Sister inspires special science project

A Whangarei teenager is calling for medical marijuana to be trialled in New Zealand after a science project showed it would benefit her sister, who suffers from severe epilepsy.

And she has the backing of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, which is calling on the Government to help families dealing with children who suffer severe seizures to access a particular strain of the plant.

The Government has not discounted the idea, but says it is up the manufacturers of medical marijuana products to apply for government approval.

For her science fair research project this year, Whangarei Girls' High student Claudia Cooke researched the effects of Charlotte's Web, a strain of medical marijuana that is high in cannabidiol (CBD) content but low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).


"[It's] a form that users cannot get high from," 15-year-old Claudia told the Northern Advocate. "It has been proven by extensive studies in the United States that it can help with epilepsy."

Claudia's 23-year-old sister, Kristal, has "intractable" seizures - which means they are not fully controlled with medication - as a result of Lissencephaly Syndrome. The seizures range from small ones daily to larger ones weekly, and have been so violent Kristal has knocked her front teeth out, and broken her nose and cheekbones on occasions.

Claudia first heard about medical marijuana from family friends, Northlanders Jessika and Brendon Guest, before they flew to the United States last year so they could access the strain to help their 6-year-old daughter, Jade, who also has severe epilepsy.

For her project in the Central Northland Science Fair this week, Claudia researched the science behind how cannabidiol, an active ingredient in cannabis, prevented seizures, as well as social and economic benefits of legalisation in places such as Colorado.

Her conclusion is that Charlotte's Web, a medical marijuana product that does not have the high-inducing properties of cannabis, should be trialled in New Zealand.

"If it's going to be able to help people with epilepsy when anti-seizure medication can't, then they should trial it, and trial it long enough so we know the long-term effects," Claudia said.

New Zealand Drug Foundation executive officer Ross Bell applauded Claudia for her work and supported her findings.

"I think it's fantastic a 15-year-old has, because of the illness in their family, hunted down the information," Mr Bell said.

"[She has obviously] got an open mind, has looked widely, and cares about [her] sister. The science is getting pretty clear, with quite surprising results."

The strain had been remarkable, particularly in helping children suffering from Dravet Syndrome (intractable childhood epilepsy), he said.

A spokesman for Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne did not discount the idea of trialling the product.

"It's up to the manufacturer to seek government approval for a particular product," the spokesman said.

"Where there is a therapeutic and health benefit, the Government will consider it.

"Outside of that - no."

One cannabis-derived product, Sativex, was already on the market, the spokesman said. However, Sativex was only approved for use as a treatment for patients with moderate to severe spasticity due to multiple sclerosis. Claudia gained the Golden Bay Cement Best Year 11-13 Research Award - Highly Commended in the Central Northland Science Fair this week. For winners, turn to page 3.