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Mention Taylor Swift and five-year-old Ella’s eyes light up like the Christmas tree in the corner of her Surrey living room.
The tree scrapes the ceiling, and Ella is eager to play with the decorations, but her parents have set up a barricade so she can’t reach the branches.
That’s because the young girl has severe epilepsy and autism, and, although she is nearly six, the cognitive ability of a toddler.
She doesn’t seem to mind, as her attention is soon diverted to a suggestion that she sing a song by Swift, her favourite recording artist.
Yet the strong-willed Ella has other ideas.
“Meatballs,” the bright little girl exclaims, and the family launches into a rousing verse of On Top of Spaghetti.
A year ago, Ella would not have been singing about meatballs, giggling as she sways her hips to Swift, or scribbling in her Dora the Explorer colouring book as she is now.
She would have slept all day, her few precious waking hours spent groggy and depressed because of the medication she takes to control more than a hundred seizures a day.
Ella still takes a cocktail of anti-seizure pills, but her parents, Kim and Rob Turkington, have added two shots per day of marijuana oil, a medicine her parents say has made her more alert, reduced the number and severity of seizures, and allowed her to develop speech and other cognitive functions.
They’re not alone, as more parents, frustrated with failed pharmaceuticals, turn to cannabis oil, ideally one that is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive agent, and high in cannabidiol (CBD), one of hundreds of compounds found in the marijuana plant believed to stop seizures. But lack of research, poor industry standards and few doctors willing to prescribe mean parents left to experiment to find consistent dosages.
The family of Summerland toddler Kyla Williams (an epileptic child who solely relies on CBD oil to stop seizures) has a similar story, as does Simon Fraser University lecturer Sherri Brown.
They share the same caveat: Cannabis is not a miracle drug, but can significantly improve the quality of life for some children.
Like Ella, Brown’s son, five-year-old Quinn Barker-Brown, became much more alert after the family last year began using the same brand Ella takes, called Charlotte’s Web, a strain that has a 28:1 ratio of CBD to THC.
The problem is Charlotte’s Web, considered among parents to be the gold standard in kids’ cannabis, is not available in Canada so they import it from Colorado.
It became legal to buy CBD oil from a licensed producer this summer, after the Supreme Court ruled Canadians have the right to buy derivatives of medical marijuana. However, it wasn’t available until earlier this month when an Ontario company became the first to be allowed to sell cannabis oil by Health Canada.
Many parents still struggle to find a consistent strain low in THC. They buy from unregulated dispensaries, only to find out by trial and error that the product they bought was too high in the psychoactive compound.