BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Ian Wright was born severely autistic. By the time he was 25 he was on 15 medications and almost catatonic, his mom Michelle Wright said. She said medical cannabis changed Ian and his family's life.
Michelle is so convinced of the medicinal benefits of cannabis she earned a Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. It's the first program of its kind in the country.
Ian, 29, needs 24/7 care. But spend time with Ian and you see he enjoys life, listening to music, taking walks and cooking with mom. But Michelle said this wasn't always the case.
In his early twenties, Ian began rapidly declining. Doctors prescribed anti-seizure, anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs which he took multiple times a day.
"He was becoming much more self-injurious," Michelle said. "He would harm himself. he would bang his head until he bled. We had to buy helmets. Sitting in a corner all day, crying, screaming, banging their head. Unable to communicate with you, unable to be touched."
In 2014, Maryland legalized medical cannabis. Desperate to help her son, Michelle began researching its benefits, ultimately discovering the particular plants that contain chemicals that help Ian.
Today, she carefully selects, grinds, and heats the plant, and then puts it in pill form that Ian takes four times a day.
"He would not be here without it," Michelle said. "I do not believe he would be here without it. He was that ill."
Cannabis and one anti-psychotic once a day, that's all Ian takes now.
His transformation prompted Michelle to apply to the first master's degree program in medical cannabis ever offered, and after two years of intensive study, last spring she and 129 other students earned their degrees.
Dr. Leah Sera runs the master's program. She believes her students, who come from all over the world and from the medical, business and research professions, will lead the way in the growing cannabis industry.
"Am I reaching to say this is cutting-edge science here?" WJZ's Denise Koch asked Dr. Sera.
"Well, we certainly think so," Dr. Sera said. "We know that our students are trail-blazers. We teach about how it works in the body, we teach about the benefits. We teach about the risks and potential side-effects as well. We really try and make this a balanced, science-driven educational program."
Risks? Cannabis is psychoactive, so it can get people 'high.'
Benefits: the plant contains thousands of chemical components, (including THC and CBD) and there's evidence humans have utilized cannabis for centuries.
"Seizures is one condition that we actually do have a rather solid body of evidence for CBD oil," Dr. Sera said. "And there are other conditions, things like chronic pain, muscle spasms, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting."
Michelle said whatever challenges her son, he is operating at a better level than he ever has.
"He's gained about 20 pounds back," Michelle said. "He talks more. He does not have to wear a helmet all day long. He doesn't have facial ticks anymore. But he can also communicate with me. He will let me hold his hand now."
"I'm not trying to cure the autism out of my son," she said. "I'm trying to let him be his best self."
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