How One Young Girl Could Change Idaho’s Strict Marijuana Laws

Jun 20, 2014

Unlike Washington and Oregon, Idaho doesn’t have any form of legal marijuana. In fact in 2013 Idaho lawmakers passed a resolution saying they would never support legalizing marijuana for any reason. But one year later, during the 2014 legislative session many of those same lawmakers held closed door discussions about creating an exception to the state’s strict anti-pot laws. As Adam Cotterell reports it was because of a Boise girl and her mom.

Clare, Alexis and Micheal Carey.
Credit Adam Cotterell / Northwest News Network

Nine-year-old Alexis Carey gets home from school and her mom helps her into her favorite bean bag chair. Clare Carey kneels down to remove her daughter’s foot braces, which she needs to walk.

Carey: “She’s in them all day so when she gets home from school we just kind of give her a break.”

Alexis can’t talk but she’s smiling and seems glad to be home. Heading out to the back patio Clare and husband Michael Carey say Alexis is usually cheerful.

Carey:“She’s got a great disposition. She just loves everyone. ‘Smiley.’ And cuddles and kisses and she’s happy. But like, she can’t communicate, she can’t potty train.”

Alexis has a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome. She started having seizures when she was a couple months old.

Carey: “You have seizures that go on for over an hour and nothing stops them. Some children will have ones that put them in a coma.”

Carey: “It’s so hard to helplessly watch your kid seizing for an hour. You can’t describe how painful it is.”

Carey: “Yeah, it’s just an eternity.”

These kinds of seizures can cause brain damage. Many children with Dravet Syndrome don’t live to adulthood. And most get developmental delays. That’s what happened to Alexis. Other than having seizures she seemed like a normal kid until she was about 2-years-old.

Carey: “She was now having like 60 seizures a month and she was just slipping away from us.”

Carey: “She had been walking and talking and meeting all mile stones and lost everything.”

They’ve tried every anti-seizure medication on the market. These are powerful drugs, but they don’t help much. Dravet is an intractable form of epilepsy, which means it doesn’t respond well to treatment. But now some parents are trying something new and reporting huge reductions in seizures. It’s an oil taken orally.

The Careys of course wanted to try it. But they couldn’t because Idaho doesn’t allow medical marijuana. The oil comes from a strain of the cannabis plant bred to have very little THC, the chemical that makes people high. Some people are hailing it as a miracle cure. But the Careys are quick to point out that the evidence so far is anecdotal and it’s not a cure.

Carey: “It’s a treatment that might possibly reduce seizures.”

Carey: “Compared to the medicine she’s on the side effect profile is essentially nonexistent.”

They considered moving to Colorado, where the oil is extracted but instead Clare went to the Idaho legislature. She met with lawmakers and asked them to pass an exception to Idaho’s strict anti-marijuana laws to allow parents to use this oil. Several states that don’t allow medical marijuana have passed exceptions like this including conservative Utah. Idaho lawmakers started discussing it behind closed doors. One of them was Nampa Republican senator Kurt McKenzie.

McKenzie: “If we can find a way that doesn’t legalize marijuana but helps these kids, I believe Idahoans and Idaho legislators are compassionate and will want to work on this.”

But Lee Hieder isn’t convinced.

Hieder: “This would not be an easy sell I don’t think in Idaho given the nature of our conservative legislature.”

Hieder is a Twin Falls Republican and chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. He also met with Clare Carey and took part in closed door discussions. Hieder won’t say if he supports the idea or not. He has a lot of questions about the details. For example would an exception only include kids with Dravet Syndrome? There are probably less than 10 in Idaho. Or would it include anyone with some form of intractable epilepsy? That’s probably more than 10,000 Idahoans. Hieder says he won’t form an opinion until a bill is presented.

Hieder: “I don’t think anyone in the legislature would want to jump on it today or want to sponsor it or bring it forward.”

Hieder thinks anything to do with marijuana will scare lawmakers. But Curt McKenzie says because of the low THC in this oil, it shouldn’t be considered marijuana at all.

McKenzie: “This is a separate issue. This is not legalizing marijuana medical use, recreational use.” Clare Carey hoped lawmakers would pass something this year but she says toward the end of the session she was told it would not happen. The Carey’s wonder if lawmakers just decided it was too risky a thing to bring up right before primary elections. But lawmakers from both parties say there just wasn’t enough time to research the issue and write a bill. McKenzie says he’s optimistic that the legislature pass something next year.

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