RIVER FALLS, Wis. – It will be six months before medical marijuana will become legal in Minnesota. The program officially launches in July of 2015, but for many families with sick children, that wait is still too long.
Just across the border, one River Falls, Wisconsin family has turned to another alternative: the hemp plant.
Several families whose children have seizure disorders have migrated to Colorado to gain access to a form of medical marijuana called Charlotte's Web. But Joe and Jill Karras couldn't make that move due to their family business and turned to a form of cannabidiol (CBD) hemp oil to treat their son's severe seizures.
"It was amazing, we couldn't believe it, it got better and better," said Joe Karras.
The legalities surrounding hemp aren't simple, as hemp is still classified as illegal under federal law, but even so, families are turning to the secondary hemp oil industry that has emerged since the popularity of Charlotte's Web. New hemp oil companies say they've found a way to legally operate as a national debate grows on whether to legalize growing hemp in the United States.
All 12-year-old Zachary Karras knows it that hemp oil, ordered online from a Colorado company, has helped his seizures like no other prescription medication has. He takes about 15 drops from a syringe several times a day.
Zachary has refractory epilepsy, a form that is difficult to control even with multiple medications and he has been unable to play sports or go to school full time since his first seizure in July 2011.
"This is our normal child who gets A's in school and all of the sudden he is losing his memory and became really quiet," said Jill Karras.
The parents were forced to weigh the legal and medical risks against time, and believe they had to make a decision as their son's health was deteriorating quickly. Joe Karras dug into research for other options as his son's cognitive abilities began to plummet.
"I found out something very interesting. There were a couple companies making a version of medical marijuana from the hemp plant," said Joe Karras. "I talked to family members and said: what would you do? What would you do if you were us?"
The Karras decided to take a chance and order the cannabidiol (CBD) hemp oil from Bluebird Botanicals, a company based in Broomfield, CO, that ships its CBD hemp oils to all 50 states and around the world.
Since hemp and marijuana are separate parts of the cannabis plant, hemp is also classified as a schedule I controlled substance under federal law, which means it's illegal to possess and is not approved by the FDA for medical use.
But, Bluebird Botanicals employee Dave Sommer points out an important difference, of why Bluebird Botanicals can ship products worldwide. He says by law, the government requires Bluebird Botanicals to import the hemp extract from overseas, where the hemp plant is legally grown in Europe.
"A requirement is we do source internationally as a commodity. It's treated as industrial hemp is," said Sommer.
The manufacturers of Charlotte's Web consider their medical marijuana product industrial hemp because it has such little THC, the chemical that creates a high, but much more of something called CBD, a compound thought to protect the brain. Sommer said Bluebird Botanicals CBD hemp oil works exactly the same way. The company considers it a dietary supplement. The extract is a thick resin blended with oils.
"Hemp products that you find in health food stores, lotions, t-shirts, other things that are derived from hemp, it's more akin to that than the recreational or medical marijuana that can be found at dispensaries throughout Colorado," said Sommer.
Bluebird Botanicals is hoping the legal landscape changes in the US when it comes to growing hemp, and says it's involved in research into how the CBD hemp oil is best used. While most customers use the product for seizure control, Sommer says it's growing in popularity for customers who suffer with cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
"We do hope over next months, years whatever time frame, we will get a better understanding and focus of what its best applications are," said Sommer.
The growing interest in hemp oil has also caught the attention of the Vote Hemp organization. The industry is trying to lobby for US farmers to grow the crop, but is also calling for more research and labeling when it comes to CBD extracts and products.
"We need more information to see what works the best, said Eric Steenstra, the President of Vote Hemp. "I hope the U.S. government does more to open this up and allow that type of research to happen. We are hopeful that will continue and we can find out more about what the benefits are from CBD."
The medical community is also trying to gain a better understanding too. Wisconsin passed a law allowing doctors to prescribe CBD oils for children with seizures, but Zachary's doctors at the Minnesota Epilepsy Group in St. Paul don't yet approve.
"My concerns are if a physician does not know exactly is in there than the patients should definitely not be using it, said Dr. Dimitrios Arkilo, a pediatric neurologist epilepsy specialist at the Minnesota Epilepsy Group.
"We are definitely very eager to try new treatments but we need to balance the long term side effects specifically for a growing brain," said Dr. Arkilo.
Dr. Arkilo says in this case, patients and politics are ahead of medical research. He points out while CBD oils have shown some promise during animal testing, he has other concerns that CBD could affect cognition, chemical dependence, even memory. Studies have not yet shown it's safe or effective for kids.
"The problem is the source where they get a hold of the product, it's questionable at most. It's very hard for us as physicians to know what's in the product, and what interactions it has with medications are patients are on," he added.
Without doctor approval, the Karras are experimenting with dosage and how much CBD hemp oil to give their son.
The family also wanted reassurance of exactly what was in the product. KARE 11 asked a Denver-based cannabis testing laboratory to test the amount of CBD and THC in the same type of hemp oil Zachary depends on. Owner Nate Tews found more than 10% CBD oil and not a trace of THC. He says his instruments could not detect one part per million.
Tews mainly analyzes medical marijuana samples but says he's doing more testing on hemp oil products for consumers and caregivers.
"The floodgates have been opened, and I don't think there is any turning back," said Tews. "It's the new wild west, hemp has a myriad of applications, this is just one application."
The FDA says it is aware these products are sold on the internet, but says it's important to understand these are not approved by the FDA. The agency encourages patients to access CBD through an approved FDA clinical trial, where research is being conducted at epilepsy centers across the country. The new international study on the drug Epidiolex enrolled 150 patients across six centers.
"We encourage patients and their caregivers interested in experimental treatments such as cannabidiol to, if possible, gain access to these drugs through a clinical trial." said FDA spokesperson, Jeff Ventura, in a statement.
Zachary Karras hasn't turned back nine months after he started using the CBD hemp oil. He's been seizure free since October of 2014, but struggles with dizzy spells.
He spent a week at St. Paul Children's Hospital to see if a new diet would help. The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet used treat difficult-to-control epilepsy in children, but after several weeks, it didn't work for him. The family says the CBD hemp oil is their best treatment yet with little or no side effects compared to traditional medications.
"The hemp oil has been helping with it, I know that," said Zachary, who is back to playing sports and in school full time again. "I'm one of the regular kids, I'm happy about that."
The Karras family may still consider gaining residency in Minnesota to gain access to the upcoming medical marijuana program, but wanted other families to know there could be alternatives. They believe the risk taken unlocked part of epilepsy's riddle.
"It may not be perfect but we think what we have done has really helped him. We are just like any other parent who wants to do what they can to make their child better," said Jill Karras.