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Where the grass is greener

State Question 788 could encourage medical refugees to return home

This is the third in a three-part series on Oklahoma’s medical marijuana initiative. Read part one here and part two here.

If State Question 788 is approved by voters on June 26, Oklahoma will join 29 other states and Washington D.C. in legalizing medical marijuana. This would be welcome news for many of the Oklahoma families who left the state (and homes, jobs, families, and friends) to seek medical marijuana treatment—sometimes to save their lives.

Amy Bourlon-Hilterbran, who now lives in Colorado, belongs to such a family. Austin, Amy’s teenage son, has Dravet Syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy that causes frequent violent seizures and mental and physical deterioration. From an early age, Austin had to be on daily doses of highly-addictive medications such as opioids and benzodiazepines because of his condition. Just four years ago, he was on life support—but not because of the seizures.

“It was because of the organ damage that the pharmaceuticals had done,” said Amy. “They gave our child two years to live if the seizures didn’t kill him first. At that point we took our son home from the hospital and began watching him decline steadily.”

So, the Bourlon-Hilterbrans started looking for new avenues of treatment hundreds of miles away.

“The very first drops of cannabis oil that he had were legally administered here in Colorado by my husband. In Oklahoma, it would have been a felony,” Amy said. “Austin didn’t have a seizure in three days, which was unheard of in our life.”

Cannabis oil and cannabidiol (CBD) oil differ in that the latter contains high amounts of CBD, one of two principal molecules in cannabis (with the other being THC, which produces a euphoric feeling). The two are proportional; if there is a high amount of CBD in a cannabis strain, there will be a low amount of THC and vice-versa. Cannabis oil is contrived from plants with higher levels of THC and can contain 50-80 percent THC, whereas CBD oil typically contains less than 1 percent THC.

The effect of cannabis on Austin can be seen in a video posted to her Facebook seven months ago. In the video, Austin is having a violent seizure early in the morning. Amy, behind the camera, doses Austin with a cannabis nasal spray. Within seconds the seizure passes. The video has been viewed online more than 300,000 times.

Success with the medicine convinced the family they made the right choice. They joined the movement in 2014 to legalize medical marijuana in Oklahoma, but the initial measure failed to gather sufficient signatures in time to put the measure on the ballot. The family couldn’t wait any longer and moved to Colorado.

The decision was difficult. Amy and her husband were both born and raised in Choctaw. She graduated from the same high school that her grandmother did.

“It’s heartbreaking to leave your home, your family, your friends, your job, everything you knew,” she said.

Because of that move four years ago, Austin was slowly weaned from pharmaceuticals.

Austin isn’t the only one who quit opioids with the help of cannabis. A 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found opioid prescription rates almost 6 percent lower in states with medical marijuana. A study from 2017, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, showed fewer opioid-related hospitalizations in medical marijuana states than in prohibition states, and a study at the University of Georgia this year found medical states with dispensary access had a more than 14 percent decrease in opioid use.

For Austin, it has made a world of difference. Although he still has seizures, cannabis provides relief almost instantly. His doctors say the damage to his kidneys or liver has reversed.

Amy and her husband founded American Medical Refugees in Colorado, a group dedicated to helping families seeking treatment to relocate. They provide free medicine, help finding work, and support systems for the displaced. The program has helped more than 400 families from 39 states and five countries relocate to Colorado.

The family is hopeful that 788 will pass but are leery of Oklahoma politics.

“If 788 is voted in there are a lot of legislators and elected officials that would undermine the wishes of the citizens of Oklahoma,” she said. “We see those programs in other states that don’t make sense. And even though its ‘legal,’ there are medical marijuana patients who still can’t get it.”

Legal problems and slow-moving government have restricted some medical marijuana programs. Arkansas legalized medical marijuana in 2016 but does not allow patients to grow their own. A judge ruled in March that the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission unfairly awarded contracts to open dispensaries, resulting in essentially unobtainable medicine. Similarly, New Hampshire legalized medical marijuana in 2014, but dispensaries weren’t approved until two years later. There are still only a handful in the entire state.

The Bourlon-Hilterbrans are very critical of anti-marijuana attitudes and still dream of returning home to Oklahoma.

“The war on drugs, specifically cannabis, we take very personally,” said Amy. “People have access to the research, the data, the science. Ignorance is no longer an excuse … We are anxiously awaiting June 26 to see if we can come home. We have our grown children and our family and friends there. It would be nice if we could go home.”

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