A 9-Year-Old Girl is about to Become the Face of Medical Marijuana Activism in Texas
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Here’s the easiest campaign ad in the world for someone to run: “In 2015, my opponent voted for marijuana laws that made it legal for a 9-year-old to get high.”
Theoretically, that’s what Alexis Bortell—the 9-year-old girl who’s lobbying legislators at the Capitol to reform Texas’ laws to allow for medical marijuana—is up against.
Bortell, who lives in the Dallas suburb of Rowlett, was diagnosed with life-threatening epileptic seizures in 2013. As KHOU reports:
“It was terrible. Her seizures went from mainly at night to around the clock,” said [Alexis’ father Dean] Bortell. Even more frustrating, Bortell says the next drug Depakote gave Alexis tremors, spasms, and altered her personality — and the seizures still came. Alexis describes the episodes as “very scary.”
“I kinda black out, and sometimes I start chomping and shaking,” she said.
When the pharmaceutical complications resulted in doctors finally ordering the medications tapered off, Dean viewed the decision as an admission of failure. The Bortells now rely solely on a supply of rescue medication, and Dean worries whether it will be enough to save his daughter if her condition suddenly worsens.
“If the big one does come, what are we going to do? I mean that scares us more than anything,” said Bortell.
Bortell and his wife, after watching a CNN special hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta about medical marijuana, took their daughter to neurologists in Colorado, where the drug is legal. There, they were told that it was the best medication for their daughter:
On the advice of doctors there, Alexis was able to qualify for and obtain a state-issued “red card,” which allows doctors to prescribe her marijuana-based medication.
“She is a legal patient in Colorado,” said [Bortell]. “She has been evaluated by two specialists who believe medical cannabis is her best shot at a normal childhood.”
Of course, being a legal patient in Colorado doesn’t mean much in Texas, where medical marijuana is illegal.
To be clear, Bortell isn’t smoking or eating a big pan of brownies. A doctor recommended medical marijuana to control her seizures in the form of an oil (which is delivered orally, through a dropper), but given that the drug is illegal in Texas, she hasn’t engaged in this treatment.* According to KHOU, possession of marijuana oils and tinctures carry even stiffer penalties in Texas.
There’s some debate, even in the recreational marijuana community, over whether or not tinctures get you high. Message boards are full of arguments from users looking for both recreational and medical delivery methods, and disagreement runs rampant: One user will insist that “while it doesn’t leave you stoned off your ass as the same amount cooked whole in a brownie, the pain relief qualities are remarkable,” and another will declare that “two drops of tincture from an eye dropper will get you high in just minutes.”
Sadly, this is about as good as it gets for firm, clear answers about medical marijuana in America. Because our national dialogue about it is still very much wrapped up in culture war nonsense, even seeking answers about the side effects of marijuana tinctures leads you to either websites decrying the drug as evil or stoner message boards looking for a new way to get high.
So will our conversation about marijuana grow up? Right now, the word “hippie” comes up a lot even in serious articles discussing the issue—but there’s reason to believe that perhaps the “they want to give marijuana to 9-year-olds” crowd that sees the issue in stark terms won’t be able to dominate the discourse. Despite her age or perhaps because of it, Alexis Bortell is a deeply sympathetic character, whose family doesn’t want to have to move her to Colorado just to keep her healthy. And, it seems, the Texas Legislature is considering the first steps of a law that would allow her to remain. On Friday, Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) and Rep. Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth) filed the Texas Compassionate Use Act, which would allow patients with intractable epilepsy to be treated with medical marijuana.
Senate Bill 339 and House Bill 892 would regulate the growth and dispensation of cannabidiol (CBD) oil, an oil extracted from the cannabis plant. Patients with intractable epilepsy have seen dramatic reductions in seizures through the use of CBD oil without exhibiting adverse reactions.
As filed, these bills require this oil to not contain more than 0.5 percent tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) and not less than 10 percent CBD by weight. This level of THC, the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, is not sufficient to get the consumer “high,” even in large doses.
The Texas Epilepsy Foundation supports the bills.
“Our legislation is focused on the patients, who are mostly children, who deal with these horrible seizures on a daily basis,” Eltife said. “As a parent, I can’t imagine knowing there is a safe treatment for my severely sick child but not being able to access that treatment.”
The introduction of the bill is encouraging, but who knows what its future looks like. The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy debated the issue last summer in the pages of the Houston Chronicle, and the prospects for marijuana reform in Texas were highly contentious: The President of the Texas chapter for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), for instance, insisted that medical marijuana would pass in 2015, while the Baker Institute’s own Mark Jones speculated that it wouldn’t pass until something like 2023 (when Alexis Bortell will be getting ready to go to college, perhaps at a state school in Colorado).
NORML might be overly optimistic, and Jones might be too skeptical of Texas Republicans’ interests (Elfite and Klick, after all, are Republicans representing conservative districts), but it’s hard to know what will happen—after all, when it comes to talking about medical marijuana, so far, the loudest voices tend to be the least mature.
* Editor’s note: This sentence has been amended to reflect the fact that Bortell has not engaged in any treatment involving medical marijuana.