When Sierra Riddle stormed into the conference room at Denver’s child protective services office, the director of the agency was seated there, along with her son’s team of doctors, top administrators from the Children’s Hospital Colorado oncology department and lawyers. She recalls looking one of the physicians in the eye, defiant. “I’m done with this shit,” she remembers saying. “I’m done with you guys bullying us.”
Then, she took out a bag and dumped the contents on the table: nine months of cancer drugs prescribed to her son, Landon, who was 4 at the time. He had been diagnosed more than a year before with an aggressive form of leukemia and undergone months of grueling treatment. But his mother was now refusing to follow his doctors’ orders. “Listen: Here’s all this chemo you told CPS he cannot live without, and if I didn’t give it to him, he would relapse and die.”
But Landon, who underwent only one year of cancer treatment instead of the recommended four, was still alive—thriving, in fact—even though he’d stopped taking that massive pile of drugs prescribed for him. That’s why his mother had called this meeting. She implored the CPS director—whom by then she knew by first name—to restrain the oncologists who had threatened to take her child away and put him in foster care. Riddle believes the doctors wanted to prove she was a neglectful, abusive mother, but she knew she could convince the world that the hospital was wrong about her son’s treatment. (Due to HIPAA patient privacy laws, Children’s Hospital Colorado was unable to comment on Landon’s case for this story.)
Landon’s cancer, diagnosed in September 2012, had put Riddle in a situation that’s any parent’s worst nightmare: She had to watch him undergo lifesaving treatment that appeared to be killing him. Riddle says she was left with no choice but to defy his doctors’ orders.
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In January 2013, nearly four months after Landon’s initial diagnosis, the two went from Utah to Colorado, where Riddle purchased an alternative treatment fraught with complicated politics and plenty of skepticism—especially when it comes to saving the life of a preschooler with a potentially fatal disease. At the time, Colorado was one of only about a dozen states in the U.S. that had legalized medical cannabis. It also allowed sick children to access the drug under professional guidance. Landon became the youngest patient in the U.S. at that time to receive a medical marijuana card. Riddle’s decision to treat her child with cannabis landed the family in the center of a contentious national debate, as well as on prime-time television with CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta. In Utah, all cannabis is illegal, so when their story went public, she and Landon had to move permanently to Colorado, so he could continue to have access to the drug. Even now, at 7, he still needs to take cannabis to cope with the long-term effects of chemotherapy and radiation, she says.
By the time of that showdown with CPS and Landon’s doctors in Denver, Riddle had stopped giving her son all of the drugs prescribed by the hospital: the chemo, opiates and benzos. The latter two—which included OxyContin, morphine and Ativan—were prescribed to help Landon cope with the side effects of cancer treatment. None of them helped, she says, or they made him feel worse. But when Landon started the cannabis oil, his health miraculously improved. She was willing to do whatever it took to keep him on cannabis.
A Key in the Lock
As laws that permit medical cannabis have expanded nationwide (29 states in the country now permit some form of cannabis use for medical purposes), cancer patients increasingly use the drug to alleviate the harsh symptoms of chemotherapy, such as nausea, anxiety, loss of appetite and insomnia. But there’s also an emerging body of research that suggests marijuana might be effective as a treatment for cancer on its own, or in conjunction with standard therapies.
When Riddle made the decision to give her son cannabis, the information on its safety and efficacy was (and still is) limited to anecdotal accounts, a handful of case reports and lab studies published in obscure medical journals. Initially, her hope was that the drug would lessen the side effects. But Riddle soon heard that certain compounds in cannabis—cannabinoids—have been shown to induce cancer cell death. The theory seemed to be especially promising for leukemia, at least according to studies done on cancer cells in test tubes and on mice injected with human leukemia cells. But at that point there wasn’t any evidence it would work for humans. There still isn’t. While cannabis is legal in many U.S. states, the drug is still classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 narcotic (along with heroin and cocaine), which make it very difficult for scientists to conduct clinical trials on people. However, that may change as other nations, such as Israel, take the lead and fund marijuana research.
The findings so far from published lab studies suggest cannabidiol (CBD), one of more than 100 cannabinoids present in the plant, targets certain pathways in leukemia. The evidence indicates that leukemia cells have a high number of cannabinoid receptors—primarily the receptor CB2. The proteins on the cell membrane (receptors) recognize the chemical compound, CBD. The shape of the receptor mirrors the shape of the compound, enabling the CBD to land and attach to the cell. “It’s like a key in the lock,” says Bonni Goldstein, medical director of Canna-Centers in Los Angeles and the medical adviser to WeedMaps.com, a resource for people seeking specialists to oversee their medical cannabis treatment. “When compounds such as cannabidiol bond to receptors, it causes the cell to die.”
Further studies are needed to verify that CBD could potentially kill leukemia, says Robert McKallip, an associate professor of immunology at Mercer University School of Medicine, who conducted some of the earliest research on the anti-leukemia properties of compounds found in cannabis. McKallip suggests cannabis could be used along with other treatments for leukemia. “Combined with other targeted therapies, which again, specifically target the leukemia, you give it a one-two punch and hopefully reduce side effects and improve efficacy of treatment,” he says.
Riddle isn’t a doctor, but she theorizes that while the chemo initially cleared Landon’s cancer, it’s the cannabis that has kept his disease from coming back. Oncologists who treat pediatric patients often tell families that when the five-year mark passes, their child is in the clear. It’s been nearly five years since Riddle sat in that conference room meeting; Landon is still cancer-free. Riddle says that once he hits the five-year mark this fall, he’ll set a precedent for pediatric leukemia patients in the U.S., and maybe even worldwide.