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They're Breaking The Law And Using Marijuana, But They Want To Help Their Autistic Daughter

In Texas, only a handful of people can legally use medical marijuana. So the vast majority who use it that way just keep quiet. One Richardson family with an autistic child has broken its silence.

The Zartlers hope Senate Bill 269 will pass in the state Legislature; it would change the medical marijuana law, so they’d no longer have to break it.

A cycle of self-harm 

Kara Zartler, 17, has cerebral palsy and is autistic. She just got home from school, and she’s in the kitchen with Mom, dad, her daily caregiver and the family’s dogs.

Her mom talks with Kara. 

“Kara, can you look? He wants to take your picture. Can you keep looking? Over here,” says Christy Zartler, who's a pediatric nurse practitioner.

She says her daughter, who’s non-verbal, is having a good day.

"Look,” Zartler says. “She smiled at you. That’s so positive.”

It’s not always this way, says her father, Mark Zartler, a software engineer.

“She has self-injurious behaviors,” he says. “These have been a constant in her life since she was 4. She will hit herself repeatedly in the face and gets into a cycle and just can’t stop. That just goes on and on.”

Zartler's behavior was captured in a home video and posted on Facebook and YouTube last month. 

Warning: Video might be difficult to watch for some viewers.

The video shows Kara screaming as she’s strapped in a car seat. Then she's in a living room rocking chair, rhythmically hitting herself with both fists on each side of her head.

Doctors say it’s how she responds to pain, likely from cerebral palsy.

It’s hard to know. It’s also hard to watch.

In the video, Mark Zartler puts a mask to Kara’s face and squeezes cannabis vapor from a plastic bag he’s filled. About three minutes later, Kara is calmer. She still rocks and grunts. But the episode is over, her mom says.

“It’s lessened. It doesn’t completely stop it,” Christy Zartler says. “But it slows her down. It slows her mind and her brain down to where she’s just more focused and aware.”  

The Zartlers first took a chance on marijuana 10 years ago. They were going to the beach. For Kara, the car can be a screaming, biting nightmare. Then Mark Zartler remembered a neighbor who had given them a marijuana brownie for Kara, hoping it might help.  

“In the car, there’s not really a way to get control of her arms because she’ll bite,” he explains. “She loves the beach but it’s hard to get to the beach. We were like, 'well, why don’t we give her a little bit of brownie before we [have a] high-stress day, and we’ll see how it works out?' And it worked out great.”  

Cindy Roacha is Kara’s caregiver.

“It’s like a miracle,” she says. “I noticed that her parents would try everything. And she always had the issue where she would always hit herself for hours and hours. But once they experimented with different types of medicines, we noticed that this was the most effective.”

Every once in a while, you get an opportunity to really help people and I do believe this would help people.

'Being the water for the fire'

It’s probably because of the THC in marijuana, Christian Bogner says. The Michigan doctor, who also has an autistic child, has researched cannabis for years. He says it helps reduce inflammation of the brain in some with autism.

“I would think of it more like it being the water for the fire," Bogner says. "Now, imagine the autistic patient to have a headache with hallucinations and horrible emotions. This is the result of a complete dysregulation of neurotransmitters [that happens in their brains]. And we know that cannabis can help regulate these neurotransmitter dysregulations.”

Research backing Bogner has been limited. Because cannabis is an FDA Schedule I drug, like heroin or LSD, it’s hard to study, legally. By comparison, there’s more research on Schedule II drugs, such as cocaine, opium or fentanyl.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Kara's sister Keeley is an identical twin, but doesn't have autism.

Kara is neither the first nor only autistic patient who seems to benefit from cannabis. But she’s in Texas, where using it is illegal except for intractable epilepsy.

The Zartlers hope sharing their story will change that. Mark Zartler knows he’s taking a risk, so he keeps a small amount for Kara -- only enough for a misdemeanor.

Approving medical marijuana

State Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat, wants to ease that pressure.

“It’s time that Texas step up to the plate and allow many of our sickest patients to have access to the medicine that they want and that their doctors feel they would benefit from,” Menendez says.

He says 28 other states and Washington D.C. have approved medical marijuana. That’s what his Senate Bill 269 would do. He’s tried this before. It’s a long shot.

“Every once in a while, you get an opportunity to really help people and I do believe this would help people," Menéndez says.

A.J. Louderback isn’t so sure. He’s sheriff of Jackson County, midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi. He’s also the legislative director for the Sheriffs' Association of Texas.

“I understand that many people are willing to try anything for the relief of the children,” Louderback says. “We’re not unpassionate about that at all. But in every state that’s become a recreational marijuana state, the first part is always the medical marijuana.”

Louderback asks: “Where’s the science?” There’s not enough to convince him. He worries sheriffs will be overwhelmed with recreational cannabis users claiming medical need.  His group opposed a much narrower bill that passed two years ago, and will fight SB 269, which hasn’t yet made it out of committee. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.