Lisa Helt has been worried about her son, Mitchell, for a long time. He is severely autistic. Once, he put his head through a car windscreen. Later, he tried to do the same thing to a dining room table and was left bloodied with glass shattered all over the floor. Another time, he tried to attack his mother, clawing at her face and pinning her to the ground. This can't go on. He is either going to die or go to jail, she remembers thinking when he was a teenager.
In 2013, Helt, who attends a Methodist church, made a deal with God. If Mitchell could go one week without a seizure (about a third of people with autism also have epilepsy, like Mitchell) while off his medication and in hospital for observation, then Helt would try medical marijuana in the hope of calming the seizures and his aggressive, self-injurious tendencies. He made it through the week.
So Helt took Mitchell to Colorado for a week to experiment with different ways of using marijuana products to treat his condition. She found that a band-aid-like patch could give him a steady dose over a 12-over period, and when they returned to Texas, she used the patches illegally. A few years later, Mitchell, now 21, rarely has seizures. His violent outburst are gone. He consumes about 30 milligrams of marijuana a day through the patch. (Continuously breaking the law wasn't a long-term solution, and the family now lives in Arizona, where Mitchell's treatment is legal thanks to his epilepsy diagnosis.)
Helt is a member of MAMMA—Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism—which started out of an Austin bible study group in 2014. The group now has chapters in 12 states, plus one for military families, to legalize medical marijuana for use with autism. There have been countless organizations across the country that, like MAMMA, want to improve access to medical marijuana. What makes this group stands out is that its founding members are Christians and political conservatives.
"We are the most unlikely people to be doing this," admitted AmyLou Fawell, a co-founder and executive director of MAMMA. Her 17-year-old son, Jack, has autism with aggressive and self-harming behaviors. Like many parents, she feels she has exhausted all therapy and prescription drug options, MAMMA members, she said, believe they have exhausted all therapy and prescription drug options. They are turning to marijuana even though evidence of its impact on autism is limited to the testimony of enthusiastic parents. Fawell estimates that in Texas alone hundreds of desperate parents are taking that risk.
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MAMMA only advocates for medical marijuana, not recreational, "which goes a long way in conservative Texas," said Fawell. In the US, medical marijuana is currently legal in 28 states, while eight states have passed laws to allow recreational use. Texas's own medical marijuana law is extremely restrictive: Only patients with severe epilepsy can get marijuana oils, and then only those that are low in THC.
MAMMA is among those who want to loosen these restrictions. The group is fighting for a bill, introduced in the state senate by a Democrat late last year, that would give a wider range of patients access to medical marijuana. Jason Isaac, a Republican, will co-author a version of it in the state's house of representatives; though it's considered a long shot, the bill could be voted on next year.
"It's about freedom and about liberty, which as Republicans we preach about often," said Isaac, echoing the conservative sentiment of many MAMMA members when it comes to determining care for their children.
This comes amid a slow softening of conservatives when it comes to legalizing medical marijuana. A YouGov poll in 2016 found for the first time Republicans supported legalizing marijuana with 45 percent for and 42 percent against. (The poll didn't specify whether this was medical or recreational weed.) In 2014, a similar poll found 60 percent of Republicans opposed legalizing marijuana with 28 percent for it.
But for parents of children with chronic conditions that marijuana can help alleviate, the debate over legalization might be a matter of life and death—and some parents don't want to wait for the slow grind of legislation. A few weeks ago, the Zartlers, who live in Dallas, posted a video on Facebook of them illegally administering marijuana to their 17-year-old daughter, Kara, who has severe autism and cerebral palsy. The clip, which quickly went viral, shows Kara repetitively punching herself in the face. Three minutes after a marijuana vapor is administered, she's is calmly rocking in a chair.
Not only are Kara's parents risking imprisonment and a fine, they could also lose their child. Not long after releasing the video, Child Protective Services visited the family. "My first fear was that they were going to try and remove her and put her in foster care," said Kara's mother, Christy, who is a part of MAMMA. CPS confirmed the family is being investigated; a spokesperson called it a "complicated situation."
"These parents are not criminals," said Isaac, the Republican politician, who also authored another bill that if passed, would decriminalize possessing small amounts of marijuana.
But the stigma of marijuana use, even for medicinal purposes, is still strong in many parts of Texas. For instance, Zartler hasn't mentioned her daughter's marijuana use to the pastor. Similarly, though Fawell told her Baptist pastor about her advocacy, she was nervous about it.
After seeing some videos like that of Kara, the minister, Matthew J. Cox, told me his shock turned to curiosity. "It really began to make me think and see maybe there is a use for [marijuana], that there is a plan for this," said Cox, later adding, "I can't believe it would be worse than the [prescription] psychotropic drugs they are giving children today."
Fawell is a hardcore Republican (her email address ends in reagan.com) and she is a six-day creationist Christian, meaning she takes a literal reading of the creation story in Genesis. To her, advocating for medical marijuana is not a contradiction of her faith but an affirmation of it.
"If God made it and our bodies need it then that is the Christian argument," said Fawell.
Serena Solomon is an Australian freelance journalist based in New York City.