While medical marijuana is now legal in 29 states, only three say schools must permit students to use legal prescribed cannabis in school. The groundbreaking case of a 11-year-old girl in Schaumburg, Illinois, however, could help to narrow that gap.
Ashley Surin was a toddler in December 2008 when she was diagnosed with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia. While several rounds of chemotherapy and spinal injections helped send her cancer into remission, one of the injections triggered debilitating seizures. Ashley has had to take numerous medications for those seizures — medications with serious side effects like extreme mood swings, memory loss, and limited energy. And, as her father, Jim, told CNN, Ashley still had semi-regular seizures.
After one particularly scary episode at a grocery store last year, Ashley had to be taken to the hospital. During a full-body seizure, her head hit the cement with such force that doctors had to drain blood from her brain.
"It was the most helpless feeling in the world to see her go down and not be able to help," Jim told CNN.
It took Ashley a long time to recover, and when doctors wanted her to try yet another drug last August, Jim says the family “drew a line in the sand.” They started seeing another doctor who suggested that a new regimen consisting of a change in diet and medical cannabis would produce much better results. And it has.
The Surins got their medical marijuana license in December 2017, and according to Ashley’s mother, Maureen, Ashley’s seizures have already declined immensely.
"We're amazed with her progress," she said to NPR.
Ashley uses a patch on her foot and an oil extract on her wrists. If she happens to have a seizure, she gets a small drop of oil on her tongue. As CNN explains, the cannabidiol in the cannabis helps to keep the seizures at bay.
State laws in New Jersey, Maine, and Colorado says that schools must allow students to use prescribed legal cannabis in school. In Washington State, there is no such requirement, and schools can decide for themselves whether or not they will allow it. In the other 25 states where medical marijuana is legal, however, it is against the law for students to use it — or have school nurses administer it — while on campus. Illinois is one of those states.
Despite the fact that Ashley takes cannabinol and not tetrahydrocannabinol — better known as THC, or the marijuana drug that causes people to get high — she couldn’t have it on school grounds.
While, say, diabetic children in Illinois can receive help from an adult at school to administer insulin, a teacher or a nurse could lose his or her license if they helped Ashley with her prescription cannabis in school. And, as CNN notes, if Ashley wore her patch to school, she or her parents could technically face criminal prosecution.
While Schaumburg School District 54 was sympathetic to Ashley’s condition, and neither she or her parents were likely to be prosecuted, the school district said it was still compelled to follow the letter of the law. This left Ashley’s parents with two options: keep Ashley out of class or take the school to court.
On January 10, her parents filed a lawsuit against the school system in federal court, claiming that the state's ban on utilizing medical cannabis in school violates the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Two days later, a judge ruled in the family’s favor. After missing a couple weeks of class, Ashley has since returned to school, and lawyers for the school district and the attorney general’s office are working on a long-term plan for Ashley and the school.
While this case reached court, it should be noted that the school district was determined to find a solution that balanced the law with its obligation to serve a “medically fragile” student like Ashley. Darcy Kriha, the district's attorney, told CNN that the morning before the court hearing, she got a call from the district superintendent and the school board president who told her to do whatever she could to make sure Ashley could come back to school. Ultimately, the Illinois attorney general agreed not to prosecute, saying the staff who help Ashley with her medicine shouldn’t face any legal trouble. The federal judge quickly followed by issuing an emergency order to allow Ashley to go back to school.
"They've changed Ashley's life today and they may've also changed the lives for other children for the better,” says Kriha.
Kriha added that she applauds the Surins’ "courage" to bring a lawsuit on behalf of their daughter.
As do we.