Mario Cortolezzis and his son, Dante, chilling at the beach.(Photos provided by Mario Cortolezzis)

Now more than ever, mental health has been in the spotlight. With COVID continuing to make it difficult to socialize and disrupting our normal lives, it’s taking one of the hardest hits in all of this. This is especially true for children and adults on the autism spectrum, who would find this disruption very challenging to handle. One local Watertown restaurateur decided to document his own son’s experience with autism, the pandemic, and how medical cannabis helped make his life a little better.

“Dante, my son, has been going through a lot in 2020, between routine changes and everything else,” said Mario Cortolezzis, owner of Mario’s Italian Kitchen and Southfork BBQ in Watertown. “In September, we started doing videos on TikTok to see if there were parents struggling with the same things we are.”

The TikTok appearances started not only as something Dante enjoys doing, but also as a way for the Cortolezzis to connect with other families with similar challenges. Within a couple weeks, the TikTok had roughly 1000 followers engaging with Cortolezzis and Dante, sharing their own experiences with autism and the pandemic.

Finally, Cortolezzis began to explore the idea of medical cannabis, for a few different reasons. The most important being Dante is on the spectrum, so for him personally, everything going on in 2020 really exacerbated what Cortolezzis called “extreme behaviors”.

At the beginning of the year, Cortolezzis received Dante’s first prescription of medical cannabis. With the TikTok still a part of his life, Cortolezzis decided that it would be good to document Dante’s experiences, since other families were in the community with similar problems. Within hours, the video had over 700,000 views. In three weeks, the videos reached 7 million people.

Now Cortolezzis is planned to be part of a new documentary about Dante’s journey, he’s in contact with celebrities, being asked to speak at conferences, the whole shebang. The documentary will be through W2 Films, a Minneapolis production company, with director Richard Wallin and producer Lynn Younglove, a Watertown local. The goal is to stream the documentary on Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.

However, that’s not the only gift Cortolezzis received in 20 days.

“I got the gift of my son back,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how he’s changed.”

Medical cannabis has done wonders in helping Dante feel and do better, according to Cortolezzis. It’s important to note that medical cannabis is very different from the normal idea of marijuana. Dante and other patients in the program are taking a controlled substance, just like anyone else does when they receive a prescription medication.

“In Minnesota, the medication delivery methods that are approved are tablets, oils for vapors, tinctures, and topicals,” said Sarah Overby, director of medical education at Vireo Health. “Water soluble options were also recently approved.”

In Dante’s case, the medication is 19 parts CBD, and one part THC, and most start out this way, according to Overby. Like with many medications, doses start out very small and are adjusted in response to the needs of the patient.

“We create medication that has very specific milligrams of THC and CBD, and very specific ratios, and it’s very consistent,” said Overby. “So with every patient, we know exactly what their dose is.”

For Dante, this helps him slow down and not feel overwhelmed in his daily life, especially when his routine is disrupted. Without the overwhelming feeling, there’s a reduction in extreme behaviors, and the patient is overall relaxed. To coin Cortolezzis’ metaphor, “He’s gone from going hundreds of miles per hour to about 80”.

When it comes to kids, autism, and medical marijuana, Overby also provided some insights into how prevalent it is and how it works. Since 2017, autism has been a qualifier for receiving medical cannabis. Like any other medication, a prescription is required, meaning that everyone in the program is there on the recommendation from a doctor or psychiatrist.

According to Overby, of the 30,000 people using medical cannabis in Minnesota, only about two percent using it are doing so for autism. Of those two percent, most of those patients are between the ages of 5 and 17. Autism comes with a wide array of behaviors, from social difficulties, extreme behaviors, and plenty of secondary effects such as gastric issues and anxiety and depression. All of which can be treated through the use of medical cannabis.

It’s not a panacea, but it does cover a wide range so well because of where it likes to be. Most antidepressants and pain killers do their best work in the endocrine or nervous system. This can be a problem, especially with pain killers, because overdosing can lead to serious side effects and even death. At time of writing, no one has ever died due to the use of marijuana, medical or otherwise, because it uses a completely different system: the endocannabinoid system.

“One might consider the phytocannabinoid, which is the CBD part of the plant, to be neuro-protective,” said Overby. “Luckily for autism, the CBD part of the plant is more effective, according to our findings, which is great for children taking it.”

CBD can help relax patients, and with it helping with anxiety, it can even help non-verbal patients communicate. All in all, it can really help patients function in their daily lives, regardless of a global pandemic.

To receive medical cannabis, patients do need to register through the Department of Health under the Medical Cannabis tab. They need to do so under the recommendation from their medical provider. Once registered and approved, they can then go to a dispensary and get the process started for their prescription. This includes finding a dosage and the best way to ingest.

Looking to support Cortolezzis or see the journey for yourself? Log onto TikTok and search “@mariocorto”. He, his wife, and Dante will continue to document their journey and update their followers on their progress.

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