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CNN Special Reports
CNN Special Report: Weed 6: Marijuana and Autism. Aired 9-10p ET
Aired December 29, 2021 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: Help them help others. Thank you.
(END OF VIDEO CLIP)
BROWN: And thank you for joining me this evening. I'm Pamela Brown. See you again next weekend.
ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special Report.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One plant, more than 400 compounds, which we know can treat dozens of different ailments, but one in particular may surprise you.
Autism. It affects millions of children. They can be nonverbal, delayed and sometimes even violent injuring others and themselves. A cure elusive. But now more than a dozen states have approved cannabis to treat autism, and for some, it's the jackpot.
MARIE MYUNG-OK LEE, JASON'S MOTHER: OK. Ready?
JASON LEE, MARIE'S SON: Time for Mommy, time for drops.
GUPTA: But for others, it's a gamble.
MARK ZARTLER, KARA'S FATHER: Every day that I give the medicine to my daughter is a potential day for me ending up with a felony.
AUDREY MOORHEAD, LAWYER: It's like the death penalty of family law.
GUPTA: What if it was your child? Would you take the risk? An ancient plant to treat a mysterious disorder of the brain.
This is WEED 6: MARIJUANA AND AUTISM.
You're about to see Kara Zartler's life. I do want to warn you, this will be hard to watch. Kara has severe autism.
CHRISTY ZARTLER, KARA'S MOTHER: Kara, stop it. Stop.
GUPTA: Her fits are dangerous, frequent and disturbingly violent.
C. ZARTLER: I have decided to journal all of her hitting. And I started back in 2016.
GUPTA: This is her mother, Christy. We met up at the Zartler's home in Texas.
C. ZARTLER: Closed fisted punches to her face. Hold her down.
DR. DORIS TRAUNER, PROFESSOR OF NEUROSCIENCES AND PEDIATRICS, UC SAN DIEGO: Aggression and self-injuries behaviors are unfortunately very common in, especially in children with severe autism.
GUPTA: For three decades, Dr. Doris Trauner was the chief of pediatric neurology at UC San Diego Neurosciences and Pediatrics Departments.
TRAUNER: Even some children who are higher functioning will have self- injurious behaviors or aggressive behaviors. Anything from repetitively banging their head against a wall, to hitting their head with their hands, to pinching themselves.
GUPTA (on-camera): Is there any idea why that happens as part of the autism spectrum?
TRAUNER: It may be very similar to a lot of the other repetitive behaviors that they have.
GUPTA (voice-over): Autism.
C. ZARTLER: You're beautiful.
GUPTA: ASD for Autism Spectrum Disorder is by definition a wide array of behaviors. But mild or severe, the two core symptoms are social communication challenges, one-third are nonverbal, and second, restrictive or repetitive behaviors like rocking, flapping, even hitting.
M. ZARTLER: Let's take a drink, girl.
GUPTA: Particularly challenging for the Zartlers, Kara is part of the 25 percent of children with ASD who are aggressive, throwing objects, intentionally breaking things, hitting people, including themselves, making life unimaginably challenging for Kara and her parents. But life has never been easy for Kara.
C. ZARTLER: I went and did the blood test, my levels were high, and they said, oh, you are pregnant.
GUPTA: After years of battling infertility, Christy was pregnant with twins.
C. ZARTLER: It was 21 weeks gestation. I feel this pain immediately.
M. ZARTLER: You were in coherent.
C. ZARTLER: He found me with my head on my sink area and I had already vomited and I was already unconscious, and I had a stroke.
GUPTA: It would be touch and go for 72 hours. Doctors monitoring hers and the babies' every move. And then five days after the stroke, Christy's water broke.
M. ZARTLER: When they came out of the -- they were so small. They were just so tiny.
GUPTA: Baby A named Keely was off the ventilator in two weeks and had no complications from the premature birth, but Baby B, Kara, would struggle from the very beginning.
At 10 hours old, she had a brain bleed. Yet after months of round-the- clock care in the NICU, Kara finally came home, diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Christy and Mark thought this would be Kara's biggest challenge. At 9 months she started intense physical and speech therapy, and Christy kept careful tract of her daughter's progress as she learned to walk and talk. By October of 2002, Kara was almost 3 years old and could speak 68 words.
C. ZARTLER: Apple, bubble, knock-knock.
GUPTA (on-camera): Woof, woof.
C. ZARTLER: Yes.
GUPTA: And in October of 2002, it just -- the list ends.
C. ZARTLER: Tight. I have heard her say mama.
GUPTA: I know it's hard to imagine that.
C. ZARTLER: I do hear her in my dreams. So that's -- that's hurtful.
GUPTA: I can imagine. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.
(Voice-over): As the words stopped, the hitting started.
C. ZARTLER: From age 4 to age 6 was really hard because we would take turns on who was going to hold and lay with her and make sure she's not going to punch her face and break her nose and break her eye sockets.
Watch what you're doing. That's right.
And the developmental pediatricians say it's autism.
GUPTA (on-camera): And that was around age 4?
C. ZARTLER: Yes.
GUPTA: What was that like to hear?
C. ZARTLER: Terrifying. I knew nothing about it.
GUPTA (voice-over): But Christy would learn there is no cure. There are no definitive treatments especially for someone who had such severe autism as Kara. Completely nonverbal. One night she repeatedly hit herself for 12 hours nonstop.
M. ZARTLER: At that time it was like we needed to go a different direction, you know, and so that's when the anti-psychotics, that's when they started right after that.
GUPTA: Kara started taking a cocktail of medications called psychotropics. They are very powerful drugs often used for adults and adolescence with psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia.
M. ZARTLER: The anti-psychotics did something right. They just changed it from a constant to, you know, an every 15-minute kind of thing.
GUPTA: Definitely an improvement, but with a tremendous cost. Mark says the drugs left Kara unable to do anything, not present or aware of her surroundings. The little girl they had longed for, that little toddler full of words and smiles was lost to them.
C. ZARTLER: It's permanent grief.
M. ZARTLER: Yes.
C. ZARTLER: She was robbed of a life.
GUPTA: A life her parents would do anything to get back, even if it meant breaking the law. That, when we come back.
GUPTA: 2009, the suburbs of Dallas. The powerful drugs that once helped severely autistic 10-year-old Kara Zartler were no longer working.
C. ZARTLER: The pharmacist said this is the highest dose I ever have seen a 45-pound person on. This to me is equivalent to maybe a 2,000- pound horse.
M. ZARTLER: At that time Kara was in school with 3,000 hits a day.
GUPTA: You heard that right. She would hit herself 3,000 times in a seven-hour school day. That is more than seven strikes every minute. The thing about a story like this --
C. ZARTLER: When I eat something?
GUPTA: -- it defines you. And everybody soon knew just how bad things have become. One day the Zartler's neighbor recommended cannabis, and not CBD, which has now become more commonly accepted as a medicine, but THC, the psycho active part of the plant that gets you high or stoned, he said. He thought that THC might help him calm Kara.
The Zartlers were willing to try anything, but their home state of Texas has the most restrictive medical cannabis laws in the country so they couldn't do it legally. And the Zartlers did have their own reservations. C. ZARTLER: It's illegal. And that it's got to be illegal for a
M. ZARTLER: It took us a pretty long time to get over the stigma.
GUPTA: A stigma that this woman also understands all too well.
MYUNG-OK LEE: When we first started nobody had really thought of using cannabis in a pediatric setting.
GUPTA: Many years ago, award-winning novelist Marie Myung-Ok Lee wrote a provocative "Washington Post" article about giving her son cannabis, but only now was she willing to sit down to talk about it and introduce us to Jason, who she calls Jay.
MYUNG-OK LEE: I think one of the biggest mischaracterizations that I got was, oh, you don't want to deal with your kid, you know, you're drugging your kid.
GUPTA: Ironic. Even hypocritical she said, because the medications initially prescribed for Jay were considerably stronger than cannabis.
MYUNG-OK LEE: They are essentially tranquilizers, and if you wanted to think of it even more charitably they are kind of a chemical lobotomy.
GUPTA: Like the Zartlers, Marie tried almost conventional and alternative treatment to help her son. None of them worked, and it was brutal.
MYUNG-OK LEE: As soon as he got up, he would just start to scream and wail and writhe. I couldn't help him. You know, as a parent that's the worst thing. Like I couldn't comfort him. He didn't want to be touched. Then he had a lot of aggressions. He would attack us all the time.
GUPTA: The college professor and award-winning writer used her skills to search for answers. Consistently her research kept leading her back to cannabis, but Jay's neurologist was initially reluctant to even consider it.
MYUNG-OK LEE: He was very worried that if he helped us get a license by prescribing it that if it ever got out that he was prescribing pot, that that was just going to look very bad for him.
GUPTA: Now remember, it was 2008, barely a dozen states had legalized medicinal cannabis, and federally it was still illegal. The thought of giving it to a child, unimaginable. But they were lucky, they lived in Rhode Island where cannabis was legal.
MYUNG-OK LEE: He was probably the youngest person in the nation to have a cannabis license.
GUPTA: With that license in hand, Marie was able to access cannabis from a grower in Rhode Island. But she was still nervous. There was no roadmap for a strain or a particular dosage.
MYUNG-OK LEE: And I am a big guidelines person, so not having a protocol was probably the most difficult part for me, because what am I doing?
GUPTA: So what Marie decided to do, make herself the guinea pig. She would try different strains and doses first, and then if she felt OK she would give them to her son.
MYUNG-OK LEE: This is my writer diary.
GUPTA: In fact she shared a journal entry from one of those earlier days.
MYUNG-OK LEE: I feel an abject joy and Jay can feel it, too.
GUPTA (on-camera): Wow.
MYUNG-OK LEE: So how weird, yes, how random. And then here we have the "Jason Had Zero Aggressions."
GUPTA: That's not something you had written probably for a long time if ever.
MYUNG-OK LEE: No.
GUPTA (voice-over): And it was Jay's story that inspired many others to also try cannabis.
C. ZARTLER: OK.
GUPTA (on-camera): All right. Looks like she's ready.
(Voice-over): Including the Zartlers.
C. ZARTLER: All right, girl.
GUPTA: It was on a car ride like this when the Zartlers first tried marijuana, rides that before cannabis they never even dreamed of taking because this would happen.
C. ZARTLER: We're going home.
GUPTA: But one day in June of 2009, they had no choice. Kara had an important doctor's appointment five hours away in Galveston, Texas. Christy and Mark decided to try the marijuana brownies that their neighborhood had made.
C. ZARTLER: I just gave it to her and she ate it. And it was about an hour where she was sitting -- no longer rocking, no longer hand slapping, no longer hitting, and she's sitting there and she's looking out the window and she's looking at me and smiling. It was like a miracle.
GUPTA: I got to see it up close when I went on a drive with them after Kara had a dose of cannabis. C. ZARTLER: We would never be able to do this.
M. ZARTLER: This is an easier life for everybody.
C. ZARTLER: Yes.
GUPTA: An easier life, but one that would ultimately put their whole family in jeopardy.
That story is later. But first why would it work? How would it work? Unraveling the science of cannabis and autism.
GUPTA: In Jerusalem, in a modest apartment lives a larger-than-life presence in the cannabis world. Our visit, while not in person because of COVID, is a virtual reunion with 91-year-old Dr. Rafael (INAUDIBLE).
(On-camera): How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fine. It's quite a long time since you were here.
GUPTA (voice-over): I met him nearly a decade ago when we first started on this journey, and he's one of the scientists who changed my mind about cannabis as a medicine. His pioneering research and discovery of THC in the 1960s has him poised to win the Nobel Prize.
MYUNG-OK LEE: Ready?
J. LEE: Time for, mommy, it's time for drop.
GUPTA: So the minute I heard about parents using cannabis to treat their kids with autism, I had to get his thoughts.
(On-camera): Can you give me some idea of how it even came to be that we would thinking about cannabis to treat autism?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cannabis works on autism. I strongly believe on the basis of what we have seen in animal models and in people that use a cannabis and the effects are definitely positive. There should be clinical trials. We should look at the doses. This is one of the fields that are very, very promising.
GUPTA (voice-over): Across town in Jerusalem, another pioneer in cannabis research, Dr. (INAUDIBLE) is doing those exact clinical trials Dr. (INAUDIBLE) is talking about.
(On-camera): You've led the world's first clinical trial looking at cannabis and autism. What did you find?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So the first study was an open-label study, and we knew that there will be some placebo effect, but we were surprised that most parents reported that it substantially helped their children, not only for the disruptive behavior but also for the social deficits.
GUPTA (voice-over): Doctors like Igor Grant in California were paying attention to all this, intrigued by the findings of this early research.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quite a bit of data that's come out of Israel. So there is some evidence that CBD may be helpful.
GUPTA: So Grant and Dr. Doris Trauner launched their own study with CBD and autism here at the Center for Medical Cannabis Research in San Diego.
(On-camera): Tell me about the study design. How did you approach it?
TRAUNER: It's what's called a double-blind placebo-controlled crossover study. Each child gets placebo at one point and CBD at one point but nobody knows when they're getting it.
JOANN FOUQUETTE, EZRA'S MOTHER: Am I going to keep it or are you going to keep it?
So I was actually watching the news and they had a segment on it that UCSD was looking for participants. Ezra had begun to get a little bit more physical and a little bit more aggressive. At one point I was -- I had a lot of bruises on me because he was getting more violent.
GUPTA (voice-over): Joann Fouquette's son Ezra was diagnosed with autism when he was 22 months old.
FOUQUETTE: I've heard people compared it to like losing a child. You lose the idea of the child that you're going to have, the life that you're going to have. The life that he is going to have.
EZRA FOUQUETTE, JOANN'S SON: He's an herbivore.
FOUQUETTE: He's an herbivore. But what's the name of this one?
GUPTA: Joann tried everything she could think of to try and help her son.
FOUQUETTE: We tried gluten free, (INAUDIBLE) free, dairy free. We've tried homeopathic remedies.
GUPTA (on-camera): Had you considered other meds before this? Psychotropic or neuroleptic type medications?
FOUQUETTE: I didn't want to try any of those just because there were so many side effects.
You ready? Straight or circles?
GUPTA (voice-over): But for Joann when it came to concerns about side effects, cannabis was different. FOUQUETTE: Keep going? OK. I saw how much it could help other people,
and I thought, I mean, it's all natural, there may not be any real side effects with it, why not try it?
GUPTA: So Joann moved forward enrolling Ezra in the clinical trial.
FOUQUETTE: He was 9 then. What am I going to do in the future as he continues to grow, if I'm already having a hard time with his aggression now?
GUPTA: It was that same question Maribel Gonzales was struggling with when she enrolled her son Carlos in a similar trial at Montefiore Health System in New York. A double-blind study where Cannabidivarin or CBDV, which is similar to CBD. I met the lead researcher, Dr. Eric Hollander, along with Maribel and Carlos when the study first launched in 2019.
(On-camera): How optimistic are you that this is going to work?
MARIBEL GONZALEZ, CARLOS' MOTHER: 50-50?
GUPTA: How much potential do you really think is here for CBDV to treat autism?
DR. ERIC HOLLANDER, DIRECTOR, AUTISM AND OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE SPECTRUM PROGRAM, MONTEFIORE HEALTH SYSTEM: I think that the big advantages are that it may have much less side effects than other medicines that are used to treat severe disruptive behavior.
GUPTA (voice-over): In a sign of how quickly things have changed, when this trial began two years ago, CBDV, even though it's the non- psychoactive part of the plant, was still considered a schedule one drug and had to be locked in this safe.
HOLLANDER: So are you ready, Carlos? All right. Something I just squirt on the side of your mouth, OK?
GUPTA (on-camera): When you talk about these ups and downs, I mean, how low has it gone?
M. GONZALEZ: Pretty low. Low enough that he's attacked me, but what he's going through, sometimes I have to think for him and myself.
GUPTA: Somebody said there's something that could help treat autism. How would it help you?
CARLOS GONZALES, MARIBEL'S SON: Probably I don't have to worry about like getting angry over like (INAUDIBLE), I'd be pretty happy about that.
GUPTA: Oftentimes, parents are worried about the headline is that my kid is taking a cannabis drug, and some people are going to say, well, I can't believe you did that?
M. GONZALEZ: And I would be, like, well, I'm doing -- trying to find something that's going to help my child because at the end of the day, that's my child and I am thinking for the future, for him.
GUPTA (voice-over): And that's what we heard again and again. Maribel and Carlos.
M. GONZALEZ: These look so nice.
GUPTA: Marie and Jay.
M. ZARTLER: There we go.
GUPTA: The Zartlers and Kara.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I remember them being desperate and in need of some help and really needing some balance for Kara and for their own lives.
GUPTA: Remember, none of this comes easy. The Zartlers' story takes a frightening turn, when we come back.
M. ZARTLER: Relax. There we go.
GUPTA: The search for cannabis in Texas is challenging for the Zartlers. Dispensaries here are not allowed to produce a product potent enough in THC to best help Kara, whether it's an emergency rescue medication to stop Kara from punching herself, or like today when we visit Kara at home. It's busy and she needs cannabis to help slow things down and focus.
C. ZARTLER: She's like hello, hello.
GUPTA: Mark gets her medication ready.
M. ZARTLER: I put a quarter teaspoon. That's what -- per doses.
GUPTA: He starts filling up what he calls Kara's marijuana machine. It's a desktop vaporizer.
M. ZARTLER: I wait until this gets hot to the touch.
GUPTA: It heats up the ground cannabis flower turning it into a vapor which Kara can then easily inhale. It's the fastest, most immediate way to get the cannabis into her system, they tell me.
C. ZARTLER: Just a moment.
M. ZARTLER: No, no, girl. You've got to let go.
C. ZARTLER: Let go, please.
GUPTA: Kara is eager. Just look at her. She seems to know what's coming.
M. ZARTLER: You ready, girl? OK, let's mellow out. C. ZARTLER: There you go.
GUPTA (on-camera): Wow.
(Voice-over): She starts to settle down. At one point even clapping.
C. ZARTLER: She's like, thank you, sir.
GUPTA: Seeming to thank them for the medicine she has received. And take a look. It seems to help her focus a bit and take the edge off.
C. ZARTLER: It's wonderful. She's aware now and she has the skills to assist and do more. It's phenomenal. I keep thinking I'm going to hear her talk. I'm still having dreams that she's going to speak to me.
GUPTA (on-camera): But, you know, I'm just struck by -- not today, but she's clearly not harming herself, hitting herself.
M. ZARTLER: She's happy.
GUPTA: Just happy.
M. ZARTLER: She took to it real quick in the sense that she's just, like, I feel better.
GUPTA (voice-over): I want to be clear, it doesn't end all of her symptoms, but it helps. And Christy believes they could have even better results if they had more options.
C. ZARTLER: I would like to have the ability to go back and forth and try multiple strengths to see what would work best for her. And we're just --
M. ZARTLER: Not in a position to do that.
C. ZARTLER: Right.
GUPTA (on-camera): Because of the law?
M. ZARTLER: Because of the law, right, yes.
GUPTA (voice-over): So for now, their source is underground. A grower they met years ago when Kara was a young child.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I remember them being desperate and in need of some help.
GUPTA: We found Kara's secret supplier, who was willing to meet with us as long as we disguise their identity and did not reveal the location.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just started testing together very conservatively, and documenting the strains and how they worked for Kara and looking at the ones that were best for her. GUPTA (on-camera): How did you start to put the puzzle pieces together
for something that was totally new like this?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Really there's a lot of groups and forums on the internet where autism parents that use cannabis as medicine talk about strains and specific ones.
MYUNG-OK LEE: So this cabinet of wonders is, this is Jason's earlier card where --
GUPTA (voice-over): Marie is one of those parent pioneers who has been posting and sharing what has worked for Jay over the years, as one of the youngest people with a legal medical marijuana card, Marie and Jay were able to try all sorts of different doses and strains, and documented it all.
MYUNG-OK LEE: He's going to get a ton of cannabis. One cookies, two cookies, three cookies.
GUPTA: But there was another problem. You see once they found something that finally worked they would then worry that the supply would not be consistent and available. Afterall this is not the sort of prescription you can simply go to the pharmacy and refill. It's a plant. Dependent on ethical growers and Mother Nature. There were many times crops got destroyed or growers simply disappeared. And that's a scary proposition if you are a parent whose child is now dependent on cannabis to make his life more livable.
MYUNG-OK LEE: When the grower's plants died because he had a mite infestation, that became a tragedy. That just became, everything started happening again, the whole, the injurious. Like we just saw so completely how it was helping him.
GUPTA: If this all sounds audacious, overwhelming even, it is. And just because it worked for Jay does not mean it would necessarily work for another child, no matter how similar they are. There is not yet the data. There aren't the studies as of now. There isn't the confidence to plunge forward.
TRAUNER: It's not a good idea to run out and buy it and just try to use it on your own. It's not clear what dose is the best dose if it does work. And also whether what you are buying really has the dose you think it does because it's unregulated. And then the final thing is that you don't know what else is in that bottle. There could be pesticides, there could be other toxins that we just don't know about.
GUPTA: And so the story repeats itself. Parents left with new, even well-founded hope but little direction when it comes to cannabis and their children. Marie made the tough decision to go public, while the Zartlers kept their secret for years, but that's about to change.
(On-camera): By the way, did anybody say don't do this?
(Voice-over): The shocking turn in this story, when we come back.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [21:42:12]
GUPTA: What you're watching in real time is what happens when Kara Zartlers needs to be rescued by cannabis. It's hard to watch but the Zartlers want you to see this. The repetitive hitting associated with her severe autism seems to vanish as she inhales the cannabis vapor.
M. ZARTLER: Let's be calm.
GUPTA: Her mind and her body seem to slowly relax and calm, something no other medicine could do for her.
C. ZARTLER: I did not tell her physicians until she was 14. I took her medicated to her neurologist and he sat there in awe and said, I'm not going to chart this. This won't go in her chart, but I think if you have this positive of a result you need to continue with this medicine for her.
GUPTA: A medicine that keeps Kara from hurting herself, but is also illegal in Texas.
M. ZARTLER: There was a guilty feeling that I had that was associated with it, but there was, you know, also a fear of consequences.
GUPTA: When Kara turned 17 the Zartlers decide they don't want to keep their secret anymore. They believe the only way to create change is to share her story.
(On-camera): Did anybody say don't do this?
C. ZARTLER: Yes.
M. ZARTLER: Everyone.
GUPTA: Everyone. Family members?
M. ZARTLER: Yes, they all did. Friends.
GUPTA: Because they were worried about the reaction.
M. ZARTLER: Consequences. It was all about, well, you can end up in jail over this.
GUPTA (voice-over): That's when they decided to have Christy film Kara having a violent fit. And Mark giving her the cannabis. Mark posts the video on Facebook and it goes viral. The story makes local and national news.
C. ZARTLER: On the front page of the Sunday paper.
GUPTA: People take notice.
C. ZARTLER: Somebody in our town saw it on the local news and called 911. GUPTA: And so does Child Protective Services.
C. ZARTLER: Didn't take long, CPS, knock, knock, knock, and she says I need to talk to my supervisor. We've established a CPS case with you and you'll be hearing from us again.
GUPTA: The Zartlers hired Audrey Moorhead as their attorney.
MOORHEAD: I often say that there are two agencies that you do not want to knock on your door. The first is the FBI. The second is CPS. CPS can file a petition for termination of parental rights, and what I describe that as is like the death penalty of family law.
GUPTA (on-camera): Having a good day?
(Voice-over): Moorehead's primary goal is to keep Kara at home with her parents.
MOORHEAD: My strategy was to impress upon CPS that, one, there was no imminent danger.
C. ZARTLER: I know you're happy.
MOORHEAD: Removing care from the home would have more than likely result in her being placed in a facility.
GUPTA: The Zartlers have been given a choice. Let Kara continue to hurt herself or give her the medicine that works and risk her being taken away.
MOORHEAD: That was the choice and it had to be a very painful choice. And a difficult choice. This was not a decision that the Zartlers took lightly.
M. ZARTLER: There you go. I was prepared to go to court over whatever they did.
GUPTA: It's a story we've heard before. Families willing to risk everything to help their child. A story Dr. Olga Obie also knows. She's an ER physician who believes in cannabis as a medicine but also understands the gap between stigma and science, and is working to bridge that gap.
DR. OLGA OBIE, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN: The Endocannabinoid system was not taught in medical schools and in schools for healthcare professionals. The Endocannabinoid system is the system that provides the body homeostasis and that could be the key behind why a lot of our disease processes are resistant to allow us to heal completely.
What would you like to use medical marijuana for?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to use (INAUDIBLE) for pain, and appetite.
GUPTA: She helps patients who qualify for medical cannabis in Texas, and she's working with a lobbying organization that is targeting lawmakers.
OBIE: As the cannabis industry continues to grow it runs the risk of leaving patients behind, and so organizations like Texans for Safe Access maintain the focus that patients should be the center.
GUPTA (on-camera): You are a conservative?
REP. STEPHANIE KLICK (R), TEXAS STATE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVE: I am a conservative, a Republican.
GUPTA: This is often seen as an issue that conservatives don't really get behind.
KLICK: That is true, but I am also a data driven person because of my healthcare background.
GUPTA (voice-over): She may seem like an unlikely champion for medical cannabis. But State Representative Stephanie Klick has been leading the charge in Texas.
KLICK: It's shown remarkable promise.
GUPTA: A former nurse, she helps spearhead the Compassionate Use Act in 2015. Allowing patients with intractable epilepsy to use CBD as a medicine.
KLICK: It is very difficult for a family to live life normally when you've got a child that's having 100 seizures a day.
GUPTA (on-camera): How hard was it to get that bill passed in 2015?
KLICK: It was very difficult. We were not sure that we were going to get a hearing on it.
GUPTA (voice-over): Four years later she helped expand the program to include qualifying conditions like multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer and, yes, autism. It was a big step forward but the THC limits were still too low to help families like the Zartlers.
(On-camera): If they came to you and told you that this is our situation, what would you say to them?
KLICK: I would warn them what the ramifications are in the law, and as a mother myself I would move heaven and earth to make something better for my child if they were suffering.
GUPTA (voice-over): This session Klick is pushing to add more health conditions and also raise the THC level from .5 to 5 percent. It's a bill the Zartlers are watching very closely, because it would allow them to legally give that higher THC dose to Kara.
M. ZARTLER: Every day that I give the medicine to my daughter is a potential day for me ending up with a felony.
GUPTA: The fight to keep their daughter, when we come back.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All members voting.
GUPTA: April, 2021, Austin, Texas. 200 miles away from the Zartlers' home in Dallas, Mark arrives at the state capitol with great hope. The legislature, which meets every two years, is voting on a new bill that would enhance legal access to medical cannabis, specifically increasing a limit for THC from .5 percent to 5 percent, 10 times stronger. It's potentially life-changing for the Zartlers. Remember, it's that higher THC strain that seems to be the most beneficial for Kara.
While Child Protective Services did allow Mark and Christy to maintain custody of Kara despite their very public admission of using the illegal THC for her autism, they still feel like they are taking a risk every time they medicate their daughter.
M. ZARTLER: Your luck runs out eventually, and we're going to get in trouble unless we could get the law changed.
KLICK: That part greatly concerns me because these are parents that love their child, and they are taking great sacrifices to protect her, keep her safe and address her needs.
GUPTA: That's what Representative Klick's bill does.
M. ZARTLER: I call her the queen of cannabis.
GUPTA: Mark watches from the House gallery.
KLICK: All those in favor say aye.
GUPTA: And instead of the impassioned debate on the floor that he expected, the bill simply passes by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, 134-12.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: House Bill 1535 has passed (INAUDIBLE).
M. ZARTLER: Almost done. Ready? One more.
GUPTA: The bill does still have to go to the Senate, and Mark worries it won't receive the same support there.
KLICK: We need more and more research.
HOLLANDER: So this is it.
GUPTA: But after decades of being ignored, stigmatized, there's increasingly more research in the United States as well.
HOLLANDER: He's going to start off with 130 milligrams.
GUPTA: There's the Montefiore study in New York we first started following in 2019. It is slowly coming to fruition. In fact we first met Carlos and his mother, Maribel, two years ago.
M. GONZALES: During that trial he became more friendlier.
C. GONZALES: I was more calm if -- like with me on the medication. Overall, it definitely did have a nice positive effect on me.
GUPTA (on-camera): Do you think of yourself as a cannabis researcher?
(Voice-over): There are also the labs at the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research in California we showed you earlier. Answers from there are also slowly arriving.
TRAUNER: We're seeing some pretty impressive changes.
GUPTA (on-camera): When you say seeing some impressive changes, what do you mean?
TRAUNER: Children's who aggressive behavior was daily and it's gone away, and I mean, gone away. A lot of the kids are more social.
GUPTA: So what do we got?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A (INAUDIBLE) kiss.
GUPTA: (INAUDIBLE) kiss? What is the purple one?
FOUQUETTE: He's easier to redirect. I can work, I can kind of like suggest, like hey, can we do this? Or we do this? And he'll go, OK, or yes, mom, or okey-doke.
GUPTA (voice-over): Ezra is more patient, not hitting, not excitable. Able to attend school. And at home he's doing things Joann never dreamed possible. Like cooking. And singing.
(On-camera): So what is going through your mind at this point?
FOUQUETTE I'm getting my baby back. I'm getting my boy back.
We can set up the dinosaurs --
GUPTA (voice-over): But you know, as we were talking, there was something still nagging at me.
(On-camera): Do you ever think that your expectations are influencing how you think he's doing?
FOUQUETTE Yes and no. I don't know how he started changing, I don't know how he started communicating. I don't know how he started being reasonable. How he stopped being aggressive.
GUPTA (voice-over): Changes that have continued long after Ezra stopped taking the study drugs almost a year ago.
FOUQUETTE He has had no regression whatsoever. I don't think it's a cure, I think it's just going to make it easier for him, you know, easier for him to live.
GUPTA: Interestingly, these were the same kind of long-term changes Jay also experienced.
MYUNG-OK LEE: I don't know if I'd use the word heal, but it's just more like helping him become more himself. Like he has a right to be healthy, to be happy and to feel joy, and this has certainly helped him do that, and that's all I can ask for.
GUPTA: I want to be very clear again. No one is saying there's a cure for autism, this isn't either, but the idea that cannabis might not just treat the symptoms of autism but also help repair, even protect the brain, is something that came up again and again with the scientists I spoke to.
TRAUNER: I don't know. All I can tell you in terms of concrete things is that some of the kids who have shown an effect on whatever they are taking show it for several weeks after the study drug is taken away, and some seem to maintain some improvement, but I don't know why that would be. I think it's certainly important to continue studying it to try and figure out how it works, if it does.
GUPTA: Until then it's still an uphill battle in Texas. Ultimately the THC part of Representative Klick's bill doomed when it got to the Senate. The levels only raised to 1 percent.
KLICK: My intent then and still is to have a truly medical program that follows the scientific data. People are concerned that this could lead into recreational abuse.
GUPTA: The conservative lawmaker and grandmother to a boy with autism is not giving up.
KLICK: I'm trying to move the ball a little further down the road.
GUPTA: Human beings are impatient, especially, understandably, when it comes to the care of our children. But sometimes the roads are arduous and long, they take time and there's no end in sight. And yet the Zartlers can still take immense joy that they can now travel the road at all. No longer afraid about what lies ahead.
C. ZARTLER: It's just a miracle. It's just nothing short of a miracle for me.
GUPTA: Their story is out there now for the world to see.
C. ZARTLER: I know you're having fun.
GUPTA: And they are at peace with that. They once believed they would lose their child and now revel with their belief every day that instead she was found with the help of a plant.
C. ZARTLER: The sun is setting. It's beautiful.