New Castle News

November 20, 2013

Local family moving for marijuana treatment

John Finnerty

HARRISBURG — Amy and Jamie Houk and their 5-year-old son, Cameron, are medical refugees.

The family is moving from New Castle to Colorado, where they can legally buy medical marijuana to treat Cameron’s epilepsy.

Twenty states across the country, including Delaware and New Jersey, have legalized some form of medical marijuana. But Colorado is the place to get a special extraction of cannabis that shows promise in the treatment of pediatric epilepsy, Amy Houk said.

Medical use of marijuana is illegal in Pennsylvania. But legislation introduced in the Senate on Monday would allow doctors to prescribe the drug, which has been used to treat people suffering glaucoma, asthma, nausea and seizures.

The Houks and about 50 others rallied at the statehouse to support the bill, authored by Sen. Mike Folmer of Lebanon County and Sen. Daylin Leach of Philadelphia.

Without the law, Amy Houk said her family must leave.

Amy and Jamie have lived in Lawrence County their entire lives. Jamie works as a chemical mixer for a company that has locations in Colorado, but if he took a similar job there it would mean a substantial pay cut.

“We’re leaving behind everything we’ve ever known,” Amy Houk said.

The family must establish residency in Colorado to qualify for the medical marijuana, and then they can’t take the drugs across state lines, so Cameron won’t be able to leave the state. The producer harvests twice a year. The family got their application completed in October in order to get Cameron approved in time for the March harvest, Amy Houk said.

The drug cocktail being used now to help his seizures temporarily leaves Cameron largely unresponsive. About 30 minutes before he is due to take his medication, when the pharmaceuticals start to wear off, his mom notices Cameron start to come out of the fog.

“I get this little time with him,” Amy Houk said. “He will make eye contact and I see that little boy again.”

Even with the drugs, Cameron has frequent seizures. Cameron had two grand mal seizures while his mom held him during Monday’s rally in Harrisburg.

His parents hope the medical cannabis — an extract mixed with olive oil and given by dropper — will abate his seizures without the side effects of the pharmaceuticals.

“There are kids that were catatonic, that were on feeding tubes” who have improved dramatically using medical marijuana, Amy Houk said.

It’s the kind of success that a young girl, Charlotte Figi, experienced. Her mother, Paige Figi, joined the Harrisburg  rally. She was accompanied by Josh Stanley, who leads a non-profit that manufactures the cannabis extract used to treat children with seizure disorders.

Charlotte went from having 300 seizures a week to three a week. Her improvement was featured in a CNN documentary on the medical marijuana debate and has prompted scores of families across the country to do what the Houks are doing — pulling up stakes and moving to Colorado.

While the parents clamor for quick action, there is little consensus that the research is clear enough to warrant immediate policy changes.

Pennsylvania Medical Society spokesman Charles Moran said the organization has put off taking a position on medical marijuana, relying instead on the stance of the American Medical Association.

The national doctors’ group has called for more research on its effectiveness.

Attorney general Kathleen Kane opposes any effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use, but is taking a wait-and-see approach on medical marijuana, her spokesman Joe Peters said.

The Pennsylvania State Association of Nurses has also called for more research, but the organization has publicly stated that medical marijuana should be decriminalized for those suffering from glaucoma, asthma, seizures, and nausea.

Gov. Tom Corbett's office has said he will veto any marijuana legalization bill, even if it would be limited to medical uses.

The Associated Press reported the governor’s opposition stems from the perception that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that leads users to more dangerous ones.

John Hanger, the former Environmental Protection secretary, has made decriminalization of marijuana part of the platform in his bid for the Democratic nomination to challenge Corbett in 2014. Hanger said resistance to efforts to legalize medical marijuana is based on “paranoia.”