Last summer, we reached the six-month mark in our cannabis experiment. We'd been using medical marijuana to help quell our autistic son's gut pain and anxiety, and we were seeing some huge changes in his behavior and, presumably, his happiness. J was smiling, interacting (one of home-based therapists said she'd never encountered such an affectionate autistic child), even putting his dirty dishes in the dishwasher—rinsing and everything!—not only without being told, but without ever having been asked to do such a thing. The more I'd been reading, along with J's doctor, about the effects of cannabis—analgesic, anti-anxiety, safe—the more it seemed a logical choice. I've also heard from other parents who've decided to try cannabis for their children. One of the kids has Smith-Magenis, a genetic disorder that includes autismlike behavioral symptoms including self-injury. Another is an autistic child who'd refused to eat and was near death. Post-marijuana, he is thriving. The Smith-Magenis boy, who'd been about to start court-ordered medication, is also doing well.
Then, after all this affirmative news and a beautiful summer, we hit a snag. But from it, we learned an awful lot about what the cannabis is doing for J.
Our mj farmer, Organic Guy, needs to make a living while he grows medical cannabis for his three patients. Being an illegal street drug dealer is lucrative; being a supplier of medical cannabis is not. By the law of our state, Rhode Island, Organic Guy is paid only for expenses. Growing J his medicine takes a lot of daily labor and infrastructure, but if Organic Guy has any extra harvest, he can only donate it, not sell it, to another licensed patient. Some states, such as Colorado, set up and regulate retail outlets for medical marijuana. In California, for instance, cannabis buyers' clubs, as they're called, actually outnumber Starbucks. But in Rhode Island, there are no such options for growers.
And so last summer, Organic Guy moved to one of the nearby resort islands to take a job at a restaurant. Before he pulled up stakes on his marijuana farm, he made sure that J had extra supplies, including stockpiling dried herb in the freezer of his accommodating parents. Organic Guy promised he'd start up again in the fall. J, in the meantime, was doing so beautifully on the cannabis that, since my husband, Karl, had the summer off, he made the heretofore unthinkable suggestion that I finally focus on my novel. I actually felt OK taking him up on the offer and spent a few weeks at the artists' colony Yaddo.
In September, Organic Guy returned, sans tan (he'd worked every minute he could), bearing more herb, just in time. He sounded like he was having a bit of trouble finding a new place to grow. Previously, he'd set up the plants in his apartment, but the security issues plus the skunky smell, which got into his hair and clothes, persuaded him not to do this again. I e-mailed around to see if some of my organic-food-growing, cheese-cave-using friends knew of a good spot. I'd so thoroughly begun to see cannabis in the same light as any other beneficial botanical we'd been giving J (like burdock root) that I neglected to mention I was inquiring on behalf of a licensed grower of medical cannabis. My friends wryly asked if I was starting my own illicit organic-pot operation. I cleared up the confusion, but no leads turned up.
In the meantime, cracks started to appear in J's cannabis-aided serenity. One day, his frustration boiled over into a tantrum. Next, hits. An occasional bite. Then the fabric-ripping screaming, sitting with toes pointing down at the floor—his clearest pain sign. Next, he woke up at night, crying and screaming when he had to go to the bathroom. One day, I noticed—could it be?—toothmarks on the neckline of his pajama top (pre-cannabis, he used to chew and eat his shirts and bedding). I went over his diet with a fine-tooth comb, looking for possible allergens I'd overlooked. I even upped his cannabis dose a bit by adding one more pot cookie. It only made him alternately a bit silly and belligerent. The number of reports he brought home for acting aggressive at school started to tick upward. For Karl and me, this backslide was awful, like when J was 2 years old and started to lose his words. I couldn't believe it was happening.
I called Organic Guy, to see if he had any ideas.
"It could be because he's not getting any White Russian," he said. "The stuff you have is, well, a mix of all the stuff I had left."
It took me a second to understand. J was getting a mix of Organic Guy's odds and ends.
"Is there any White Russian in this mix?"
"And when will you be getting more?"