Mom defends giving pot to her son to treat autism

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Erica Daniels, author of “Cooking With Leo: An Allergen-Free Autism Family Cookbook,” with her son Leo in the kitchen where they are able to communicate through cooking.

When she was a teenager, chasing a high by smoking pot out of a tinfoil bowl behind the Ardmore West shopping center, Erica Daniels could not know that marijuana would re-enter her life decades later in a different form.

Was getting high fun?

Erica laughs. “I guess. It was probably a crappy week and I was using something toxic to smoke out of,” she says with a careless shrug. “But, sure, when you're trying to do things, that’s always fun.”

For the past year she has been feeding marijuana to her son, and that is not for fun. Nor is the process of securing it, which sometimes puts her in conflict with the laws. 

It is medical marijuana and it has had a positive effect on Leo, who is autistic. He is 12 and unable to communicate meaningfully with his mother. Erica knows that her first-born child “will never have an independent life.”

There was no warning she would be called on to shoulder this physical and emotional burden.

“Leo was about 19 months old and he became very ill for two or three weeks with chronic ear infections and was generally unhappy and inconsolable,” she tells me at the kitchen table in her townhouse.

Then, she says, “he kind of went blank and was never the same again.” It was as if his light had gone out.

Erica, 43, speaks slowly, thoughtfully, occasionally interrupted by the chirping of Sonny and Sky, the two parakeets who belong to her daughter Scarlett, 9.

Erica was pregnant with Scarlett when Leo was diagnosed, and any parent can imagine the cold dread in Erica’s soul. Would the daughter be struck, too? Would her light go out?

Fortunately, no. Scarlett is healthy  and is the person best able to communicate with Leo, Erica tells me.

She and her husband have been divorced almost five years.

She knew nothing about autism. She knew no other parents with autistic children. “The only exposure I had was ‘Rain Man,’ ” the movie starring Tom Cruise with Dustin Hoffman as his autistic brother. She now knows many parents living as she does, because Erica has become an advocate, consultant, and speaker on autism, especially the impact of medical marijuana, formally known as cannabis. Erica offhandedly refers to herself as a “canna-mom,” with a smile.

No laughing matter, autism is “the most common developmental disability affecting children” in the U.S. today, she says. “More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than AIDS, diabetes, and cancer combined,”  Erica says. If that isn’t an epidemic, it’s close.

Although she is in a career she did not choose, a platform was built when she majored in management at Syracuse University, from which she graduated in 1997. After living “briefly” in New York City, because “everyone wants to live in New York, “ the Ardmore native returned to Philly and lived in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. In her 20s, she worked in advertising sales for Philadelphia Magazine, Philadelphia Weekly, and WMGK for a while.

She now lives in Horsham, mostly because the school district offers services necessary to Leo’s well-being. She’d prefer living closer to the city, she admits, but this choice is best for Leo.

As a quick aside, she tells me she has created a nonprofit called Hope4Leo.org, to raise funds to drive research, educate physicians, and support parents. She also became an author with Cooking with Leo, a book with a dual purpose.

Because Leo has many allergies, asthma, and gastrointestinal disease,  Erica had to devise foods that were both healthy and non-allergenic. She found that Leo liked cooking, and mother and son are able to communicate through kitchen artistry.  

Cooking is but a temporary relief. Leo is plagued with various “behaviors,” as they’re called.

“It's like ADHD times 1,000,” says Erica. “He can't stop moving. It's self-stimulating behavior — arms flailing, nonfunctional vocalization,” she says. “He has debilitating anxiety and OCD.”

His own mother can’t “read” him. “I wish I knew what you wanted, I wish I knew what you were saying,” she thinks about him, but never says aloud.  

For a moment, I wonder what it is like to be Leo, locked into an alternate universe, a different dimension from those around him.

For the longest time, Erica relied on therapy, and still does, and was pointed toward drugs to help control and stabilize little Leo.

Those attempts resulted in side effects, from constipation to making him moody and disoriented.

Then she heard about parents giving cannabis to children stricken with cancer. “At first I was a little judgmental,” Erica admits. “I had to process it. It wasn’t taboo to me, but giving it to your kids was something else.”

After some time, she decided  to try medical marijuana, which she administers as a spray under Leo’s tongue once a day, sometimes twice.

Before giving it to Leo, she first put it under her own tongue. Unlike the pot she had smoked at Ardmore West, this gave her mental clarity and sharpness.

Leo’s reaction was fast and positive. The daily tantrums diminished, the anxiety lessened, his speech improved and “the quality of life as a family has improved dramatically,” Erica says. Unlike pharmaceuticals, there were no side effects.

It is not a cure, but it is an enormous benefit.

She is looking forward to next year, when medical marijuana will be available in Pennsylvania.

Where does she get it now? From a state that has legalized recreational marijuana — Rocky Mountain High, Colorado.

Here’s the problem. You cant tell the dispenser that you are taking it out of state. It’s illegal to mail it or to take it aboard an airliner.

“I went through the process the safest way: Which way do I break the least amount of laws?” Erica says.

She wouldn't tell me how she did it, but she did say that would be revealed Wednesday night on the Viceland TV networks Weediquette series, a documentary about marijuana.

In Pennsylvania, Erica is shielded from arrest and prosecution by a Safe Harbor letter issued by the state Health Department. This carte blanche attests that the marijuana in possession is for medical purposes, now legal in the Keystone State, and 226 Safe Harbor letters have been issued. They go only to parents or caregivers of sick children and require a doctors note and a state police background check.   

But “theres a stigma,” Erica believes. “Oh my God, people are thinking my kid is taking marijuana! Its important to educate people. Its like you would give liquid drops of Motrin,” she says.

“It doesnt make them feel high, it brings them back to a regulated state.”

A regulated state, courtesy of a regulated drug.

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