Change Language:
Ethical Use of Medical Marijuana in the Treatment of Ch ildren with Autism
John David K.

Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world with one to one and half million Americans living with an autism spectrum disorder or ASD (Autism Society). People living with autism have difficulty communicating and interacting with others. ASD is often described as a scale, with the ends describing high-functioning and low-functioning symptoms. High-functioning children and adults often lead very normal lives with little assistance. They often do well in school, find work, and learn to adapt uniquely in social situations.

However, many of those with autism are not high-functioning. Raising low-functioning autistic children can have devastating effects on families. Low-functioning autistic children often do not speak; have various motor skill deficiencies, and extreme social dysfunction. Such symptoms become costly to manage, treat, and cope with for many parents of low-functioning autistic children. Mieko Hester-Perez is one such parent. Mieko Hester-Perez made headlines November 23, 2009 when she appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America. On the show Ms. Hester-Perez explained why she was giving her ten-year-old son Joey, medical marijuana infused brownies as treatment for his autism.

This paper will evaluate the four ethical principals of utilitarianism, rights, justice- fairness, and virtue ethics against the decision of Ms. Hester-Perez to treat her son’s autism with medical marijuana (MMJ). First, this paper will begin with a short background of the case. Then the four ethical principal listed above will be analyzed in turn, with the intention to show that Ms. Hester-Perez acted ethically in the treatment of her son’s autism. Additionally, it is prudent for purposes of this essay to conclude that Ms. Hester- Perez had exhausted all other options that were available to her. To do so otherwise would open the debate too extensively for this short essay.


Mieko Hester-Perez of Brea, California has a son Joey. Joey is a low-functioning autistic boy that, according to his mother’s testimony on ABC’s Good Morning America (GMA) on November 23, 2009, was very disinterested in food. This apathy toward eating had caused his weight to “become dangerously low” (Brownstein). At age ten, Joey had weighed a mere forty-six pounds. Additionally, his behavior was described by his mother as being “self-injurious… extremely aggressive… [and] a danger to himself and others” (qtd. In Brownstein). Joey had to take a thirteen-pill-three-times-a-day medication cocktail his mother told Diane Sawyer on GMA.

Joey had become so skinny that his mother described how she could see the bones in his chest and feared his eminent death (Brownstein). It is not uncommon for children to die from related symptoms of autism. Therefore, death for young Joey was a real possibility, and his mother bore witness to her son’s daily pain. Believing Joey was going to die from starvation Ms. Hester-Perez conducted “some research” and “found a doctor who actually had a protocol for medical marijuana in children diagnosed with autism” (qtd. In Brownstein). She obtained a doctors recommendation for MMJ on behalf of her son (a necessary condition in the state of California to legally posses and consume marijuana for medical treatment), prepared some MMJ in a brownie mix, baked it, and served it to Joey. Ms. Hester-Perez described the outcome as nothing less than miraculous. “Within hours [Joey] requested foods we had never seen him eat before,” Ms. Hester-Perez told GMA viewers. Joey’s behavior significantly improved, and his medications were greatly reduced to only two tablets with one more to be taken as needed (Brownstein).

Critics argue that she stepped on dangerous ground and has subjected Joey to the unknown consequences of MMJ. Some psychologist and psychiatrist believe that using marijuana can cause psychosis and schizophrenia (Brownstein). However, other studies show that, “cannabis use appears to be neither a sufficient nor a necessary cause for psychosis” (Arseneault 110). Detractors suggest that her son is simply “stoned” (Brownstein). However, Ms. Hester-Perez believes differently, telling GMA, “I saved my son’s life, and marijuana saved my son’s life. When a mother hears that her son is knocking on death’s door, you will do anything to save his life” (Brownstein).

The Ethical Principal of Utilitarianism

First, this essay will analyze the principal of utilitarianism and Ms. Hester-Perez decision to treat her son’s symptoms with MMJ. The ethical principal of utilitarianism says that all decisions should provide the greatest amount of good or utility to the greatest amount of people. People trying to maximize utility would ask themselves how many people would benefit from a specific action against how many people would not.

Acting prudently as a utilitarian, Ms. Hester-Perez was rational. The benefit of having a child be happy raises the utility of everyone involved. Everyone’s happiness increased when Joey was able to eat. He also made noises that before taking MMJ he was unable to do. Giving MMJ to Joey didn’t cause anyone pain at any time and purely benefited both Joey and his mother. Furthermore, all those who care for Joey, benefited from Joey’s improved behavior. This is clear from the reduction of medication Joey needed to take. The “cocktail of medications, three times every day” was reduced to just three pills with a bite of a MMJ brownie “once every two or three days” (Brownstein). This outcome helped save costs to Joey’s treatment. His mother now has more money to use toward other needs her son may have.

Dr. Mitch Earleywine, a psychologist and associate professor at the University of Albany gives a compelling utilitarian statement about the use of MMJ and the treatment of children with autism. Dr. Earleywine understands why a parent would use MMJ to treat autism. He states that while there is, “at least one study” suggesting small decreases in IQ in children from long-term exposure to marijuana, he continues to say, “we’re talking about someone who is autistic, so I’m not sure how nuts to go about that” (Brownstein).

The Ethical Principal of Rights

Next, this essay will examine the ethical principal of rights and Ms. Hester-Perez’s choice of providing marijuana as medication for her son’s autism. The rights principal is closely tied to the law, which defines the liberties of persons within the boundaries of a given territory. In the case of Ms. Hester- Perez, she was completely within her rights as a citizen of California to provide MMJ as treatment for her son’s autism.

Medical marijuana is legal in California. California’s Proposition 215 (1996) was passed by a 55% majority of Californians and has since been strengthened from legislation (e.g. SB 420 which established a medical marijuana program) and multiple court decisions such as the California’s Supreme Courts decision in People v. Kelly. There is little argument that Ms. Hester-Perez violated any principal of rights.
Moreover, it is the right of all individuals to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as it is stated in the United States Constitution. It is Joey’s human right to remain alive even without empirical evidence to support the treatment his mother has sought. Additionally, Ms. Hester- Perez had a moral right to seek out every treatment option available to find one that would ease the suffering of her son. Ms. Hester-Perez chose to act on her liberty to seek a doctor’s approval for a medication she was legally allowed to obtain and did so without violating the rights of any other person.

The Ethical Principal of Justice-Fairness
Third, the ethical principal of justicefairness will be analyzed in relation to the case of concern in this essay. Equality is the justice-fairness principal’s primary concern. Therefore, as readers we must engage in a thought experiment by asking ourselves a couple of beginning questions to establish a perspective of fairness: Are all equal parties being treated equally? Likewise, are all unequal parties being treated unequally? How would you want to be treated under the circumstances? What kind of world would you want to live in? These questions allow us to ignite a basic instinctual drive of fairness that can be understood as a human universal. Every human has a basic instinctual understanding of fairness, and as Golnaz Tabibnia, a postdoctoral scholar at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA stated, “being treated fairly satisfies a basic need” (qtd. In Wolpert). Parents, teachers, and anyone working closely with young children know fairness is a concept that needs no introduction. The phrase “that’s not fair” is daily rhetoric from young children.

Regardless of empirical evidence or scientific backing about MMJ and autism, it would be unfair to withhold a promising treatment from a boy near death. Furthermore, it would be a cruel and unusual punishment for Joey to die from starvation when a possible cure was in reach. There is no justice or fairness in waiting for such evidence to manifest itself. The lack of research conducted on MMJ and autism is equal to the lack of evidence theorizing the possible development of psychosis from marijuana usage. Furthermore, under the care of a physician, Joey could be monitored for negative side effects. Therefore, Ms. Hester-Perez was just and fair in her administration of MMJ to Joey. The Principal of Virtue Ethics

The final ethical principal to be discussed is virtue. Virtue ethics is simply about being a good person. Virtuous habits of thought and action naturally develop in people who practice virtuous behavior. Virtuous ethics are a component of professional development. For example, teachers do not except bribes for grades, doctors take the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” and police officers pledge to up hold the law. Motherhood also requires a type of professional development. While mothers do not take a formal oath there are societal norms that perform checks on parents ensuring that their children are free from abuse (e.g. Social Services).

There is no evidence to suggest that Ms. Hester-Perez acted with malice. She is not the first mother to give her child marijuana as medication for autism. A Rhode Island woman Marie Myung-Ok Lee, blogs about the wonders marijuana has done for her autistic son (Lee). Also, the late Dr. Claudia Jensen, a once practicing pediatrician from the University of Southern California, has testified before Congress about the benefits of using MMJ to treat attention deficit disorder in adolescents (Jensen). Furthermore, Ms. Hester-Perez stated that she never consumed marijuana and that it was very “outside her character” to seek marijuana as a treatment (Brownstein). However, as a parent it was her virtue to “do anything to save his life” (Brownstein


Each ethical principal that was explored, utilitarianism, rights, justice-fairness, and virtue ethics showed that Ms. Hester-Perez who believed that MMJ was the best treatment for her son Joey acted ethically. MMJ served all those involved to the fullest utility, Ms. Hester-Perez was fully within her right under the law, it was both just and fair to seek MMJ as treatment, and she acted virtuously as a mother to help her son by any means necessary. Even without substantial evidence people should not be quick to judge the practices of others until they have walked in their shoes. Raising children with lowfunctioning autism can be a daunting task, but seeing a child grow is priceless. All good parents want the best for their children and Ms. Hester-Perez is a good mother. She wanted to stop her son’s pain and see him live a happy life. MMJ made that happen.