Fearing Prosecution, Family Stops Giving 5-Year-Old Marijuana Extract That Thwarted Seizures


Zander Welton

Where brain surgeries and pharmaceuticals didn’t work, medical marijuana did for five-year-old Zander Welton. Marijuana prescribed by his doctor has allowed him for the first time to hold a fork, sleep through the night, and even perform more complex motor tasks like walking backwards.

But although Arizona is a medical marijuana state, it is not clear whether the law allows particular kinds of medical marijuana, including an oil extract. Facing statements from the Maricopa and Pima county prosecutors that extracts violate the law, Zander’s parents stopped giving him the medicine.

Unfortunately, the extract has been crucial to Zander’s treatment. Heating it — when smoked or infused in a tea — releases the plant’s psychoactive properties, which is precisely what his parents are trying to avoid. And simply crushing up the dried leaves and putting it in his food has proven difficult to ingest and imprecise.

Zander’s parents have now filed a lawsuit in advance of criminal prosecution seeking to clarify that the state’s medical marijuana law includes medicines derived from the plant, as several other states grapple with this issue. A New Jersey bill to allow edible forms of medical marijuana was held up by Gov. Chris Christie (R), even as one father of a two-year-old child with a debilitating form of epilepsy implored Christie at a public event, “Please don’t let my daughter die.” And one family with a 17-month-old who suffers from debilitating seizures is planning to move to Colorado, which has one of the more established medical marijuana (and soon recreational marijuana) schemes, so they can treat their daughter without being prosecuted.

The efficacy of treating children’s seizures with marijuana gained national attention after a CNN documentary featured six-year-old Charlotte Figi, whose life was transformed after she started using medical marijuana. In the course of researching that documentary, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta reversed his position on marijuana’s health benefits, saying, “We have been terribly, and systematically misled,” and that marijuana not only has significant medical benefits, sometimes it “is the only thing that works.” In fact, it was this documentary that alerted Zander’s parents to marijuana as a treatment for seizures.

Since then, the Department of Justice has directed prosecutors to roll back crackdowns of marijuana dispensaries complying with state law. But federal officials have always prioritized prosecution of marijuana providers, not users like Zander. Many states, meanwhile, still impose harsh punishment for ill users, particularly those who grow their own marijuana.