STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Florida may soon become the latest state to allow medical marijuana. Groups are gathering signatures to put a referendum on the fall ballot. And even before that, Florida's legislature may allow residents access to a particular type of marijuana. According to its advocates, this strain, called Charlotte's Web, offers new hope to children with severe seizure disorders. NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Paige Figi is a Colorado mom whose daughter Charlotte suffers from Dravet syndrome, a debilitating genetic disease that left her unable to walk, talk or eat. Figi says an oil extracted from a strain of marijuana has helped save her daughter's life.
PAIGE FIGI: Charlotte is doing great. She's two years into treatment. I would have brought her here, but she can't leave Colorado.
ALLEN: That's because the marijuana extract her daughter depends on can't be taken over state lines. Paige Figi was in Tallahassee recently, to tell her story to Florida legislators. They're considering a bill that would allow access to a type of marijuana now known as Charlotte's Web. It's a variety of marijuana with very little tetrahydrocannabinol - THC, the ingredient that produces the high. The strain has very high amounts of another compound: cannabidiol, or CBD.
A few years ago, Figi told legislators, her daughter was having 300 seizures a week. After trying every drug and therapy she and her husband could think of, Figi says they started Charlotte on a marijuana extract high in CBD. She takes just a few milligrams of the oil each day in her food. Figi says the results have been dramatic.
FIGI: She's 99 percent - almost 100 percent seizure-free. She has about one or two seizures per month now, from 1,200.
ALLEN: Figi told legislators the marijuana extract isn't a cure. Her daughter and others with Dravet have a genetic disease they'll have forever. Figi says her daughter will never drive a car, marry or live independently. But she says Charlotte, who used to have a feeding tube, now can eat and drink on her own. She has friends and a vastly improved quality of life. For families like hers, Figi says, Charlotte's Web and similar strains of marijuana represent a lifeline.
FIGI: It's brand-new. And it's very, very exciting for these parents, who have nothing left. These kids are going to - I'm sorry to be insensitive - they will pass from these syndromes. This will be how they die.
ALLEN: The Figi story has become well-known among parents of children with Dravet syndrome and other seizure disorders. There's now a waiting list for Charlotte's Web, and the grower in Colorado is working to ramp up production. In the meantime, families from Florida and other states have been moving there to get their kids started on the therapy.
CORY BROWNING: I've purchased a house in Breckenridge, Colo.
ALLEN: Cory Browning is a lawyer in north Florida whose daughter has Dravet syndrome and has suffered from as many as 200 seizures a day. Since medical marijuana is illegal in Florida, Browning told Rep. Matt Gaetz he's looking to Colorado.
BROWNING: I don't want to break the law. I have a law license to protect. If I have to, our only options may be to send my wife and daughter to Colorado.
STATE REP. MATT GAETZ: And so you would split your family?
BROWNING: Yes. We have no choice.
ALLEN: Some 21 states and the District of Columbia now have medical marijuana. In Florida, leaders in the State Legislature have consistently blocked efforts to bring a bill to the floor. But for Charlotte's Web and similar strains, even some staunch opponents of medical marijuana now are willing to make an exception. Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Baptist minister from central Florida, has long opposed anything that he believes expands substance abuse. But after hearing pleas from Paige Figi and other parents, he said he was moved.
STATE REP. CHARLES VAN ZANT: I don't think this is substance abuse. I think this is using the substance wisely, as God intended. I'm for it.
ALLEN: While parents and advocates are embracing this specialized form of marijuana as a new therapy for children with seizure disorders, many medical experts are more circumspect. Dr. Orrin Devinsky is a neurologist and head of New York University's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.
ORRIN DEVINSKY: There are many more unknowns than knowns. And I think that the focus of the community - both lay and scientific, and governmental - should be on getting good information. That should be the real focus of what we need right now.
ALLEN: Devinsky's overseeing clinical trials - beginning soon - that will test the safety and efficacy of a CBD compound developed by a British drug company. To get FDA approval for the drug, Devinsky says researchers will have to go through blind tests, a process likely to take at least a couple of years. In the meantime, there are families in Florida - and around the country, and the world - who say their children can't wait for the tests. For these families, Dr. Devinsky thinks Charlotte's Web and similar marijuana strains may make sense.
DEVINSKY: If I had a child who had failed 15 medications and drug treatments, and there was nothing else to do and they were having many seizures a day that were terribly disabling, I think it would be a very reasonable thing to try a high-CBD cannabis product.
ALLEN: As enthusiasm for the new therapy spreads among parents of children with Dravet syndrome and similar disorders, ironically, Dr. Devinsky says, it may make it harder to conduct clinical trials. The challenge may be finding families who haven't already begun trying the Charlotte's Web extract.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.