Why Sanjay Gupta’s weed apology is important

apology Everyone’s talking about this week’s very public reversal on the legality of cannabis by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. His article on CNN.com, Why I changed my mind on weed, includes a heartfelt apology for not investigating the subject deeply enough, for believing the US Government and the DEA, and for suspecting that patients whose medical conditions were relieved by cannabis were just slacker stoners.

This article comes out so clearly in favor of cannabis legalization that’s it’s all over the media, both mainstream and independent, and it’s lit up social media and the blogosphere. It’s gotten so much traction that there’s even a second CNN article about that, Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s pot confessional gets global headlines.

The fact that cannabis is legitimate and safe for medical use is not news. Doctors, patients, multiple medical studies, and the legalization movement have been saying this for years. But Dr. Gupta is not a pretend TV doctor, and he’s not just a medical correspondent for CNN, he literally knows brain surgery. He is a professor of neurosurgery at Emory University, associate chief of neurosurgery at the largest hospital in Georgia, and has published several medical journal articles. Not only does he have some cred, he has global media reach, not to mention the cojones to publicly apologize when he’s wrong. In some ways, he’s the perfect person to be making this statement.

We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.

One subject I’m very pleased he addressed is the DEA’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug. Gupta’s article goes into the history of that in detail, and states unequivocally that marijuana does not meet either of the criteria for the Schedule 1 designation, but that studies showing this are intentionally few and far between, and those that exist have been ignored.

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.

Another thing Gupta mentions in his article is the successful use of marijuana to treat epilepsy, which has been documented for more than a hundred years. During research for his documentary, he met a couple whose child, at the age of 3, was having 300 grand mal seizures a week and lost the ability to walk, talk and eat. After literally exhausting every other option, including multiple medications and diets, they tried cannabis and it worked. Her seizures are now down to 2-3 per month, she’s experiencing no side effects, and she is walking, talking, and can feed herself. I normally despise the “think of the children” angle, but kids are much more vulnerable to side effects than adults. Common anti epileptic drugs (AEDs) can have horrendous adverse effects, ranging from headaches, nausea and dizziness to cardiac arrythmia, hallucinations, lupus, depression, meningitis, suicide, and ironically, increased seizures. As a parent and an epileptic myself, I would vastly prefer my child to have a bad case of the munchies. But even that isn’t likely with the low-THC/high-CBD strains of cannabis used to treat epilepsy.

Of course, there has been some harsh criticism of Gupta’s change of heart, even in the pro-cannabis community. Some maintain that a proper doctor or medical scientist would have examined all of the evidence and come to this conclusion years ago. I’m also hearing complaints that he only wrote this article as publicity for his new documentary, “Weed”, which airs on August 11. Both of these claims are valid. Gupta’s article is primarily promotional, to generate demand for his documentary, which in turn generates ad revenue for CNN…and of course he gets paid too. Capitalizing on the cause is somewhat insulting to those who have been working towards legalization for years upon years, sometimes risking their own jobs, families, and freedom, while making only incremental progress. And there’s a very real concern that the ideology behind medical cannabis will be co-opted, bastardized, and used for politics and profit like Occupy and the Tea Party were.

However, there is so much potential positive impact here that whether Dr. Gupta lacks total conviction or a pure desire for truth is irrelevant. When someone this mainstream makes a global, public statement on legitimizing cannabis, he’s using his powers for good. I hope it does much more, but even if it only jumpstarts the conversation, it’s a step in the right direction. I accept your apology, Dr. Gupta, but please don’t let it end here.

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