Iowa families, out of options, move to Colorado for medical marijuana
"People are desperate and they're out of options"
This month marks the third anniversary of the morning Quincy Grittman's life, along with her family's, changed forever.
“We say 8:29 was completely normal,” she said. “And then at 8:30 we walked into hell.”
Grittman laid on her bed on the morning of March 19, 2011 with then-three-month-old son, Braedy, when she turned over to see his eyes wide open and his left arm jerking.
“I'd never seen a seizure before,” the 29-year-old Tama native recalls. “I had no clue what was going on.”
Grittman called 911 and the ambulance took him to the hospital where he had four more seizures that day.
Three years and endless medical tests later, the worried mother still has no clear answer from doctors on what caused her son to develop intractable epilepsy. Despite endless hospital trips, diets and handfuls of pharmaceuticals there seems to be no relief.
So the exhausted and determined mother is packing her bags and in April will uproot her family to Colorado in hopes of a contentious solution to ease her son's seizures through medical marijuana.
Grittman and her family aren't alone in Iowa, where marijuana is illegal. Iowans suffering from seizures, chronic pain, nausea, epilepsy and other medical issues are turning to states with medical marijuana programs to seek relief when prescribed medications and Iowa's political process aren't working for them.
Grittman said she was never interested in marijuana and at first brushed off an article she saw detailing a child, with similar symptoms as Braedy, whose health improved after taking a form of cannabis oil.
“This is not for us,” Grittman said she initially thought. “I'm glad it works for that child but I'd never put my child on medical marijuana.”
However, after a relapse of seizures for Braedy led to extended periods in the hospital, Grittman researched medical marijuana and by August 2013, Grittman and her husband decided they needed to move to Colorado Springs, Colo.
Grittman said prior to her son's seizures he showed signs of normal development like sitting up, smiling and turning side-to-side. That regressed once the seizures began and Braedy now spends his days in a wheel chair not talking or smiling. Although he's now been 15 days without seizures, she said they could relapse at any point.
Margaret Gedde, a Colorado doctor who's researched the effects of medical marijuana and has met with Grittman and her son, said of her 150 patients, two thirds have moved from other states.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported more than 111,000 residents hold medical marijuana registry ID cards as of January 31 and 215 card holders are minors, under the age of 18. The state launched its medical marijuana program in 2001.
Reservations with legislation
Those desperate to use medical marijuana say they can't wait any longer for an Iowa program, which is unlikely to occur anytime soon as Gov. Terry Branstad remains leery of the issue.
Branstad told reporters earlier this week while he sympathizes with families, officials must keep in mind the “unintended consequences” that could lead to abusing the system.
“I think we have to be careful about drafting our laws just for a few people that have a particular problem or ailment,” Branstad said.
Marijuana is classified as a Scheduled 1 controlled substance both in Iowa and at the federal level. Although 20 states and Washington D.C. have established medical marijuana programs the subject remains contentious in states like Iowa where lawmakers fear an improperly established program could lead to lax enforcement and rampant recreational use.
State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, filed legislation for a medical cannabis program in Iowa, which failed to garner support this session. Meanwhile, Iowa Republican and Democratic lawmakers insist more education and research needs to be considered before the issue can be considered further.
Some in the medical community cite ongoing clinical trials of Epidiolex, a purified liquid form of cannabinoids (CBD) that are known to produce pain relief and found in marijuana plants, as a potential better solution to medical marijuana. The Federal Drug Administration hasn't approved the drug and proponents of medical marijuana say they can't wait out the lengthy drug-approval process.
Colorado: Hope for a new life
Rachael Selmeski understands Grittman's situation all too well. The former Denver, Iowa resident moved to Colorado from Tennessee in November 2013 so her daughter, Maggie, could receive Charlotte's Web -- a marijuana extract high in CBD that doesn't induce the “high” many think of with recreational marijuana use.
Selmeski,31, said her 22-month-old daughter experienced more than 500 seizures daily before she began taking the cannabis extract. Five months later, Selmeski said her daughter takes small doses of the extract through a little oral syringe three times a day and has seen a 30 percent reduction in seizures. The amount they need costs $100 a month.
Maggie is now more alert, has an increased appetite, and is altogether more active, Selmeski said over the phone as her daughter squirmed around on her stomach, wiggling her arms and legs next to her.
It's stories like Selmeski's that make Grittman think the same could happen for her son.
“That's kind of our hope,” Grittman said. “That a whole new life could be in Colorado. Where he could get out of that stupid wheel chair and go play and talk to us and be himself. It's just like the possibilities are endless for us.”
But the decision doesn't come without a cost. Grittman said the move means she'll be leaving the rest of her family behind. She said it hurts that she doesn't know when her family will see Braedy again, especially her aging grandparents.
“I'm so upset I have to move away from them,” she said tearfully. “Because Braedy can't come back once he's in Colorado.”
Selmeski said she's grateful for what cannabis has done to help Maggie but she hasn't forgotten the 12 other families she knows with epileptic children in Iowa that want to give their children a chance with medical cannabis but for various reasons are unable to make the move.
Selmeski said there's a strong network that's developed in Colorado of families from Iowa and other states because of the medical marijuana program. She said parents from across the county, including Grittman, have called her to seek advice on how they can pack up and move.
“People are desperate and they're out of options,” Selmeski said. “When it's your child, you'll do everything and anything to at least have a chance at the opportunity of life.”