Science & Technology

CNN's Sanjay Gupta Comes Around on Medical Marijuana

Doctor realizes its value to certain patients and the challenges for researchers


Tell us something we don't know, Doc.

Yesterday, CNN reported on the case of Charlotte Figi, the 6-year-old girl whose rare seizure-inducing disorder was ultimately successfully treated by medical marijuana.

Today, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN's chief medical correspondent, apologizes for his own resistance to the use of marijuana as medicine. He has come around on the matter, and the reasons why will sound familiar to anybody who has ever explored the way the federal government has treated marijuana:

I apologize because I didn't look hard enough, until now. I didn't look far enough. I didn't review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.

Instead, I lumped them with the high-visibility malingerers, just looking to get high. I mistakenly believed the Drug Enforcement Agency listed marijuana as a schedule 1 substance because of sound scientific proof. Surely, they must have quality reasoning as to why marijuana is in the category of the most dangerous drugs that have "no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse."

Now he realizes the government's classification was not (as many, many people already know) based on "sound scientific proof" at all. Before the government became obsessed with the drug war, there was a lot of research on marijuana's potential benefits:

While investigating, I realized something else quite important. Medical marijuana is not new, and the medical community has been writing about it for a long time. There were in fact hundreds of journal articles, mostly documenting the benefits. Most of those papers, however, were written between the years 1840 and 1930. The papers described the use of medical marijuana to treat "neuralgia, convulsive disorders, emaciation," among other things.

A search through the U.S. National Library of Medicine this past year pulled up nearly 20,000 more recent papers. But the majority were research into the harm of marijuana, such as "Bad trip due to anticholinergic effect of cannabis," or "Cannabis induced pancreatitits" and "Marijuana use and risk of lung cancer."

In my quick running of the numbers, I calculated about 6% of the current U.S. marijuana studies investigate the benefits of medical marijuana. The rest are designed to investigate harm. That imbalance paints a highly distorted picture.

Furthermore, Gupta has become familiar with the bureaucratic challenges that befall any scientist attempting to research marijuana as medication, thanks to the government's drug classification system:

First of all, you need marijuana. And marijuana is illegal. You see the problem. Scientists can get research marijuana from a special farm in Mississippi, which is astonishingly located in the middle of the Ole Miss campus, but it is challenging. When I visited this year, there was no marijuana being grown.

The second thing you need is approval, and the scientists I interviewed kept reminding me how tedious that can be. While a cancer study may first be evaluated by the National Cancer Institute, or a pain study may go through the National Institute for Neurological Disorders, there is one more approval required for marijuana: NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is an organization that has a core mission of studying drug abuse, as opposed to benefit.

Read his whole piece here, and marvel at one of America's most famous doctors "discovering" what a lot of proponents of medical marijuana already know.