AUSTIN (KXAN) — Julia Patterson was a normal kindergartener. She went to school and played with her friends. Her life was worry- and care-free until April 15, 2008.
That date marks when she experienced her first major seizure. The terrified young girl spent the night in the hospital on a ventilator.
It was the beginning of Patterson’s journey with epilepsy. Doctors tried every treatment in the book — from medications to diets to brain surgery. None of the taxing and invasive treatments gave Patterson control over her seizures.
“Nothing worked,” Patterson said. “I had 200 seizures a day, each one lasting 15 to 30 seconds. So, as you can imagine, I lost out on a lot of life. I really struggled for that.”
Ten years after her fateful first night in the hospital, Patterson was prescribed a medical marijuana treatment. After just two months on CBD oil, she went from nearly 200 seizures a day to none and has kept that control since. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is an oil derived from the naturally occurring chemicals in the cannabis plant, according to Harvard Health.
CBD doesn’t intoxicate the user the way marijuana does.
“After CBD oil, I graduated as valedictorian of my high school class. I was accepted into Texas A&M in the honors program there, and I got my driver’s license — something I hoped for but never realistically expected,” Patterson said.
Medical marijuana treatments have been shown to reduce seizures, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. Patterson’s neurologist, Dr. Karen Keough, said the effectiveness varies from person to person. Keough attributes Julia’s success to a combination of CBD oil and other medications.
“[Julia] is one of the very fortunate super responders, and only a small portion of patients with epilepsy have that degree of response, but those patients are out there,” Keough said.
From patient to lobbyist
As only a college freshman, Patterson is a registered lobbyist with KK125 Ovarian Research Foundation to push for the expansion of the Compassionate Use Program, which allows her to use CBD as part of her treatment. She met the group when she testified in favor of medical marijuana during the previous Texas legislative session.
“Once I realized how amazing CBD oil was for me and how it gave me the opportunity for a normal life, I wanted to extend that chance of hope to others,” Patterson said. “If the doctor believes that a patient would benefit from access to medical marijuana, then they should have it.”
Due to her busy school schedule, Patterson rarely gets up to the state Capitol. She did attend the April 4 hearing on a medical marijuana bill. Although Patterson was one of the youngest people in the committee chamber, she and her team have confidence in her ability to represent the KK125 foundation.
“Julia is rare in that she is wise beyond her years, in all likelihood because of the extraordinary set of circumstances presented to her by being diagnosed as a child with intractable epilepsy,” said Michelle Wittenburg, government affairs consultant and president of KK125.
Expanding the Compassionate Use Program
The Compassionate Use Program, which legalized medical marijuana treatments in Texas, was passed in 2015. At that time, only patients with severe epilepsy who were not responding to other treatments could be prescribed medical marijuana. In 2019, House Bill 3703 passed, expanding the conditions which could be prescribed cannabis treatment and making it easier for a physician to prescribe it.
Now, some Texas lawmakers and lobbyists are pushing for even fewer restrictions on medical marijuana. House Bill 1535, authored by Texas House Public Health Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth), was filed March 8. The bill aims to expand the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana treatments and increase the THC limit.
“I am incredibly proud of the foundation we’ve built for the Compassionate Use Program as well as the DPS’s diligence in stewarding the program,” Klick said in a press release. “I look forward to advancing this legislation with my fellow members.”
The conditions the bill extends medical marijuana qualifications to include non-terminal cancer, chronic pain and PTSD.
Raising the THC limit
The current THC limit in Texas is a cause of great discomfort for many.
Since the only form of medical marijuana treatment legal in Texas are lozenges or oil syringes that are inserted into the patient’s cheeks, patients have to ingest a lot of oil or lozenges in order to reach the amount of THC that can make a difference in their treatment.
“Imagine drinking half a bottle of coconut oil or of vegetable oil or of olive oil,” said Morris Denton, CEO of Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation. “Go in your kitchen and pull out a bottle of olive oil, pour yourself a small glass of that and drink that every day, twice a day. That’s what the state is asking our patients to do.”
The bill would raise the limit from 0.5% to 5% — 10 times the current limit.
Expanding medical marijuana to PTSD and chronic pain patients may alleviate some of the opioid crisis in Texas, Denton said.
Texas is one of the worst states for opioid addiction, Denton said, but many statistics — such as the American cities with the highest overdose rate from Foundations Recovery Network — show Texas is actually handling the opioid crisis better than most. Still, in 2018 there were 67,367 drug overdose deaths reported in Texas, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Cannabis has proven to be an effective tool to use in order to reduce the impact of opioids in other states where that is allowed,” Denton said. “We anticipate that when this bill becomes law and more people turn to cannabis rather than opioids, then we’ll see the addiction rates go down, we’ll see the overdose rates go down, and we’ll see the economic impact on the state of Texas also go down.”
Medical professionals, such as Rivermend Health, agree that marijuana is a suitable alternative for opioids. Supporters of H.B. 1535 say the expansion of medical marijuana will allow people who are addicted to opioids to take a drug that is less addictive but still curbs their chronic pain or PTSD.
“This legislation comes in the midst of a harrowing health crisis in our nation and state,” Klick said. “House Bill 1535 offers an effective alternative to opioid use and its horrible, addictive qualities while expanding access to veterans suffering from PTSD and all cancer patients.”
Too far, or not far enough?
In 2019, a bill was passed which expanded the Compassionate Use Program to include autism, terminal cancer and multiple sclerosis patients. When presented with the bill in 2019, State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) voiced concern that it would lead to recreational use of marijuana.
“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to a recreational use,” Birdwell said.
However, Patterson explicitly said she is not advocating for recreational use.
On the other hand, during the Texas House Public Health Committee hearing for H.B. 1535, several witnesses said the bill is not expanding the Compassionate Use Program enough. Jason Walker, a veteran who suffers from PTSD, said access to medical marijuana should be granted to anyone who has PTSD because, “it’s not just veterans who go to combat.”
Although studies show medical marijuana is an effective treatment for many conditions, Keough said medical professionals still don’t understand how cannabis works on a cellular level.
“There’s a lot of work to be done in understanding that better, but meanwhile, we need to be able to utilize this and get what we can from it with what we do understand today,” Keough said.
For now, Patterson just hopes to speak for those who are sick and in need. With the success of her treatment, she looks to the future.
“After law school, I’m hoping to come back to Austin and continue to advocate for people with disabilities,” Patterson said. “I want to be a voice for those who might not be able to speak for themselves.”