ABC News: 20/20: Marijuana From Mom: Mother Says Drug Helps Son Cope with Severe OCD - Parents Resort to Medical Marijuana to Treat Kids with OCD, Autism
Marijuana From Mom: Mother Says Drug Helps Son Cope with Severe OCD
Parents Resort to Medical Marijuana to Treat Kids with OCD, Autism
By JENNIFER JOSEPH and ASTRID RODRIGUES with CHRIS CONNELLY
Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
July 23, 2010—
Last year, 12-year-old Ryan Mendoza's obsessive compulsive disorder became so bad, his mother said, that his triggers -- the wind and spotting the number "6" -- would drive him to have crippling and violent meltdowns.
Completely incapacitated by his disorder, the boy was not responding to numerous drug therapies and he became despondent, said Judy Mendoza. On one occasion, when she pulled into her driveway, Ryan ran out of the house, threw himself on the hood of her car, and begged her to kill him, she recalled.
"I want you to run me down," she said he told her. "I don't want to live anymore. I don't want to live with this OCD anymore.'"
Determined to do anything she could to relieve her son's suffering, Mendoza said she finally decided to resort to a radical option -- medical marijuana.
Mendoza could consider this controversial course of treatment because she lives in California, one of 14 states where the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is legal when recommended by a doctor.
"My first gut reaction was, 'Oh, my God. [Giving my child marijuana] seems really out there,'" she said. "That seems drastic."
Yet Mendoza felt she had exhausted all of the other options available to help her son. Even anti-psychotic medications did not work. Her decision came down to one question: "What do I really have to lose?"
Without the Smoke
Rather than smoke the drug, children who are prescribed medical marijuana take a form of the herb that hardly resembles the mixture of dried leaves, stems and seeds typically smoked by marijuana users.
Instead, the drug is infused into butters or breads, or concentrated in liquid form, called a "tincture," that can be placed under the tongue for more rapid effect.
News a Mom Could Use: Would Marijuana Help Her Son, Too?
When Ryan Mendoza first was diagnosed with pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococcal infections, or PANDAS, a rare auto-immune disorder that causes severe OCD, Judy Mendoza never imagined she would rely on medicinal marijuana for her son's well-being.
She first considered it after watching a "Good Morning America" segment about another mother who resorted to medical marijuana to save her young son's life.
Mieko Hester-Perez's 11-year-old son, Joey, suffers from autism. His weight had dropped to a mere 46 pounds after he started refusing to eat, his mother said. He'd become aggressive and was hurting himself, she added. After watching the boy's health deteriorate, Hester-Perez gave him a pot-laced brownie.
For more than a year now, Joey has been taking medical marijuana regularly and, according to his mother, he has made remarkable improvements. Where before he was hostile and dangerous, his mother said, after taking the marijuana he relaxed, made sounds for the first time and gained 38 pounds. His medication regime also dropped from 13 to three drugs daily.
"I saved my son's life -- and marijuana saved my son's life," said Hester-Perez. "When a mother hears that her son is knocking on death's door, you will do anything to save his life."
Classified as an illegal drug, marijuana has not been subjected to any double-blind medical studies -- the scientific gold standard for drug testing -- to prove its effectiveness in treating either autism or OCD.
The effects marijuana has on the developing brain are not yet fully known.
Still, for those in favor of administering medical marijuana to the sick, regardless of age, the lack of testing is irrelevant.
"I can't guarantee it's going to do anything," said Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a retired physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. "But I can tell you it isn't going to [do] harm. [Marijuana] is remarkably non-toxic."
Grinspoon spent much of his career studying marijuana and has written several books on the benefits of the plant, including "Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine."
He also knows firsthand about the effects of medical marijuana. In the 1970's, his young son, Danny, who was suffering with cancer, used the drug to alleviate pain and nausea caused by chemotherapy treatments. Grinspoon credits medical marijuana with making Danny's last days tolerable.
Today, Grinspoon regularly hears from moms like Mendoza and Hester-Perez, who have also found the plant helpful in relieving some of their children's symptoms for various illnesses.
In Grinspoon's mind, the most dangerous thing about marijuana just may be the stigma attached to it.
"We have been brainwashed about this substance," he said. "There will come a time when people will recognize this as the wonder drug of our times."
But to Dr. Steven Sager, a child psychiatrist and the director at Echo, a teen drug and alcohol rehab center in Malibu, Calif., and other detractors, not only is medical marijuana a bad option, but it could do more harm than good.
"I think the medical marijuana might actually be making their symptoms worse," he said. "[It] might just be kind of sedating them and not really addressing the underlying issues."
Sager also warns parents that marijuana use could cause additional problems, including anxiety and depression.
Sager urges parents and physicians to be ultra cautious when giving children any type of drug. He said parents should only use medicines that have been rigorously tested and approved by the FDA.
Gateway to Health?
Mendoza is well aware of the widespread perception that marijuana is a "gateway drug," and the judgment others reflexively make when they learn of her decision to treat Ryan with medical marijuana, she said.
But, she said, if they know how severe Ryan's illness is, some would feel differently.
Shortly after Ryan's first dose of medical marijuana, the boy already was showing improvement, his mother wrote on her Web site, M-Squared, which stands for Mama to Mama. He had been refusing to go to the beach for more than a year, terrified a tsunami would hit, Mendoza wrote. But the day after he took the medicinal marijuana for the first time, the family went to the beach and, like any ordinary 12-year-old, Ryan allowed his family to bury him up to his face in sand, his mother wrote.
Ryan now takes a marijuana capsule once a day, his mother said on her site. He also is treated with liquid drops under his tongue when he is struck by severe anxiety.
While some parents like Mendoza and Hester-Perez have faith that medical marijuana will help their children, none thinks it's a magic cure.
Mendoza, perhaps, explained it best.
"[Medical marijuana] is just a piece of the puzzle. It's almost like a Band-Aid," she said. "[I give him] such a small amount. It's really just giving them medicine to treat a symptom."
She added: "It's like [the medical marijuana] just takes the edge off of his OCD. ... It's not like the OCD goes away when he has his medicine, but his ability to cope with it changes."
Mendoza wants to help other parents discover this piece of the puzzle and has become a vocal advocate for use of medical marijuana. She hopes parents struggling with how to medicate their children will reach out to her for information.
ABC News' Kimberly Brown contributed to this report.
Watch the full story on "20/20" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
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