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Medical marijuana advocates in Utah are cheering a new policy statement from the nation's leading group of pediatric doctors.
Marijuana should be reclassified from the government drug category that includes heroin to a less restrictive class encompassing methadone and oxycodone, the American Academy of Pediatrics said Monday.
The recommended switch from a Schedule I to Schedule II drug would remove some of the hurdles for research on the drug's effects. In Utah, one such study is already underway: About 20 participating children are receiving free doses of a pharmaceutical version of cannabis oil at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City.
Some families of Utah children who have exhausted other treatments for epilepsy hope the policy change will boost research efforts nationwide.
Jennifer May of Pleasant Grove, whose 12-year-old son Stockton has a severe form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, praised the academy's statement.
"They're finally stepping up," she said. "They are saying this needs to change, and that's huge for us."
May says Primary Children's program took nearly a year to secure various rounds of federal approval typically reserved for illicit drugs with no medicinal benefits, including peyote and LSD.
Primary Children's did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
After May and other families shared their stories of trying all other treatment options for children with epilepsy, Utah lawmakers passed a measure last year allowing such patients to import a cannabis-derived oil.
Under the law, people with a state hemp extract permit can legally possess oil that is at least 15 percent cannabidiol, the chemical in cannabis believed to have anti-seizure properties. It must contain less than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a high.
Colorado Springs doctor Margaret Gedde, who prescribes marijuana and has compiled case studies of children using cannabis-infused oil, called the academy's update "encouraging."
Clearing each round of federal approval for marijuana studies can take years. Among physicians, "it puts a big damper on anybody even trying" to do research on the drug, she said. But that could change if marijuana is reclassified.
The Utah study took nearly a year to get underway, much longer than the typical waiting period for clinical drug studies, which is usually just a few months.
"I think it'll be helpful," Gedde said of the academy recommendation, but noted it could take years before pending court cases or lawmakers take action to reclassify the drug. "It won't make a change right away."
Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, it's up to the Drug Enforcement Agency and Food and Drug Administration to classify drugs.
The academy's Monday policy announcement, which appeared online in the journal Pediatrics, adds to the group's 2004 policy.
The pediatricians note that for children, medical marijuana should only be used to treat "children with life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions and for whom current therapies are inadequate."
The doctors also disagree with legalizing recreational marijuana and point to studies that have suggested recreational marijuana can hurt kids' brains and general health.
Nationwide, medical marijuana for adults is legal in 23 states, and several allow it for children under certain circumstances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Last March, Utah lawmakers passed "Charlee's Law" to create permits for medical marijuana treatments. To qualify for a permit card from the Utah Department of Health, a patient must have intractable epilepsy, meaning they have attempted all other treatment options. Applying requires certification from a neurologist and a doctor's evaluation.
So far, 50 people have received the cards. Health department officials will not say how many are children and how many are adults, citing privacy rules.
The legislation, HB105, was named for Charlee Nelson, a 6-year-old West Jordan girl with epilepsy who died in March, days after the Legislature honored her. She was one of 50 Utah children on the waiting list at the Colorado nonprofit Realm of Caring.
Once Utah residents have a permit, they can fill out an application with Realm of Caring.
An average supply of cannabis oil for a 100-pound child costs about $300 a month, though patients can order more than a month's supply at a time, Jackson said.