Heartbroken and desperate, an Oregon family has turned to medical marijuana to help manage their son's self-destructive rages. They say the treatment, which has sparked controversy, has helped their child, described as "severely autistic," like nothing else has.
According to KPTV, 11-year-old Alex Echols suffers from tuberous sclerosis -- a rare genetic disorder that causes the growth of non-malignant tumors in organs. Doctors say Alex has growths in his brain that have led to autism, debilitating seizures and self-directed rages.
Writing in a blog he set up for his son, dad Jeremy Echols explains that Alex often exhibits extreme, self-destructive behavior, such as slamming his head into walls and slapping his face until it bleeds.
Echols says that after trying -- and failing -- for years to protect Alex from himself, he and his wife were forced to move their son into a state-funded group home when he was 8.
"Alex had every family of behavior medication known to the psychiatrist, and we tried private behavior therapy," Alex's mom Karen wrote on the family's Facebook page, the New York Daily News notes.
"We tried some swimming for a while, we had a special sensory room set up in the garage, and we did some stuff at home and at school with communication techniques to try and help him tell us what he needed before he got into a rage fit... We tried a lot of stuff before we considered the group home."
Then, in 2009, Alex's mom stumbled upon some articles about medical marijuana treatments for children with autism and rage. Interest piqued, the family decided to try the controversial treatment.
By the following year, a doctor had approved Alex for use of the drug. The boy's transformation following treatment, his family says, was astounding.
"Eventually we had some truly amazing results," Alex's dad wrote on his blog. "He explored his world with his hands, something he was very rarely able to do. His hands were the enemy up to this point ... But on those few truly magical days when we got the dosing just right, he played. He used his hands to explore. He looked at us and smiled."
But now, Echols says, they have encountered yet another hurdle. Alex's group home will not administer the marijuana to the boy, so his parents must bring him out of the facility about three times a week to give it to him.
In a recent post on their Facebook page, Alex's parents say they are now pushing for "fixing the federal laws so that one day the group home will be able and willing to dose Alex with the one medicine that we have seen work."
But according to a 2011 report about Alex and his family published in the medical marijuana journal Treating Yourself, this change "will probably not occur any time soon." Federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are "working hard to scare anyone offering any type of public housing assistance where cannabis is used, even in states with medical marijuana programs," the magazine notes.
With medical experts issuing warnings that the effects of the drug on child development are unknown, treating children with marijuana continues to be a controversial and highly contentious issue.
The Echols themselves have not been spared criticism. They insist, however, that the potential risks are far outweighed by the benefits.
"For us, the long-term side effects that are unknown for something that can't kill him are a lot better than the long-term side effects of him beating himself bloody," Echols told KPTV. He adds, however, that while marijuana has eased his son's symptoms, Alex has not been "cured" of his rage.
According to a recent Facebook update, Alex underwent surgery this week.
Alex is not the first child in Oregon who has been treated with medical marijuana. In November last year, The Huffington Post reported that a 7-year-old leukemia patient named Mykayla Comstock was one of the state's "youngest medical marijuana users."
Mykayla is reportedly one of 52 children with cancer who have been authorized to use cannabis by the state. She is said to take "a gram of cannabis oil daily to combat side effects of her chemotherapy, such as nausea, restlessness and loss of appetite."
For more information about Alex, visit "Alex's Story," the Facebook page set up by his family.