Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Why He Changed His Mind on Marijuana

In a 2009 Time Magazine article, CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta released a laundry list of reasons why he would vote “No” on any medicinal marijuana legislation. Now, only five years later, he’s on a quest to shed light on the benefits of the plant. In his 2009 article, Gupta expressed shock that over 15-million Americans smoke pot. Yet his two CNN documentaries on the subject—released in 2013 and ‘14 respectively— find him getting to know these weed users and even sympathizing with them. Below we explore the reasons for Dr. Gupta’s about-face. 

Schedule 1 Requirements

Chief among Gupta’s reasons for reversing his position: the government is playing fast and loose with its definition of a controlled substance. According to the government, a substance—whether manufactured in a lab or derived from nature—can land on this list if it provides no medicinal benefits and has a high risk of abuse. Cannabis was listed as a Schedule 1 in 1970 at the urging of Dr. Roger O. Edgeberg. Since then, however, research has shown that the plant can provide relief for some ailments, including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDs. For comparison, ecstasy and cocaine have not been shown to offer any substantive medicinal effects.

According to Gupta, he assumed that the Drug Enforcement Agency based their decision on “sound scientific evidence.” Yet upon reviewing the agency’s decision making process he found no indication that this was the case. Since 1970, more than 18 states have allowed medicinal use of marijuana despite the agency’s stance.

Low Risk of Abuse

Science now acknowledges that marijuana is less addictive than heroin, cocaine, alcohol and caffeine. Recent research suggests that around 9% of heavy users of cannabis will develop an addiction. However, this depends on genetic susceptibility, and virtually any substance—including most foods—have the potential to prove addictive. Gupta also pointed out that unlike other “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin, no marijuana-related deaths have ever been reported. This is to say nothing of non-controlled substances such as tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco causes around 500,000 deaths annually.

Research into weed’s addictive qualities was ongoing as early as 1944. In that year, then New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia ordered research on the drug. The studies indicated that marijuana was not addictive in the typical sense of the word. Scientists of the era found no evidence that marijuana lead users to try harder drugs.

London’s Imperial College has conducted its own controversial research: high fructose corn syrup, a compound present in most processed food sold in the US, is more addictive than cannabis. The study’s results have been duplicated by a Dutch team, and further research is ongoing.

Medicinal Qualities

According to John M. McPartland, writing in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, the weed can yield useful medicines when said medicines are derived from the entire plant. Shaheen E. Lakhan, writing in BMC Neurology found that weed is effective in treating symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and that drugs derived from the plant are well tolerated.

Gupta insists that the federal government is ignoring these benefits even while states are beginning to acknowledge them.

Dr. Gupta points out that it is difficult to conduct research into the plant’s medicinal properties in the US because of the many agencies overseeing the process. Researchers often have to obtain permission from all of them. Chief among these agencies is the National Institute of Drug Abuse, whose mandate is to focus on the negatives of controlled substances.

To combat government doublespeak Dr. Gupta implores citizens to contact their local representatives and make them aware of the growing body of scientific research in favor of medicinal marijuana.