Honoring the Young Girl Who Showed Us
the Potential of Medical Cannabis

 

By Dr. Alan Shackelford

 

When her mother, Paige, carried 5-year-old Charlotte Figi into my Colorado office eight years ago, exhausted
and weakened by one of the more than 300 seizures she would have that week, there was no drug I could recommend as an effective treatment.

 Charlotte had already failed to respond to 17 different prescription medications, and I certainly didn’t want to resort to the powerful horse sedative that some had suggested as a last resort to help this child cope with the ravages of Dravet syndrome.

 Little did I know that Charlotte was about to take me — and the world — on a journey of re-discovery of an important drug that will help millions: cannabis. Despite a tragic lack of research on the medical uses of cannabis, I discovered a short paper that had been published in an obscure medical journal more than 30 years before. It revealed a possible treatment for Charlotte’s seizures. 

 I suggested a strain of cannabis that I thought might help her. Charlotte’s mother acquired it at a local dispensary. To our great relief and astonishment, it worked, and in dramatic fashion.  Charlotte didn’t have a seizure for an entire week, and then for another week, and then another.  It was seemingly miraculous, and for the many who would go on to benefit from Charlotte’s experience, it was.

 Charlotte passed away April 7 but she won’t be forgotten. Her story is a global one, told by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN, on TV New Zealand and 60 Minutes Australia, in articles in the New York Times, the Manchester Guardian, The Globe and Mail and many more.  

Charlotte’s successful recovery from Dravet syndrome helped start a global awakening to the untapped powers of medical cannabis, which is now evident in the medical cannabis programs now in place in 33 states in the United States, Canada and some 30 countries world-wide.

 Millions of patients are now experiencing the benefits of medical cannabis every day across North and South America, Europe, Asia, Oceana and Africa, indeed anyplace where the medical needs of suffering people are not being effectively met by conventional medical treatments.

 Charlotte’s legacy lives on, not only through that fateful encounter in my office so many years ago, but in our deepening understanding of how much more needs to be done to realize the full potential of cannabinoid medicine.

 Charlotte’s legacy should be a recognition by governments—especially in the United States—that it is folly to limit scientific research on cannabis merely because it was arbitrarily classified as a substance “with no…accepted medical use”  and “a high abuse potential” by a discredited president nearly 50 years ago.  That absurd stance is fraught with negative consequences for patients who could be benefitting from cannabis-derived medications.

 Charlotte’s legacy should live on, in the allocation of appropriate funding for scientific inquiry into the already obvious medical benefits of cannabis rather than into the purported harms caused by marijuana. It is scandalous that between 2008 and 2014, $1.1 billion out of the $1.4 billion that was allocated for the study of cannabis was spent on researching the rarely seen addiction to cannabis or its withdrawal symptoms, not the plant’s clear medicinal potential.  

 In contrast, only $297 million was spent on researching potential benefits like the anti-cancer effects first reported in a scientific paper from the NIH in 1975.  Had it been left up to the government, the incredible benefits experienced by Charlotte would never have been studied.

 Charlotte’s legacy will live onin the lives of other children who will be seizure free, of the cancer patients, whose nausea and pain are controlled better and with fewer side effects than opiates and other largely ineffective drugs. Her legacy lives on through the lives of patients whose ALS, Parkinson’s disease and Crohn’s disease are no longer threatening their lives.

 The wave of acceptance and discovery that Charlotte set in motion should be acknowledged and championed, especially as we all are confronted with the corona virus pandemic which highlights how vulnerable we are.  Who knows whether cannabinoids might have been beneficial in combating it?  There are tantalizing hints in the medical literature that they might be, but we can’t study it in the United States.

 We must continue to explore and to discover new and effective treatments from cannabis, for medicine’s most challenging therapeutic dilemmas. We owe that to Charlotte, who helped us blaze the trail.