Show a 5-year-old girl about to eat food sprinkled with oil drops of marijuana on cable TV, and you're bound to get the nation talking.
The topic of weed buzzed across the country this week, not because of the usual debate surrounding medical marijuana laws, but as a result of a one hour-long documentary featuring this little girl and one medical reporter's change in opinion.
CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta shocked many when he publicly admitted he was wrong about his previous stance on the medicinal benefits of weed and retracted views he expressed in his 2009 Time magazine article, "Why I Would Vote No on Pot."
"I am here to apologize," Gupta wrote in a CNN op-ed published Aug. 8. "I apologize because I didn't look hard enough, until now."
On Sunday, CNN aired an accompanying documentary, "Weed," which Gupta spent a year investigating by traveling to pot farms in Colorado and hospitals in Israel, where he studied the medicinal benefits for cancer patients. The program emphasized the underresearched healing effects of marijuana and had viewers glued to their TVs as they watched 5-year-old Charlotte Figi, now age 6, consume the drug to treat her seizures.
While marijuana is classified as a schedule 1 substance – which the Drug Enforcement Agency defines as "drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse" – it's the only one that has reduced Charlotte's seizures from 300 a month to two or three.
As Gupta notes in his CNN editorial, Roger Egeberg, the Department of Health's assistant secretary of health and scientific affairs in 1970, recommended at that time for marijuana to be classified as a schedule 1 substance "until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue." Forty-five years later, the majority of those studies were never completed, Gupta says, and the status hasn't changed. He points out that only 6 percent of marijuana studies in the United States have investigated the healing qualities of the drug, while the rest have focused on the harmful impact.
U.S. News talked with Gupta to get his reaction to the chatter surrounding the documentary and find out what made him change his mind about marijuana. His responses have been edited.
It's been less than a week since the documentary aired. What kind of reaction and feedback have you received?
It's been pretty robust. The reaction certainly with the online communities and the viewership was really good. I knew it was going to be something that people would want to see, and it's been bigger than that. It's tapped into a provocative issue in this country that a lot of people know about, but maybe haven't thought that much about, and I think that's probably caused a lot of people to really look at the science and the facts around this.
Are you surprised by how much the public has been talking about this?
I don't think I was surprised about the amount as much as some people. I've been getting emails from lots of doctors, members of clergy, judges even, who were thankful because they had been waiting for some science to be shed on this topic. I think that both sides of this issue have had a lot of conjecture, and a lot of anecdotal stories as evidence and a little bit of hyperbole. But I think when you actually lay down all the facts and tell the science behind it – both inside and outside the United States – and also tell the stories of patients who are not just anecdotal stories, but are emblematic of so many patients, I think it makes people think about this.
You shocked a lot of people when you changed your stance on medical marijuana. What was the turning point that caused you to change your mind?
I don't think it was a single point. I've been reporting about this periodically throughout the years, and as I wrote in that op-ed, I've been pretty critical of marijuana – mainly, I've not been impressed with the data coming out of the United States. While I thought it may have some benefit, I wasn't sure that it would have more benefit than what was already out there. When I started to look at the studies in the United States very, very carefully and realized the mass majority of them were designed to find harm, I realized that was sort of painting a distorted picture. And when I started to look at laboratories outside the country, and smaller labs and smaller journals, but very well done studies, that really started the process for me.
Meeting the patients firsthand and realizing that these weren't just single stories – as remarkable as their improvements were – there were hundreds of thousands of patients like them around the world. So I think those combinations was really what did it for me.
[Read: How to Be an Empowered Patient.]
In your documentary, you profile a 5-year-old named Charlotte who was suffering 300 seizures a month. No medications helped, but once her parents turned to weed as a treatment, she was down to two or three seizure a month. So do you think it's safe to give marijuana to kids if no other drugs work for them?
Any time you think about giving a medicine, you want to know as much as you can about the safety profile. There's certainly more research that needs to be done. Research on adults is challenging. Research on children is even more challenging – not just for marijuana, but for all drugs. Having said that, Charlotte was on seven different medications to treat her seizures, any of which in too high a dose could have been toxic and killed her. She had gone into cardiac arrest several times; her mom had to perform CPR, not because of the seizures, but because of the medications she had been taking.
When people talk about these comparison arguments – "Is one safer than the other?" – that's not typically how we think about things in science because we want to know if things can stand on their own merit. The question isn't always, "Is it safer than something else?" but I do think that in this case, any of those drugs in too high a dose could kill her, and at least the type of marijuana she was taking – which was a high CBD, low THC – was effective. And for marijuana overall, there's never been a case of overdose.
What would you tell doctors who are still hesitant to prescribe medical marijuana cards, since it's still listed as a schedule 1 substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency?
First of all, no one should break the law. There are laws in this country that are set up around marijuana, and those laws are enforced, so I'm not encouraging anyone to break the law. But when you look at why this is classified as a schedule 1 classified substance, really ask yourself as a doctor or anyone else: Does marijuana really rise to that level? Should it really be in the category of "most dangerous substances" in the United States? Should it really be in the category of "highest abuse potential" and should it really be in the category of "something that has no medical applications?" I really think that the answer to all those questions is no.
I would encourage doctors, and anybody else, to just look at the science behind this and come to their own conclusions. This issue is coming onto the ballot in several states, and people may be voting on this, but before you're thinking about voting, just make sure you're armed with the facts.
Are you planning any follow-up documentaries on the subject?
I don't know if they're going to be documentaries or not, but we're certainly going to be doing more reporting. When you work on something like this for over a year, you find that you have far more material than what could have made it into the one hour documentary, so there will be some follow up stories and new reporting on things that we're already looking into. Whether it's an hour or not, we don't know yet.
"Weed" is re-airing Friday at 10 p.m. EST and Saturday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. EST on CNN.