When Tracy Ryan’s daughter Sophie was just 8 months old, doctors found a tumor in the newborn’s brain.

Doctors told Ryan that the slow-growing optic pathway glioma tumor near her daughter’s left eye would never go away. And if the tumor continued to grow, Sophie could lose vision in that eye.

Faced with the prospect of their daughter’s blindness, Ryan joined an increasing number of parents who are turning to cannabis to treat their children for illnesses ranging from cancer to epilepsy.

After nearly two years of chemotherapy combined with highly concentrated cannabis oil, made mostly of non-psychoactive, can’t-get-you-high cannabidiol (CBD) with traces of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — Sophie’s tumor has shrunk.

“Historically with chemotherapy, you would have six months of shrinkage and then the glioma never shrinks again,” Ryan says. “Sophie’s now had 22 of 23 months where we’ve seen shrinkage. Every time [with chemo combined with cannabis oil], we kill the glioma over and over and over again. Normally, these patients have these masses their entire lives.”

Sophie’s neurologist couldn’t explain her recovery, Ryan says, but the doctor suggested that they should keep dosing with cannabis oil. Ryan first bought cannabis oil for her daughter from a Northern California maker, then switched to a product made by chemist Dr. Jeffrey Raber at his Pasadena lab, before it was recently raided by the police. In response to the challenge of finding this particular oil for Sophie, Ryan took matters into her own hands. In March 2015, she founded the parent-friendly cannabis collective CannaKids, which produces a similar oil with the help of a Northern California manufacturer. They call it Honey Gold.

“She’s the healthiest kid I know,” Ryan says, “I think it’s directly related to using Honey Gold.”

CannaKids founder Tracy Ryan with her daughter Sophie; Credit: Valorie Darling

CannaKids founder Tracy Ryan with her daughter Sophie; Credit: Valorie Darling

Cannabis has been acknowledged by the National Cancer Institute to assuage the symptoms of cancer and side effects of chemotherapy. But research into its effect on cancer itself has been impeded by the U.S. government’s classification of the substance as a Schedule I drug. While cannabis has shown success blocking tumors in lab rats, without the help of clinical trials on humans, cannabis’ effectiveness as a cancer killer is debated. Yet, Ryan says recent X-rays show Sophie’s tumor has lost 95 percent of its mass.

Honey Gold THC that comes in a syringe costs $50 a gram and can last up to two weeks if given in small doses to children. Honey Gold CBD oil is $65 a gram. Ryan says one gram of oil contains 750 to 800 milligrams of active ingredients, and an average epileptic child would take 40 milligrams a day. Cancer patients need higher doses, taking up to 500 milligrams a day depending on age and aggressiveness of their disease, Ryan says.

Despite its name, CannaKids’ Honey Gold Cannabis Oil isn’t just for kids. In the last year, Ryan says CannaKids has been used to treat more than 500 children and adults, for a variety of conditions including autism, Crohn's disease and end-of-life transitioning.

“We’re not just giving families and patients their medicine; we offer a shoulder and an ear because we understand what they’re going through,” Ryan says. “All of us at CannaKids have been affected by cancer in the past or have survived it themselves.”

Yet the use of cannabis as a treatment for ailing children has its critics, such as Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and the former senior adviser to the Obama White House on drug control.

“People are being sold God-knows-what in Colorado,” says Sabet, who also serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit he started with politician Patrick J. Kennedy.

Sabet says anything infused with marijuana that hasn’t been tested and FDA-approved is problematic. That’s especially true of marijuana oils, says Sabet, who points to recent FDA warning letters sent to some Colorado CBD oil manufacturers, telling them to literally clean up their act. According to the FDA, several companies are making CBD oils that are tainted with mold or include ingredients not listed on the package.

Sabet says he has sympathy for mothers like Ryan who turn to marijuana to help their child fight a terrible illness. “[Ryan] is a mother who’s looking for a cure for her child,” Sabet says. “I don’t blame her for trying anything, even if that means trying heroin or cocaine.”

While Sabet says that comprehensive testing might prove the safety of Ryan’s product, he advocates adhering to strict scientific testing protocols and submitting to the thorough FDA approval process. And he wants clinical studies to show proof of efficacy. Absent that level of proof, Sabet says the claims that Honey Gold can cure any malady echoes the ploys of proverbial snake oil salesmen.

Ryan says she’s not hawking something from the roadside medicine shows of yore. Due to the challenges of researching medicinal marijuana in the United States, Ryan reached out to the Technion Institute in Haifa, Israel. The medical potential of marijuana has been studied in Israel for the last 50 years. Ryan says there’s also a rigorous quality control process to their product. It’s tested regularly for solvents, mold, pesticides and microbiologicals such as e. coli or salmonella, as well as for potency and terpene profiles. Terpenes can act in a number of ways, including appetite stimulant, anti-anxiety agent, anti-inflammatory and chemotherapeutic agent.

To ensure accuracy, Ryan sends samples to two California firms: Steephill Halent Labs and SC Labs. For Honey Gold, it’s a double check for quality and purity.

Ultimately, Ryan says it’s up to patients to take a leap of faith. Laws and opinions be damned. And pot laws don’t deter her. “I have to stay in touch with my lawyer weekly.”

Two pre-Interim Control Ordinance dispensaries in L.A. carry Honey Gold: Grace at Centinela Avenue and Pico Boulevard; and the Higher Path on Ventura Boulevard. Online sales originate with BarcCollective. And Ryan says they are forging ahead with plans to raise money for families who can’t afford the product.

Lisa, who runs Grace Medical Marijuana Pharmacy and declines to give her last name, says of all the products her store offers, Honey Gold is her favorite. She focuses on the medical part of her medical marijuana facility, preferring to call it a pharmacy because “that’s what it is. We wanted it to be safe so people didn’t feel like they would be arrested. We have a lot of women who come here.”

Including Ryan.

“I’m proud of CannaKids,” Lisa says. “Tracy Ryan is the shoulder everyone cries on.”

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