Special Report: A Last Hope
AURORA, Colo. - Some Rio Grande Valley parents are coming forward with a confession. They're giving their daughter marijuana.
Madelynn Garza is not 2 years old yet. She suffers from several neurological disorders that keep her from developing like a normal child. Her parents have found cannabis is helping her more than any prescribed medicine they've tried.
“The first time I came to Colorado was in a moving truck,” Madelynn’s father, Emmanuel Garza, said.
Emmanuel and Tracey Garza picked up and moved from Sullivan City, Texas to Aurora, Colorado seven months ago with their three children. They made the move for Madelynn to have access to medical marijuana.
“It's the best thing we could have done for her,” Tracey Garza said.
MADELYNN’S LAST HOPE
Madelynn has a rare disorder called Aicardi Syndrome. She's missing her corpus collosum, the tissue that connects the right and left halves of the brain.
Her parents received the diagnosis after Madelynn started having infantile spasms when she was just 2 months old.
“Her seizures were pretty intense,” Tracey Garza said. “And I'm not exaggerating, hundreds a day, to where she would seize and just fall asleep.”
Doctors prescribed drug after drug to ease Madelynn's seizures. Some drugs weren't effective, and others came with harmful side effects.
“Like she was always asleep, like a zombie, just sleeping… We found out she was close to having kidney failure,” Tracey explained.
The Garzas started researching marijuana as a treatment. The plant has helped children with all types of neurological conditions, especially children with epilepsy.
Last November, they made the decision to move to Colorado, where recreational and medical marijuana is legal.
“There was one night where she had a hour seizure. And that was it for me. Like I was crying just mourning my daughter in that moment,” Tracey Garza said. “So, after that, I just told my husband we have to move. This is it. We can't have her having seizures for one hour every day now.”
Emmanuel Garza was born and raised in the Rio Grande Valley. He went to college at the University of Texas Pan American, bought a house next to his mother in Sullivan City and started a job. He loved teaching AVID at Palmview High School. He knew he would have to leave the Valley once he heard a grim prognosis from one of Madelynn’s neurologists.
“He had said that they were the worst infantile spasms he had ever seen in his career,” Emmanuel Garza said. “So I think that was the point that I said, ‘OK, we have to do what we can for our daughter.’”
In Colorado, Madelynn started taking cannabis oil every day. She went a month and a half seizure free for the first time in about a year.
“We wouldn't be here if it wasn't working. We would have moved back immediately,” Emmanuel Garza said.
Doctors in Colorado found problems with Madelynn's health her doctors in Texas missed, such as a detached retina in one of her eyes. Her seizures came back after a recent eye surgery.
“We were meeting Madelynn for the first time with marijuana,” Tracey said. “After that, her seizures did return slowly, but nothing like Texas.”
Madelynn takes a cannabis oil everyday that's legal in most states. It's just a hemp oil, meaning there's no way it can cause a high. It's her seizure rescue medication that's controversial because it has THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana that causes a high.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS witnessed the THC oil work. During an interview with Emmanuel Garza, Madelynn started having a seizure in his arms. Her body stiffened up and her eyes rolled to the back of her head. Emmanuel Garza could only watch helplessly as his daughter screamed in pain.
Tracey Garza heard Madelynn from the other room and brought the THC oil. She put two doses in Madelynn's mouth. Immediately, Madelynn stopped screaming. Her seizure stopped in less than 30 seconds. After a few minutes of catching her breath, Madelynn fell fast asleep.
If the Garzas were caught with Madelynn's THC oil in Texas, they could be arrested. That's why the family can't return home to the Rio Grande Valley even just for a visit.
“Me and my wife, we do not do marijuana,” Emmanuel Garza said. “We didn't come here to get high. We just came here for her.”
The Garza family’s story isn’t unique in Colorado. Families from all over the world are flocking to the state for medical marijuana.
Jason Cranford meets many of those families. He’s the owner of a marijuana grow that manufactures medical marijuana. He’s also the founder of a non-profit dedicated to spreading access to medical marijuana called The Flowering Hope Foundation.
“In total, there are probably several thousand people who have moved here from other states as refugees,” he said. “We've worked with over a thousand of those people.”
Many of those medical refugees are children like Madelynn. “A lot of them have epilepsy, autism, cerebral palsy, MS, things of that nature,” Cranford said.
Cranford makes two types of medical marijuana oil, each based on a different component of the plant. Marijuana is made up of dozens, possibly hundreds, of components called cannabinoids. The two most talked about are THC and CBD.
CBD cannot get you high but has many medical benefits. THC can get you high but many argue also has medical benefits.
Haleigh's Hope is Cranford's CBD oil. It’s named after a little girl in Georgia whose life the oil saved. Since the product has no THC, it can be shipped anywhere in the United States.
Cannatol is Cranford's THC oil. It’s the one Madelynn uses as a rescue medication for her seizures. It’s only available in Colorado.
“The THC levels in the products, it's not high. It's not as much as smoking a joint,” Cranford said. “What we're doing is microdosing.”
Cranford manufactures both products in his own lab. He uses a three-step process to make sure the oils are safe. Every final batch is tested. Cranford said the safety checks are not required of him by law.
“A huge issue in this industry is the lack of regulation,” he said. “You know you give pesticides in a product to a kid with autism…it's a disaster.”
Cranford's business is booming. Yet, he craves more regulation. He said not all growers are as educated and careful about how they make their products sold as medicine. For him, it's about the patients, especially the ones like Madelynn, whose families turn their lives upside down to get access to marijuana.
“I get like bonded with these families, sometimes emotionally attached with some of them,” he said.
THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY
Doctors want change as well. Dr. Jacci Bainbridge is a professor of pharmacy at University of Colorado Anschutz’s Department of Clinical Pharmacy and Neurology. She’s involved in three clinical trials involving marijuana.
“It's been a great product for many neurologic conditions,” she said. “And some cancers as well.”
Bainbridge said she can't deny the benefits of marijuana, because she's seen them in patients at the university’s clinics and hospital.
Doctors and researchers can't study the effects of marijuana in-depth, because the plant is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government. The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Schedule I drugs are supposed to have no medical benefit and a high probability of abuse.
“Our hands are tied. Practitioners' hands are tied. Prescribers' hands are tied, because of the Schedule I by the federal government,” Bainbridge said.
Cranford said doctors in Colorado are more open to the idea of marijuana as treatment than they are in states like Texas, where it is largely taboo.
“I get calls from doctors every day wanting my lab reports or wanting dosing guidelines for my products, because they're monitoring my patients,” the medical marijuana manufacturer said.
Bainbridge said the restrictions from the federal government make some doctors apprehensive. She said she believes it’s important for all patients using medical marijuana to have involved their doctors. “It's important that patients are monitored in terms of their organ function, drug-drug interaction, really important to have that medical supervision,” she said.
HOPE FOR CHANGE
Emmanuel Garza sent letters to Texas Governor Greg Abbott and state lawmakers who introduced bills that would legalize marijuana this legislative session. One of the bills gained unprecedented partisan support, but it failed to make it to the house floor for a vote.
“Hopefully in the next session in two years, there will be even more momentum, and it was actually pass through,” he said. “This is the right thing to. It doesn't matter what your political affiliation is. This is what's best for another human being.”
The Garza family will wait for change in Colorado.
Emmanuel and Tracey Garza said they have no doubts they're doing the right thing for Madelynn. “People have the assumption that we're getting our daughter high,” Tracey Garza said. “But I say if she's eating more, she's growing, she's smiling, she's giggling, I prefer that than her having one-hour seizures every day.”
“I would love to meet someone who's against and actually sit down and know the reasons why and show them, well if it works then what's the real issue?” Emmanuel Garza said. “Do you think that she should suffer just because you don't agree with it?"
This family now has hope for Madelynn. They hope she'll speak someday and play with her brother and sister. They said they hope someday, they'll be able to return to the Rio Grande Valley.
“Colorado is beautiful, but it's just not home,” Tracey Garza said.