The nation has been focused, this summer, on its southern border, where thousands of young refugees have arrived from Central America, but in the state of Colorado another group of kids – a few hundred strong -- has arrived from Virginia and other states. They’ve come to get life-saving medication that’s not available back home, because it’s derived from marijuana.
Jennifer is Collins is like so many kids her age. She loves video games, movies and music, but at 15 she’s wise beyond her years – sobered by epilepsy -- a medical condition that causes seizures. They can disrupt her life at any moment, and in some kids they can prove deadly, but her Mom – Beth Collins – says prescription drugs used to treat epilepsy have caused terrible side effects.
“One of the medications that she’s on causes anger outbursts that are often quite violent, depression, suicidal thoughts, cognitive issues as well. She can’t focus in class -- that kind of thing.”
Doctors in Northern Virginia where the family lived had nothing else to offer, but Beth had heard about a new medication -- an oil taken three times a day by mouth. It doesn’t produce a high, although it’s derived from marijuana, so when the drug was legalized in Colorado, she and Jennifer moved there to try it.
“We just got a report from an EEG she had within the last month, where her neurologist said not only is she having significantly less seizures, but they were for shorter periods of time.”
Jen’s father, Patrick Collins, would have liked to join them, but there were important reasons to stay behind in Virginia.
My oldest daughter is going to be a senior in high school, and it would be really disruptive to uproot her, and then I’m in kind of a specialized field, and it would be very difficult to find another job.
So they live apart and separately lobbying lawmakers to legalize medical marijuana in Virginia.
“We figured, maybe naively, if it’s working for her then it’s probably working for a lot of other kids, and if that’s the case surely the evidence will speak for itself, and we won’t have to wait years and years.”
Jennifer joined them in writing a letter to Richmond:
“It says ‘Dear Virginia Legislature. My name is Jennifer Collins, and I live in Colorado, even though I would like nothing more than to still be living in Virginia. I am currently living in an apartment with my mom, me and my dog. My family is totally split up, and it’s killing me to see my mom this way. She’s never looked so sad and depressed in her life. I was worried when I first came here that the medicine would work, and I would never be able to see my friends again.”
She begged lawmakers to consider joining 23 other states that have legalized medical marijuana.
“If there is research that shows that medical marijuana works, then you would have to be crazy not to want to at least give it a try. Will you make it better for everyone? Will you make it possible for me to see my dad every day? Please consider it. Thank you. I’m Jennifer Collins.”
And Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist who sees many children with uncontrolled seizures, was open to the idea.
“There are over 100 medications that we use in this country right now that come from plants, so we have to be open minded, and we’re always looking for safe and effective forms of therapy for whatever disease we’re talking about.”
He’d like to see more data on the safety and effectiveness of marijuana derivatives like Cannabidiol in treating epilepsy, but for the sake of families like Jennifer’s, he’s willing to act now.
“This is something that’s not a Republican versus Democratic issue. It’s going to be a bi-partisan effort, and I’m in the process of meeting with various legislators in order to get this done. I think initially it will be for children with intractable epilepsy that are monitored very closely by a pediatric neurologist.”
Even if state lawmakers go along at their next session in January, Beth Collins says there are no Virginia companies set up to make the medication her daughter needs -- a pure form of the extract that does not contain pesticides or molds known to trigger seizures. Nor could she order it from Colorado.
“Because of federal law, you can’t bring it across state lines, so you can’t go and get some mature plants from one state where it’s legal and bring it to another state where it’s legal. You know you’re starting from scratch in every state.”
So she’s also begging Congress to approve medical marijuana nationwide.
“It’s not just important that we want to get home, because we do, but there are so many children in Virginia that I’ve met whose life literally depends on access to this medicine, and truly that’s of the utmost importance. I mean we’re okay. We’re separated, but we’re strong, and we’ll make it through this, but lots of people can’t travel to Colorado, and they shouldn’t have to!”
The federal government considers marijuana a class one drug – something with no medicinal value. The Collins family says that’s obviously not true, but until it’s reclassified, they fear there will be too little research and no chance to develop a pharmaceutical industry that could serve patients in all 50 states.