When Tampa pediatrician David Berger was still in medical school, he came across a book about natural medicines. That find would define the way he practices medicine today and makes him unafraid to try a wholistic approach.
That includes certifying some of his young patients to receive medical marijuana. He is one of only a few pediatricians in the state to do so.
“I started using herbs and finding that they were working, sometimes, better than antibiotics,” said Berger, who has started a new online education and media business called DrDavidMD.com to share his knowledge with others. His local practice is Wholistic Pediatrics & Family Care, and he also has a medical marijuana clinic, Wholistic ReLeaf, for certifying patients.
“I spent 15 years of my career perfecting how to introduce these natural treatments,” he said. “Medical marijuana was just another herb, and I already had a lot of experience in that area. I had a really big head start and was able to jump right into the protocols” required by the state. “I already had a comfort level with using herbs.”
To qualify for a medical marijuana card in Florida, a patient must have one of 10 diagnoses, such as cancer or Parkinson’s, or a “like” condition, such as chronic nonmalignant pain, anxiety, migraines, even autism.
There has not yet been a completed controlled clinical trial on the use of medical marijuana for youth, due to the federal government continuing to list it as a Schedule 1 substance. That has hindered scientific research in this realm.
However, Berger has found that it is helping many of his patients, especially those with autism.
“We have to submit medical literature that supports the premise that cannabis is helping symptoms,” Berger said. “So, a child with autism and epilepsy, which is not uncommon, can be treated for both” using CBD and potentially, medical marijuana.
CBD, or cannabidiol, a chemical found in the Cannabis sativa plant, can be purchased over the counter. One form of it has already been approved as a drug in the U.S. for seizures.
Some 30-40% of Berger’s patients with autism are using either CBD, or CBD combined with medical marijuana to offset violence, lack of sleep and other debilitating factors that can come with autism.
“That is not the first thing I do with my patients,” Berger clarifies. “I first educate parents on what their options are.” He has an education room set up at his practice specifically for that purpose.
“I’m not just going to go ahead and certify someone. I first want to see a note from their neurologist that documents” their diagnosis and their resulting issues.
The certification process for medical marijuana is fairly general, he said. “There is really good state oversight going on, but the certification process is not too cumbersome. It’s also not a rubber stamp.”
He also, of course, monitors treatment of a child using CBD or medical marijuana.
“CBD first, but one of the things I have noticed overwhelmingly is when a little THC is brought into the mix, in terms of violent behaviors and lack of sleep, that is often the magic that is happening.”
And as a group, these youngsters with autism treated with medical marijuana do not act as if they are stoned, he said. “I’m hypothesizing that when we give them THC, it is a replacement for the natural endocannabinoids they may be missing, so they don’t get the ‘high’ factor. We all have endocannabinoid receptors in our bodies. They are a feedback mechanism.”
Plant-based cannabinoids are stronger than those naturally found in the body when it comes to sending a signal that certain cells are being over-stimulated, causing the behavior, he explained.
On Berger’s new website for health, education and choice, he offers people research-based health education to empower them to make the best medical choices for themselves and their loved ones, he said.
Berger said each patient needs to make choices on their treatment, or treatment for their loved one, based on life circumstances and health history.
The site includes videos in a series called Your Health Your Choice. He also offers lectures, webinars and consultations.
“So many patients tell me they wish I could treat people they know who live far away. Creating a web-based media and educational company allows me to more broadly share my unique medical approach with a wider audience. It enables me to reach people regardless of their geographic or economic situation,” he said.