A state lawmaker is seeking to force state health officials to do something they have previously rejected: allow the use of medical marijuana to treat autism.
The proposal by Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, would add “autism spectrum disorder” to the list of what a 2010 voter-approved law considers “debilitating medical conditions” for which a doctor can recommend the use of marijuana by patients. Espinoza said parents want that as an option for treating some of the symptoms as an alternative to other medications.
HB 2049 also would allow the use of marijuana by those who are suffering from opioid use disorder. Espinoza said he sees the use of marijuana as far preferable to people dying in his legislative district from overdoses.
The 2010 law allows doctors to recommend marijuana to those who suffer from certain listed conditions, ranging from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS and Crohn’s disease to seizures, severe nausea and severe and chronic pain. But the law also allows state health officials to add conditions themselves − if they believe it is medically justified.
Parents of some children with autism made such a request two years ago only to have their plea rejected. That decision was upheld last year, with a state hearing officer concluding that the petition “failed to provide evidence that the use of marijuana will provide therapeutic or palliative benefit to an individual suffering from ASD.”
Espinoza’s bill would eliminate the need for health department approval or even medical studies by getting legislators to add autism into the list of permitted conditions in the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act. But he said bypassing the department does not bother him.
He pointed out that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation earlier this year adding autism to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana can be recommended.
“In Colorado there are families that actually have results based on what their children have been experiencing by taking that medical marijuana,” Espinoza said. He said it appears to be a better alternative that other medications now available that can have side effects.
“So how could you deny, especially a parent that’s willing to try that … transition into this alternative to see if that would be a better alternative for them?” Espinoza asked. And he said there’s no reason for parents to have to move to Colorado to get the drugs they need for their children.
Nor is he deterred by the lack of the kind of studies that the health department recognizes as proving that marijuana is effective in helping children with autism.
“I can share with you that I have worked with constituents in my district that their sons and daughters in that realm have had tremendous results,” Espinoza said. “I’ve actually seen in first hand.”
Still, he acknowledged that the Arizona parents who are getting marijuana legally are able to obtain it because their children are having seizures, a side effect for some youngsters with autism. And seizures already is one of the conditions for which the 2010 law already permits medical use.
The use of marijuana to help those addicted to opioids is a different matter.
There is no evidence that anyone has petitioned the health department to add that condition to the list for which marijuana use is legally permitted. But Espinoza said there is reason to believe that it is a better option, particularly in a state which had been in the midst of an opioid epidemic.
“I have overdoses in my community it seems like every day,” he said. “And so if marijuana could be an alternative to help wean them off, then why not try that?”
The idea of marijuana as a legal option to deal with addiction has come up in Arizona before.
In 2018, then-Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, agreed to language to a bill he was sponsoring to add opioid use disorder to what would allow doctors to legally recommend the drug. The measure cleared the House but faltered in the Senate.
And in 2017, as Arizona was facing an average of two deaths a day from opioid overdoses, state health officials started looking for ways to curb the abuse and addiction. State Health Director Cara Christ noted that chronic pain, one of the reasons that some people get hooked on opioids, is one of the conditions for which marijuana already can be recommended.
Still, she stopped short of suggesting that doctors start treating patients with marijuana.
“Each individual is going to be different,” Christ said, saying patients need to discuss options with their doctors.
Backers of expanding the medical use of marijuana will need to generate a great deal of support to get HB 2049 enacted into law.
That’s because the original 2010 law, having been approved by voters, can only be altered with a three-fourths vote of the Legislature. That means 23 of 30 senators and 45 of 60 representatives.