Medical Cannabis Refugees Exist, and Their Numbers Are Growing

How medical cannabis refugees are growing in numbers

Exact numbers are difficult to come by for this trend, but there are signs that medical cannabis refugees are a growing phenomenon. Image Credit: By sumroeng chinnapan

For centuries, people have moved for a set of familiar reasons — to seek new opportunities, to flee oppression, to be closer to (or further away from) their families. In recent years, though, a growing number of people are moving for a different reason: Legal access to cannabis. Unable to procure the plant in their home states, thousands of Americans have become “medical refugees,” uprooting their lives in hopes of finding an answer to their health woes.

Families have found themselves in harsh situations in states that restrict the use of cannabis. This is especially difficult when children suffer from rare conditions that medical cannabis can treat, but is illegal to administer in their own state. At times, this forces parents to effectively leave their homes, lives, and families in search for approved medicine. Unfortunately, moving to states where medical cannabis is legal can be costly and distressing.

Moving across state lines means having to find a place to stay and a new source of income. Even at this, moving is not an option for a lot of families with financial limitations. To curb this issue, families will often split into two parts, with one parent moving with their child in search of medical cannabis, while the other stays at home to ensure a steady income.

In discussing the phenomenon of medical cannabis refugees, the story of the Wilson family often comes up, placed as it is at the crossroads of preventable pain and bureaucratic intransigence.

Brian Wilson, the father of then-2-year-old Vivian Wilson, made headlines in 2013 when he crashed a New Jersey gubernatorial campaign stop, confronting incumbent governor Chris Christie by saying, “Please don’t let my daughter die.” Vivian has a rare and hard-to-treat form of childhood epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, and her family had previously attempted to enroll her in New Jersey’s medical cannabis program after having heard of the plant’s effectiveness in similar cases — but the requirement of a psychologist’s sign-off required Vivian to have the ability to talk, an impossible proposition for a severely ill toddler. 

Brian was campaigning for the expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program when he crossed paths with Christie. When the expanded access bill was signed, the provision requiring both a pediatrician and psychologist’s signatures to prescribe medical cannabis for children was reintroduced, dashing the Wilsons’ hopes for a solution.

As CNN’s Sanjay Gupta said of the situation in his 2014 documentary, “It is the politics of pot — the politicians vs. the patients.”

Their options for local cannabis treatment exhausted, the Wilson family decided to move to Colorado. At the time, the state was one of the few with a medical cannabis program open enough to ensure that Vivian would receive treatment.

“It’s the reason most of our families move to Colorado,” Dr. Kelly Knupp, Vivian’s neurologist at the Children’s Hospital Colorado, told the Asbury Park Press. “Any one of us, as a parent, would go to the moon and back for our kids.”

Exact numbers are difficult to come by for this trend, but there are signs that medical cannabis refugees are a growing phenomenon., a technology company that supports moves, noted in 2018 that almost 5 percent of the 1,500 who moved to states where cannabis is legal voluntarily listed these laws as a reason for their move, even though the company doesn’t specifically ask people about their moving motivations.

A European study looked at legal cannabis as a “positive amenity” in a location’s appeal, and found that Colorado’s liberal cannabis laws were a factor in increasing the state’s in-migration flow by nearly 20 percent over comparable states following legalization. Their statistical analysis showed that the rise wasn’t from chance, and that Colorado was “a clear and significant outlier” in attracting 155,500 more people to move there than predicted — with 3.2 percent of the state’s new population attributed directly to legal cannabis.

Why Are Families Moving to Access Cannabis?

Families have been campaigning for a long time for the right to access medical cannabis. While legalization has warmly been welcomed in 33 states, others are still struggling. With legalization, news spread fast about the benefits of medical cannabis for children that suffer from rare types of epilepsy. Exposure to the cause has seen a number of parents across the U.S become desperate to help their children in the same way.

The Wilson family benefitted from a $10,000 gift from the Cheers to Goodness Foundation, which is one of a number of organizations that seek to help medical cannabis refugees defray the costs of moving. Once in Colorado, the Wilsons were given the freedom to explore a range of treatment options that have led Vivian to becoming mostly seizure-free five years later. Although she no longer uses cannabis, a cannabis oil-based treatment was the start of her road to recovery.

In the highly-variable medical cannabis landscape, the reform process moves too slow for many parents of sick children. In the case of Alexis Bortell — who took part in an unsuccessful 2017 lawsuit against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his approach toward state-legal cannabis — it split up her family.

When she was 11, Alexis’s parents gave her a cannabis preparation with THC levels higher than the Texas medical cannabis law allows to treat her intractable epilepsy. Dean told the Daily Beast, “We had written down that if we hit 7 days without a seizure, that would be the bar to move to Colorado. When we got 33, we decided, ‘We’re coming.’”

Dean stayed in Texas, while his wife Analiza moved to Colorado with Alexis. At the time of the Daily Beast story, Alexis had gone nearly two years without a seizure.

And then there’s the case of Cristi Bundukamara, who moved to Colorado from pre-legal Florida when two of her children were diagnosed with a rare and fatal degenerative disease called dentatorubral-pallidoluysian atrophy. Since starting a medical cannabis regimen, the health of both has drastically improved.

She told CNN, “You basically have two choices — you try to do it illegally, or you uproot your family, so that’s what we did.”

The heart wrenching journey that families have to take can extend even further than crossing state lines. In fact, parents in countries like the U.K have been travelling thousands of miles in search of medical cannabis. It’s not always possible to move to another country, so some parents will try to smuggle cannabis products back to their own in desperation. 

U.K. resident Charlotte Caldwell is all too familiar with travelling far distances to help her child, Billy Caldwell. Charlotte made the decision to travel to Canada after Billy’s health began deteriorating from an excessive number of seizures. 

With a new supply of cannabis oil, Charlotte made the trip home to the U.K. Of course, the oil was detected by customs and later taken from the mother. Thankfully, the British Home Office granted Billy Caldwell with a prescription to medical cannabis afterward, but this isn’t always the case for most unfortunate families.

“No other family should have to go through this sort of ordeal, travelling halfway round the world to get medication which should be freely available,” Charlotte told the BBC.

Ed Weinberg
Ed Weinberg
Ed Weinberg is an American journalist who’s written stories on everything from cannabis to textiles, architecture, urban exploration, and culture in Vietnam, where he spent seven years. Previous to freelance writing, he held senior editorial positions at Word Vietnam and the Vietnam Investment Review.

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