Bill Smith has a very rare life-threatening disease. He is 16 years old. He’s missed about a year of school. A few months ago his doctors decided to try Smith on medical marijuana. It worked like a miracle drug. It worked so well that Smith is home from the hospital and ready to resume high school.
State law (HB 10-1284) and his school district’s strict adherence to the law are conspiring to make going back to school very difficult for Smith (not his real name).
State law is clear that no one may possess or consume medical marijuana on the grounds of a school. Harrison School District 2, in Colorado Springs, has made it clear to the Smith family that it intends to follow the letter of the law. The district confirmed that stance in a short interview with the Colorado Independent as well.
It’s not like Smith wants to smoke a daily joint in the boys’ room. He takes pills or lozenges.
His condition, Myloclonus Diaphragmatic Flutter, causes severe seizures of the diaphragm and neck muscles. “It’s like hiccoughs on steroids,” his father said. The father said his seizures sometimes last as long as 36-48 hours, or did before the boy began taking THC pills.
The frequency of the attacks has been reduced to about once a week, the father said, thanks to another medication the boy is on. He only takes the THC after an attack begins. His father calls THC the boy’s “rescue medication.” He said that if he can take the drug immediately, the attacks’ duration will be shortened considerably, typically to no more than an hour or two.
If he has to leave school to get his medication, the attack will last longer, and he will miss more school. “He can’t talk or anything when he’s in the middle of an attack,” his father said.
The boy had been enrolled in Harrison High School, which the family prefers. “It’s a better school for him,” the father said. “That’s where he wants to be.” But today he begins classes at Sierra High, which is closer to home, so that the boy can walk home to take his medications as needed. Even though the district doesn’t allow freshman or sophomores to leave campus, the father said they are giving his son a pass so he can leave as needed. We did not interview the son.
“What if the family didn’t have the option of a closer school,” asks attorney Kristy Martinez, who does some work on behalf of medical marijuana patients. To see Martinez’s personal story of using medical marijuana, click here.
She paraphrased late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, “Children do not shed their constitutional rights just because they walk onto school grounds.
“How is minimizing his constitutional rights necessary in order to provide a safe environment for other students? You might think it would be safer to minimize his seizures instead,” she said.
“We need school administrators who are courageous and informed. They can’t fall back on the state law if that law violates the constitution, which it does. I don’t envy the district’s position, but they made they wrong decision,” she said and then quotes Brennan again: “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”
The father told The Independent that only 40-50 people in the world have this condition. Prior to beginning treatment with marijuana, the boy had to use such drugs as morphine and Valium to control the attacks. The need for those drugs is part of what kept Smith in the hospital for weeks on end and required many trips to the emergency room as well.
His father said the dosages of narcotics that are required in order to make a difference are so high that his son was sometimes almost in a coma-like state. “He had to be in the hospital because he couldn’t function on those drugs, and also to make sure he didn’t overdose,” the father said.
“They were just killing him with narcotics,” his father said. “He shouldn’t have to take Valium every time he has an attack, but the school would let him take Valium. The medical marijuana stops the attack, and he can function after he has taken it. He can’t function after taking enough Valium to make a difference. With the marijuana, the worst that ever happens–if he needs a high dose–is he might fall asleep for an hour and wake up hungry. That’s it. There is no fear of an overdose, no need to run to the emergency room.”
In fact, the father said, the boy has not been to the hospital since beginning marijuana treatment about four months ago.
Jennifer Sprague, spokesperson for the district, said she could not discuss any particular student. “There is no way the district is going to answer any questions about any student,” she said. She did say, though, that state law will be followed with regards to medical marijuana. “If a student has a prescription for another drug–like Ritalin–that state law does not ban from schools, then the nurse would work with the family to see that the student gets the medicine they need.”
The father sent us an email written by Steven T. Marantino, executive director of student services for the district. The email is short and to the point. It quotes state law and then says, “Therefore… We will not allow the use of marijuana on our campuses with or without a medical use card.”
Smith’s father said his son has one of the worst cases of this condition on record. Typically, he said, the condition only affects one side of a person’s diaphragm, and in that case, surgery can help. His son’s condition affects both sides of the diaphragm and all they can do is treat it with drugs.
“The medical marijuana is just so much better for him than the narcotics. There is no damage to his liver or kidneys or other organs, but he has to be able to go to school.”
The father said they had considered just giving the boy some pills to keep in his pocket, “but that’s a felony and we sure don’t want that,” he said.
Smith has only been in school for about two weeks since the attacks started in late 2009. He starts up again today–but without access to the drugs that make going back to school possible in the first place.