based drug into the US would involve more than giving the company my address and FedEx account number.

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