POLITICS
03/27/2014 11:20 am ET Updated Apr 17, 2014

Parents Argue Medical Marijuana Helps These Kids Avoid A 'Death Sentence'

Boston Globe via Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Yet another state is considering expanding its medical marijuana laws to include children suffering from debilitating conditions like epilepsy.

On Tuesday, Illinois' Senate Public Health Committee unanimously approved legislation that would legalize medical marijuana treatment for minors in a 8-0 vote.

“Letters have been sent by so many parents who suffer watching their children have seizures — and not just one or two seizures: 100, 200, 1,000 seizures a week,” the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), told the Sun-Times. “This could be a life-saving solution for children suffering from epilepsy.”

Nicole Gross, one of the parents of severely epileptic children who lobbied for the bill, testified to just how transformative medical marijuana treatment can be for kids like her son, Chase. Gross said her 8-year-old lost his ability to speak due to his seizures and functions at the level of a 1 1/2-year-old.

"Following his dose of the cannabis oil, we started to see one to two seizures in two minutes, and then two minutes seizure free, five minutes seizure free, then eight ... and when we hit twenty, I cried," Gross told Fox Chicago.

Chase is among the thousands of children across the U.S. -- and among an estimated 1,000 in the Chicago area alone, Fox Chicago estimates -- who don't respond to typical seizure medication but have experienced dramatic improvements using medical marijuana.

Unlike adults who can smoke medical marijuana, children using the treatment are commonly given Cannabidiol (CBD) oil. The oil comes from marijuana plants but has low levels of the mind-altering ingredient THC that creates a high. In recent days, states like Wisconsin, Tennessee and Utah have advanced legislation to legalize CBD oil.

With CBD still illegal for minors in Illinois, Gross was forced to move to Colorado with Chase in order to secure the oil for his treatments. Gross and her family are part of a growing number of people heading to Colorado for treatment, where the number of minors on the state's medical marijuana registry has surged in the past year.

Currently, 20 states have medical marijuana laws on the books, but only some of them include minors.

In Illinois, where the four-year pilot program is considered one of the strictest in the nation, minors aren't the only patients excluded from the state's registry: Only those individuals suffering from at least one of 40 debilitating conditions and illnesses qualify.

The stigma against medical marijuana for kids -- and physicians' subsequent reluctance to prescribe it -- has led families to fire their doctors in search of marijuana-friendly care providers. Other, like Gross, are forced to leave their home state and become a "marijuana refugee" in Colorado.

Gross' husband, Randy, acknowledges there's a belief that CBD oil could be abused, but noted to WGN in a February interview, "it has no street value, so there's no one who can really abuse it. It's something you can't overdose on. You can drink a gallon of it and it won't hurt you."

With the news of the Illinois Senate Committee's vote, Gross hopes the days of his family living in Colorado are numbered.

"The long-term prospect is you're making people decide between a life of seizures in Illinois, and possibly death, because this is often a death sentence," Gross said. "Or, you're making [families] leave their home."

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