Can Cannabis Cure Epilepsy?

What started out as a desperate attempt to help a young girl with epilepsy quickly turned into the greatest advertisement for medicinal cannabis imaginable.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

In 2006, an American couple by the names of Matt and Paige Figi had their world turned upside down.

Their lives seemed to be picturesque, meeting at university, getting married and exploring the world together. The couple had their first child in 2004, and two years later, they tried to conceive again.

On October 18th, 2006, the couple gave birth to twins; Charlotte and Chase. However, this family's American dream would soon turn into a nightmare.

At just three months of age, Charlotte had her first seizure while playing in the bath. After rushing their daughter to the hospital, Matt and Paige hoped this would be the first, and last time they would have to do this for Charlotte. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

Charlotte was diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome—a rare form of early-onset epilepsy—which would cause her to have up to 350 seizures a week by the time she was five. Despite being on an array of pharmaceutical drugs, Charlotte was unfortunately in the one-third of people diagnosed with epilepsy who don't respond to available medication.

While other children at her age would be running around and eating sweets, Charlotte was in a wheelchair and received her nutrients through a feeding tube.

After five years of endless doctor visits and different medications with no real sign of improvement, the Figi's decided to try something radical, in the hopes that their daughter could finally live a happy life. They decided to give their daughter cannabis.

The parents acquired their cannabis from the Stanley Brothers, a group of siblings who had begun growing and supplying cannabis to people with cancer in Colorado.

Cannabis was known to help those undergoing chemotherapy, due to its ability to increase appetite, assist with sleep and minimize nausea, and so word quickly spread about the Stanley Brothers and their plant medicine – eventually reaching the Figi's.

Once they linked up, the Stanley Brothers provided Charlotte's parents with a CBD laden cannabis extract mixed with olive oil.

To Matt and Paige's shock, after giving Charlotte the cannabis medicine, her seizures stopped. A week went by, and still no seizures. Suddenly, Charlotte went from up to 350 grand mal seizures a week, to about four seizures a month.

Charlotte could now live a relatively normal life without all the drugs, constant seizures and hospital visits, and the world was amazed.

Word of the Stanley Brothers, Charlotte, and the effects cannabis had on epilepsy spread like wildfire, prompting CNN to make a documentary simply entitled 'Weed.'

Cannabis epilepsy
Source: Royal Queen Seeds

Cannabis as Medicine

The work of the Stanley Brothers and the exposure given to them by CNN's documentary brought thousands of families with epileptic children into Colorado, in the hopes that they could acquire some of the cannabis medicine that helped Charlotte Figi.

Though this scarcity of effective cannabis medicine was an issue in itself, said Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who produced the CNN documentary on Charlotte.

"I have seen more patients like Charlotte first hand, spent time with them and come to the realization that it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana," Dr. Gupta stated.

Dr. Gupta takes issue with the scheduling of marijuana, which sits under the Schedule One category—meaning it is perceived to have no medicinal benefit—despite the growing wealth of evidence to suggest the contrary.

This scheduling has placed marijuana into a catch-22 scenario; research becomes difficult because marijuana is illegal, and yet the only way to legalize the plant would be through more research.

Despite this, in 2018 President Donald Trump legalized hemp through the Farm Bill—which opened the door for hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD)—allowing companies to produce medicine, wellness products, and consumable products containtaining CBD all across the United States.

This allowed for the creation of CBD products in almost every aisle imaginable, with CBD oils and tinctures made for athletes, CBD snacks made for pets, and foods, beverages, and wellness products all using the cannabinoid compound in their products.

The Stanley Brothers even renamed their company Charlotte's Web, after Charlotte Figi and her story.

Though the biggest breakthrough for CBD, beyond its widespread appeal and endless testimonies, was on June 25th, 2018.

On that day, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug containing a purified drug substance derived from marijuana. And, amazingly, it's a drug designed for those suffering the very same epilepsy as Charlotte Figi – Dravet's Syndrome, as well as another form of childhood-onset epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

The drug is called 'Epidiolex,' and was made by a British biopharmaceutical company named GW Pharma.

The newfound legitimacy of the drug serves as a huge win for the cannabis community, who have long argued for the plant's medicinal benefits. Additionally, it places added scrutiny on the Schedule One status of marijuana, given the now FDA-approved benefits gained by CBD use.

According to the FDA, as a result of GW's work and the "adequate and well-controlled clinical studies that supported this approval, prescribers can have confidence in the drug's uniform strength and consistent delivery that support appropriate dosing needed for treating patients with these complex and serious epilepsy syndromes."

cannabis epilepsy

How it works 

Prior to Epidiolex's approval, the FDA held three randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials with a total of 516 patients who had either Dravet or Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

One of these studies involved a double-blind placebo trial and included 171 volunteers with drug-resistant Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome over a 14 week period.

During the treatment period, patients taking Epidiolex in conjunction with their current medication achieved a median reduction in monthly seizures of 44 percent. On top of this, patients taking CBD also saw an improvement in their sleep.

These results—in addition to other studies conducted involving CBD and epilepsy—were hugely significant in providing hope to parents and families who had suffered from rarer forms of epilepsy.

Though interestingly enough, researchers aren't certain about what cannabidiol is doing to our brain to prevent seizures.

In fact, scientists often aren't exactly sure of what causes epilepsy itself. One believed reason for epilepsy can be brain inflammation, which some argue is how CBD can help.

When we ingest CBD, the compound responds to our Endocannabinoid System (ECS), which activates and deactivates certain receptors and neurons, generating certain effects. The cannabinoid receptors we have in us are named CB1 receptors, and CB2 receptors, and are found in our brain, and nervous system in that order.

Early studies suggest that CBD may serve as an effective anti-inflammatory compound, and it's believed that these anti-inflammatory effects can interact with the brain and minimize the likelihood of seizures.

So, in conclusion, CBD didn't just help Charlotte Figi's epilepsy. In fact, in many ways, Charlotte Figi's story helped CBD, moving the compound further into the limelight.

Cannabis is now legal for medicinal purposes in 33 US states, and recreational purposes in 11. As more research is done on cannabis and its contents, we will continue to see this pattern of legalization, which in turn will lower the barriers to further research.

And once that is achieved, who knows what the future holds for cannabis…

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We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest. Currently, cannabis remains illegal on a federal level in […]

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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