Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Paloma Sledge-Guba is 4 years old.
She likes dogs, music, arts and crafts, and her favorite cartoon, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”
Among her pastimes are singing along to “Frozen” and going to the zoo.
She has had seizures since she was 5 months old.
Paloma was diagnosed with a severe form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome and takes doctor-recommended cannabis oil in the morning, at lunch and in the late afternoon to keep the chronic seizures under control.
In the event of a seizure, she also has a stronger oil that cuts down how long they last.
Her mother and full-time caretaker Lindsay Sledge is gearing up to send Paloma to kindergarten next school year.
But Sledge says she’s running into problems because of Paloma’s medicine.
State law prohibits medical cannabis on school grounds and on school buses.
And Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Johanna King said the district is “bound by and follows these statutes, which apply to all schools and students in the district.”
There is also a drug-free policy within APS, which she cited.
Those are rules Sledge is all too familiar with, as the district has sent them to her time and time again.
While Sledge ultimately wants to advocate for the law to be changed, she is first asking for the district’s help in making sure Paloma can go to school like other children, saying the policy in place is outdated.
“I’d like the school here to stop treating me like a criminal and giving me the runaround. But help me,” she said.
Emails to APS that Sledge shared with the Journal show that the mother of three has been communicating with both Paloma’s school, Petroglyph Elementary School, and the district administration. The email responses primarily cite policy.
APS isn’t alone.
Santa Fe Public Schools also confirmed that “schools cannot administer any form of medical marijuana because marijuana is illegal under federal law.”
And Rio Rancho Public Schools referenced similar policies.
On APS campuses, students can have prescribed or over-the-counter medicines at the school with provider and parental consent, but it has to be stored in a locked medicine cabinet in the health office, according to the district’s policy.
And parents can decide whether a student self-administers the medicine, or if the school nurse must administer it.
Sledge, who was studying English to one day become a teacher, spends school days from 9 to 11:45 a.m. sitting in her car in the Petroglyph Elementary parking lot, where her daughter attends a pre-K program.
She waits to make sure her daughter is consistently dosed. She waits in case her daughter has a seizure, which happens roughly once a week, even with the medicine.
When it comes time to give Paloma the oil, Sledge drives her child off campus since the medicine isn’t allowed on school grounds.
Sledge said the oil, which she either puts under Paloma’s tongue or rubs into her gums, has to be administered within minutes of a seizure’s starting.
The system monopolizes Sledge’s time, but it has been working for Paloma.
But, come next year, Paloma will go to a full-day kindergarten program.
“I can’t be there all day. I have two other kids, too,” Sledge said.
Sledge told the Journal that she has requested to send Paloma to school only half a day but APS said that’s not allowed.
Home schooling seems like Paloma’s only option, Sledge said. But the 35-year-old mom said she doesn’t feel equipped to be both Paloma’s caretaker and teacher.
Paloma also receives services from her school to help with developmental delays.
“I’m not trained to be a special needs teacher. They have the skills to work with kids,” she said.
Sledge said she also doesn’t want to inhibit Paloma’s ability to socialize or take her away from other resources she can get only at the school.
Besides, she said, Paloma looks forward to going to school every day.
“This is a child that has been through hell in her short life, and we finally found something that helps her, and I feel like we are being punished,” she said.
After losing a fight to make medical cannabis legal in Utah, Sledge moved to New Mexico two years ago.
Sledge’s husband quit his 15-year military career to make the move happen.
Before coming to New Mexico, Paloma’s life was a series of emergency room visits with staff who knew her by name.
Sledge said doctors were playing a “guessing game” at that time as they kept upping the doses of Paloma’s traditional prescription seizure meds.
When Paloma was taking Valium, a type of benzodiazepine, it affected her breathing and her ability to walk.
Common side effects of the drug include drowsiness, muscle weakness and loss of control of body movements, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Sledge said the Valium didn’t help Paloma’s seizures and has caused her to stop breathing in the past.
“We then have to call 911 and she needs oxygen,” she said.
A neurologist recommended that Paloma go the cannabis route, allowing her to get a medical marijuana card.
Since Paloma started taking cannabis oil, Sledge said, she has had to call 911 only once – and that was after she couldn’t get the medicine to her daughter fast enough while Paloma was in school.
Before cannabis, her seizures lasted from 30 minutes to three hours. Now they aren’t as long and after a nap Paloma can go about her day.
“It’s still very hard, but it’s so much better,” she said.
Currently, Sledge is working with a lawyer to see what can be done legally to help Paloma.
This issue affects more than just Paloma, according to Indy White, executive director of PurLife, an Albuquerque medical marijuana dispensary. White said that, in the two years PurLife has been open, he has seen other minors run into the same problem.
And he said parents have told him they either home-school their kids or medicate them before and after class hours.
New Mexico law
New Mexico enacted its medical marijuana law in 2007, and there are currently 21 qualifying conditions, including epilepsy, for patient enrollment in the program.
Lawmakers said not much can be done to address Paloma’s issue of medical marijuana on school campuses until the next legislative session in January.
But Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said Paloma’s issue is something he wants to address at upcoming Legislative Health and Human Services Committee meetings. He added that he’s “open to the idea” of allowing medical marijuana on school campuses.
“We may need to deal with that in the next session,” Ortiz y Pino said.
And he noted a precedent he thinks is similar.
About a decade ago, Robert Jones had been dropped from a federal subsidized housing program over his participation in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program for cancer treatment. But ultimately that decision was reversed by the San Miguel County Commission, allowing him to stay in the housing program and take his medicine.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, echoed the opinion that any changes in law would have to be handled in the next legislative session. But he also noted that there would be hurdles to clear regarding medical marijuana, saying any changes to the law would require a future governor who would sign off on it.
“When you start talking about schools, it’s a different ball game,” Pirtle said.
He suggested Sledge try to get her issue on the agenda for the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee meeting.
The interim committee can endorse legislation, but a bill would still have to go through the official legislative process.
The Marijuana Policy Project estimates there are 2,254,782 legal medical marijuana patients in the nation. And the New Mexico Department of Health shows 50,954 active patients in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program.
Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states, with Washington, New Jersey, Maine and Colorado requiring schools to allow students to use their legal prescriptions on campus, according to 2016 information from the education policy team Education Commission of the States.
And a recent case in Illinois made waves in the medical cannabis community.
This year, a judge ruled that Ashley Surin, whose family sued the school district, could use medical marijuana and cannabis oils for her seizures on school grounds.
Surin now gets to take her medicine to school – an outcome Sledge is hoping for Paloma.
“We just want to make it clear we aren’t going away,” she said.