JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The vice president of the Missouri Sheriff’s Association (MSA), Mike Sharp, hesitates to support medical marijuana, but he supports the legalization of medical cannabis.
The verbiage is important. The 26-year veteran of law enforcement, including his current position as sheriff of Jackson County, dislikes using the word “marijuana” when discussing medical applications. He says it implies an image of people puffing on joints in a dark room, but he believes that stigma does not match reality, and that doctors and patients should have the ultimate say in how best to treat certain illnesses that cannabis could treat, alleviate, or even cure.
Why has Sharp become a vocal advocate for medical cannabis legalization? Sharp has a nephew with autism spectrum disorder, and his nephew has a severe enough form of the mental disorder that he has become non-verbal. People with autism usually have multiple other symptoms and tics, usually characterized by a lack of social interaction, near obsessive repetitive behavior, and an acuity for certain strong sensations to create some semblance of focus. Other symptoms however can be self-destructive, like banging their heads on walls or hitting or scratching one’s self or others.
Jessica Mantonya has such a child. After her son Aiden was born, he developed autism and schizophrenia, so she became an advocate and lobbyist attempting to get legislation that favors those born with special needs. Aiden is now 10, but his disorder is so severe that he is no longer physically manageable at home. He spent much of last summer in a mental hospital recovering from the effects of Abilify, or aripiprazole, an antipsychotic medication. Such medications can often have severe adverse effects on those with autism. Mantonya says she and her son are out of options when it comes to regular medicine.
And that’s where medical cannabis comes in.
“Cannabis is shown to be a great neuroprotectant and can even rebuild some trauma,” Mantonya says. “It’s been proven to help and so I’ve decided to start fighting, not only for my son’s access, but my friends’ children’s access, and kids that have cancer and seizures… This could be helping them.”
While a growing body of scientific literature has credited medical marijuana with treating disorders from dementia and glaucoma to cancer and, yes, autism and a boon of anecdotal evidence supports such treatments, solid final research is rare though more studies are looking into the practice. Many in the special needs community see hope from stories in which the use of cannabis seems to cure types of mental illness.
Sharp believes the decision to use such methods belongs in the hands of those making the medical decision.
“If a licensed medical doctor sees a need for the use of medical cannabis to improve the quality of life, that should be up to the doctor and the individual,” he says, adding that his nephew deserved at least a chance to try the treatment. “If this could help him have one good day, why wouldn’t I support that?”
Despite his advocacy on the position, as a member of law enforcement and as a leader of one of the most influential law enforcement advocacy groups in the state, he is committed to making sure he and his members enforce the laws on the books.
Still, he wants to be ready for those same sheriffs and their deputies to handle the end of marijuana prohibition in Missouri if it comes to the state, whether lawmakers decide to keep that at the medical level or extend it to the recreational level.
“If this comes we need to be ahead of it,” he says, “This is going to be a windfall for most representatives.”
That “if” may actually become a “when” in the not too distant future. Multiple initiative petitions have been approved by Secretary of State Jason Kander to put the issue of medical marijuana on the ballot, and Mantonya echoes the sentiment of many cannabis advocates that public perception to the drug has changed drastically in recent years.
“I feel like we’re gaining a lot of traction at a state and federal level,” she said. “A lot to the stigma is starting to dissipate. Even my grandmother who always absolutely hated it, once she’s now learning about it, is… a full supporter and advocate.”
However, if legalization does occur, Sharp wants to know the pitfalls that states like Colorado, California and Washington faced in ending their own prohibitions on the drug. He also wants to ensure that his organizations efforts combating other drugs, like methamphetamine, heroin and even some abused prescription drugs are recognized and encouraged.
But he says he does not want families to worry about getting arrested just for trying to help their kin.
“There’s no reason special needs parents should fear law enforcement,” he says. “The only people you’re going to affect are those that want it for the right reasons.”
FEATURED PHOTO/PROVIDED – Sheriff Sharp with Mantonya