How Drug Warriors Stole Hope from Epileptic Kids

November 23, 2016

A Reason investigation uncovers how cops, prosecutors, and lobbyists conspired to restrict a promising cannabis-derived seizure treatment.

In December 2014, Josh Phillips’ mother answered the phone to news no parent wants to hear. Her son, an epileptic high school senior and champion wrestler, was in the hospital.

The whole Salmon High School wrestling team was waiting at Steele Memorial Medical Center when Jeanette and Gary Phillips got there. The team had been on its way home from a match at West Jefferson High, more than an hour away and out of cellphone range in the rugged backcountry of northeastern Idaho, when Josh Phillips suffered the worst seizure of his life.

As the bus raced back to Salmon, Josh went in and out of consciousness. He stopped breathing at least once.

“We thought we were going to lose him,” recalls Jason Bruce, the team’s coach.

Josh had been diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 10 years old, but he’d been wrestling since he was much younger, following in the footsteps of his father and older brother. Josh was the best of the bunch. He’d never been pinned during his four years at Salmon High, and Bruce says Josh was a clear favorite to win the state championship at the end of his senior season.

He never got the chance.

After a frantic drive through the mountains, Bruce was finally able to call an ambulance to meet the bus and Josh made it to the hospital where he was stabilized. But the incident on the bus forced the school’s hand, and the decision was made that Josh would no longer be allowed to travel with the team. It was too dangerous.

Now, instead of dreaming of a championship, Josh is just hoping for a normal life. He’s tried more than a dozen different medications and even underwent brain surgery. But the seizures that denied him a shot at a state title now prevent him from pursuing even the most mundane goals of the average 19-year-old. He can’t go to college and probably won’t be able to move out of his parents’ house. He’s not allowed to drive a car, and won’t get permission until he can show doctors that he’s having less than one seizure per month.

With pharmaceutical and surgical treatments unsuccessful, the Phillips family and others in Idaho placed their hopes in the legalization of cannabidiol oil, or CBD, a form of medical marijuana. Though not guaranteed to work for everyone, CBD has been shown to be effective in controlling seizures in some epileptic patients. For that reason, it’s been legalized in dozens of states as a medical treatment, including many states where more widespread uses of medical marijuana remain banned.

In Idaho, a bill to allow people like Josh Phillips to access CBD oil was passed by the state legislature in 2015, only to be defeated by a group of powerful special interests—including cops, prosecutors, and pharmaceutical companies—with direct access to policy makers in Boise.

Emails obtained by Reason reveal a behind-the-scenes effort organized by the state’s Office of Drug Policy to derail the CBD legislation and, after it passed against the wishes of Gov. Butch Otter and his administration, to use executive authority to replace the bill with an alternative treatment program that has done nothing to help Josh Phillips or many other Idahoans suffering from seizures.

In the middle of it all was a governor who had for years professed support for ending drug prohibition, only to turn his back when the opportunity came.

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