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Tuesday, October 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Boise

Four kids now taking marijuana-derived epilepsy treatment under state program; more being screened

Four Idaho children are now taking the drug Epidiolex under an “expanded access” program permitted under federal law and authorized by Gov. Butch Otter through an executive order, state Public Health Division Director Elke Shaw-Tulloch told lawmakers this morning. Epidiolex is a purified oil made from the marijuana plant that contains no THC; clinical trials are under way to use it to treat children with severe epilepsy, and the expanded access program allows other kids not in the trials to receive the drug.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed an executive order in April authorizing the expanded-access program, after vetoing legislation that would have allowed the use of cannabidiol, a low-THC oil extracted from cannabis, to be used legally in Idaho to treat children with severe seizure disorders. The measure passed both houses after long and emotional hearings, but Otter’s Office of Drug Policy and the Idaho State Police decried it as a step toward legalizing medical marijuana.

Idaho is now alone among all its surrounding states in banning any form of marijuana use, for medical or other purposes. Wyoming this year legalized the supervised use of cannabidiol oil, also called CBD oil, to treat intractable epilepsy or seizure disorders; Utah did the same in 2014. In 2013, the Idaho Legislature overwhelmingly passed a resolution against ever legalizing any form of marijuana use for any purpose.

Shaw-Tulloch told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that Idaho has been awarded 25 slots in the expanded-access program,  which allows drugs currently in clinical trials to be dispensed to others not in the trials on a limited basis, and now, “after many, many months of working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food & Drug Administration, the pharmaceutical company and our contractor, we have had many families coming to us trying to get their children enrolled.”

Screening is under way on those kids, she said. And now, “We finally have four kids who are actively taking Epidiolex as of this week.”

If Idaho has more demand than the 25 slots allow for, she said, it will apply for more slots.

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said 29 families applied to have their children included, and beyond the initial four who already have started the program, 18 are now scheduled for their screening visits. Four more are in the process of submitting information, and three didn't qualify. Standards for the program are strict; for example, the sick children must have tried and failed on at least four different classes of epilepsy medications.

Hahn said requirements of the program from both the FDA and DEA are extensive; for example, the physician conducting the trial had to install a safe in his office and have the DEA come and inspect it. "Considering the five or six agencies involved, I'm pleased that we got this thing up and running in less than a year," she said. As for whether it's helping the kids in the program, she said, "It's way too early to say." 

JFAC Co-Chair Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said she supported the vetoed bill last year; it passed the Senate 22-12 and the House 39-30. “It seemed, at the time, the need was greater than four and greater than 25,” she said; by some estimates, as many as 1,500 kids in Idaho could use the treatment.

“It’s frustrating for me that as a state, we have narrowed the options down for the kids and the parents,” Keough said, adding that she wonders “whether we are denying a treatment that could give kids and parents some relief, and helping a pharmaceutical company along the way.”

“I would guess that some of those parents are desperate to help their children, and will find the substance in another manner,” Keough said. “If the goal is to keep this above-board, then we’re certainly not helping that. I guess I’m disappointed.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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