Nearly a year after the enactment of Connor and Raina’s Law, which allows students prescribed medical cannabis to take their medication in school, Havre de Grace leaders celebrated the accomplishment with one of the law’s two namesakes, 16-year-old resident Connor Sheffield.
“I am still here today because of medical cannabis,” Sheffield, a junior at Havre de Grace High School, said last week as he and his family were honored by the mayor and City Council.
Connor and Raina’s Law was adopted by the Maryland General Assembly in 2020. According to one of its chief sponsors in Annapolis, it is slated to be a model for other states as they work on policies related to youths and medical cannabis.
Sheffield takes medical cannabis oil to treat gastrointestinal dysmotility, a chronic condition he was diagnosed with at 11 years old. State law allows medical cannabis to be prescribed to treat a variety of conditions, but until Connor and Raina’s Law was passed last year, youths could not take their medicine while at school.
The teen’s stomach does not work correctly because of his condition, which also makes it very difficult for him to eat, drink, even swallow. Sheffield said he has spent most of his life being nourished via feeding tubes, been through a number of major surgeries and “pretty much lived” in the hospital.
He had tried “every single medication approved” to treat his condition, even some that had not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but only medical cannabis has worked and helped him improve to where he could attend school on a regular basis.
The problem was, he could not take his medication at school. His parents had to leave work, sign him out of class, take him off school property and administer the oil before he could return to school, which he described as “way too long a process to take my medication.”
Sheffield stressed that he is not smoking a marijuana joint or eating edible pot, but “taking a little drop of oil under my tongue and swigging some water.”
“[It is] not nearly enough to get somebody high, but it’s enough to keep me and thousands of children, not only in this state, but in the entire country alive,” he said, adding that “it’s baffling to me that it wasn’t a thing before.”
With the backing of his parents, extended family, community, and city and state leaders, Sheffield and his supporters lobbied legislators in Annapolis last year to pass a law so he and other kids could take medical cannabis at school.
The “Connor’s Courage” bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Dels. Steve Johnson and Mary Ann Lisanti of Harford County, was introduced in the House of Delegates, along with a companion bill in the Maryland Senate.
The Havre de Grace City Council approved a resolution in February 2020 expressing their support for the legislation and offered encouragement to Sheffield and his family during a special meeting ahead of the youth’s scheduled testimony in Annapolis. The city’s support came on the heels of support expressed by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democratic candidate for governor in 2022.
The law, currently categorized as House Bill 617/Chapter 624, passed the House, 130-3, on March 13, 2020, and passed the Senate unanimously on March 16, 2020, right around the time the General Assembly had to cut its 2020 session short because of the COVID-19 pandemic — Connor and Raina’s Law was enacted on May 8.
Sheffield stressed Monday that it took “a group effort” to get the legislation passed and that he is “so thankful for anybody who played any kind of role or part in it.”
“My name’s attached to this law, but it’s not all me and it’s not all about me ... it’s about all the other children who need it,” he said.
Mayor William T. Martin said he and the council have wanted to honor Sheffield for the passage of the law for more than a year but could not because of pandemic-related restrictions on the number of people who can attend a council meeting. Officials began re-opening City Hall and council meetings to the public in March.
Martin described Sheffield as “an amazing young man from Havre de Grace that took a big step to change the world.”
Lisanti, who also was on hand for the celebration last week, lauded Sheffield and his family as well as the mayor and council for their support. She noted that the Sheffields’ push to allow medical cannabis in schools had been “extremely controversial,” as marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and state education officials “frowned upon bringing any type of experimental medication into the school system.”
The law, as adopted, requires the Maryland State Department of Education and Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission to develop policies so designated school personnel can administer medical cannabis to students as prescribed.
Lisanti, as the author of the bill, said she wanted legislation that “made sense” and would bring all parties together to “write the policy that was safe, effective and would protect our children.”
“It is the foremost policy among state boards of education in the country, so it will be the role model for other [jurisdictions],” she said.
“Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your life,” Lisanti told Sheffield and his parents, Michael and Tricia.
More research needed
The family has not stopped its advocacy with the passage of Connor and Raina’s Law, however. Tricia Sheffield said they had supported the push in Annapolis this year to make recreational marijuana legal in Maryland, which was not successful.
They also are working to get pot “de-schedulized” at the federal level so it is no longer classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with other illegal drugs such as heroin, LSD and Ecstasy, but placed on a lower-level schedule.
“Then we can definitely get more medical cannabis research going — that’s the most important thing,” Tricia Sheffield said.
The family also is working on changes at the federal level so hospital patients can have prescribed medical cannabis with them at the hospital. They have reached out to Maryland officials, such as Attorney General Brian Frosh, so the family has state support in their federal push.
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Tricia’s son, like other Harford County Public Schools students, has been learning virtually through most of the current school year, but Connor has since returned to Havre de Grace High and is able to take his medication at school.
“If he needs his medicine, he can go to the nurse’s office and take his medicine, just like any other kid,” she said.
Thanks to medical cannabis, Connor Sheffield has gained 40 pounds, has not been in the hospital in a year and a half, is able to eat, drink and swallow, and can participate in activities such as “micro sprint” vehicle racing, as well as driving “late-model” cars on NASCAR tracks in North Carolina, which he got into last year, according to his mother.
“He’s well enough to go compete, and the races are pretty [physically] strenuous,” she said, noting racing also is a way to raise awareness of medical cannabis and the condition of gastrointestinal dysmotility.
Tricia stressed the need for more research on medical cannabis, as her son’s tolerance for his medicine has increased, meaning the dosage must increase too. Her son is “doing great now,” but she is concerned the medicine could not be as effective in the future if his tolerance keeps going up.
“I’m always afraid; is this a bridge, what’s going to happen?” she asked. “We need more help, we need research.”
People can visit the Connor’s Courage page on Facebook to get more information about Connor’s activities.