LONDON — Medical marijuana may soon have a controversial new group of users — children. A new study reveals children with epilepsy saw tremendous benefits after using the once-illegal drug, lowering the frequency of their seizures by a staggering 86 percent.
Use of the whole plant cannabis means consuming tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is the active ingredient that gives recreational users a “high” feeling. In the United States, legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana is still a hotly debated issue, with only a portion of the country approving its use for adults.
There are cannabis epilepsy treatments available, but there is no THC in these products, and they appear to be far less effective. Researchers have been extremely reluctant to prescribe cannabis products, largely because of inconsistent clinical trial results.
Now, researchers at Imperial College London have found it could help treat epilepsy, a condition which affects around three million adults and 470,000 children in the U.S.
“We believe that our data on whole-plant medical cannabis in childhood-onset severe treatment-resistant epilepsy, provides evidence to support its introduction into the NHS within current NICE prescribing guidelines,” the study’s corresponding author Professor David Nutt and his team write in the journal BMJ Paediatrics Open.
“Such a move would be hugely beneficial to the families, who in addition to having the psychological distress of looking after their chronically ill children, have also to cover the crippling financial burden of their medication.”
Daily marijuana treatments led to significant health improvements
Study authors collected data from the parents or caregivers of 10 children with severe epilepsy over the phone or video conference call between January and May 2021. The participants, recruited through two charities advocating for medical cannabis treatments, suffered from a range of epilepsies and had not found a suitable treatment.
Two of the children tried the only pharmaceutical grade, purified cannabidiol (CBD) oil licensed for the condition in children (Epidyolex). However, this drug does not contain any THC and they continued having severe seizures.
Three of the children also had other health issues, including infantile spasms, learning disabilities, and developmental delay. On average, the children had tried seven conventional epilepsy drugs to stop the seizures before giving whole cannabis products a try. This number dropped to just one medication type after starting the marijuana treatment, with seven of the children stopping all other treatments.
Overall, the number of seizures they experienced on a monthly basis fell by 86 percent on average. A full chemical analysis revealed the children were taking around 5.15 mg THC and 171.8 mg CBD every day. The average cost of the treatment per month comes out to approximately $1,166.
Parents and caregivers reported seeing significant improvements in the children’s health and well-being, including better sleep, eating, behavior, and cognition after taking medical marijuana.
‘Families deserve better’
Despite the results of this small group, the researchers say their findings are only observational and they need to conduct further research before recommending the drug for children.
The study authors note it’s also possible that only parents with a favorable option of medical marijuana decided to take part in the study. However, the findings are in line with several observational and controlled interventional studies which show medicinal cannabis helps sooth seizures.
The new study also suggests taking whole plant medicinal cannabis products may be better than CBD alternatives. Previous studies have found that CBD can provide health benefits for a range of conditions, without marijuana’s psychoactive ingredients.
“Patients and their families deserve better, so we implore policy makers, regulators and public health bodies to prioritize the health of these individuals and help them to access in the NHS medicines which are making a dramatic improvement to their lives,” says study author Rayyan Zafar in a university release prior to the start of this trial.
South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.