EXCLUSIVE: CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains why he believes in medical marijuana

In Feature Stories by David Silverberg

In an exclusive interview with The Medical Marijuana Review, the TV host and physician behind one of the most viral editorials on medical marijuana spoke about why he decided to go public with his views on cannabis. Dr. Sanjay Gupta elaborated on the decision behind his article “Why I changed my mind on weed” and what viewers can expect from his one-hour documentary on medical marijuana airing Sunday night on CNN.

Note: Our Twitter account @MediReview will be liveweeting the documentary WEED Sunday night starting at 8 p.m. ET and we encourage anyone to follow the action and chime with reactions.

Dr. Gupta was blunt in his CNN editorial on why he’s reversed his previously-staunch view on medical marijuana. Most shockingly, he apologized: “I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis…We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.”

Medical marijuana is top of mind for Dr. Gupta now, not only due to his documentary airing on CNN. As we learned in an interview, he is concerned about the lack of research into medical marijuana’s health benefits, and he wants to allow science to trump fear-mongering.

MediReview: After your CNN post soared across the social media space, it seemed like everyone was talking about your apology. What’s your reaction to how popular the Op-Ed became?

Dr. Gupta: Generally I’ve seen how people who read it felt more informed. This is a provocative issue and people have strong viewpoints about marijuana, and I expected more of a push-back. There’s been some push-back, and that’s been from people interpreting things in their own way, but have mainly been seeing a very strong favourable response.

MediReview: Was there a moment during the filming of Weed that made you reverse your decision on marijuana’s benefits?

Dr. Gupta: When I was researching all those medical journals via search engines, I found a disproportionate amount of them looking at harm, around 94 percent. It’s not a huge surprise, given the approval process for such research in the U.S. but this presents a very distorted view.

The big thing for me was talking to patients. These are legitimate patients with legitimate health problems and marijuana works. It’s the only thing that works, and that was pivotal to me. That’s what prompted my sense of urgency. That’s why I apologized.

MediReview: In light of how difficult it is for U.S. researchers to study medical marijuana [marijuana is an illegal schedule 1 substance), what’s the future of medical marijuana science?

Dr. Gupta: We’re in strange unusual position between states and federal law in the U.S.. Whether these states [that legalized marijuana] can grow marijuana and get fed funding for these studies, well, I don’t know. I think these studies should happen, and they should be produced on a larger scale to show how marijuana can be a reliable medicine for, say, for neuropathic pain and convulsive disorders, But we need a wide variety of strains to understand marijuana fully, and what’s available right now [for scientists] is not very helpful.

MediReview: You write in the CNN article “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years.” Who has mislead Americans?

Dr. Gupta: A lot of blame to go around here. It goes back to that  first drug czar during the end of Prohibition, who saw marijuana as not only a threat to the pharmaceutical industry but also to the nylon industry due to hemp’s popularity. All these years later marijuana is still a schedule 1 drug and forces are at work to keep it that way. It’s a confusing picture what created that demonization.

MediReview: We’ve seen how some doctors are nervous about prescribing medical marijuana, even if they see the health benefits of that prescription. They’re worried about law enforcement getting involved or how they’d be viewed by colleagues or medical associations. What’s your reaction to this anxiety?

Dr. Gupta: I see this sense of trepidation because doctors are caught between seeing marijuana as illegal and between seeing it as a useful option for patients. But then I start to see the numbers: 76 percent of doctors recently surveyed said they would approve marijuana to help a woman with breast cancer.

If we look at pain overall, the options for patients are not very good. There’s the potential for accidental prescription drug overdoses, for example, while no one has overdosed from marijuana.

MediReview: What do you say to critics who call marijuana a gateway drug, meaning using cannabis will lead someone trying harder drugs?

Dr. Gupta: As a physician with background in neuroscience, I have to look at this question with another question: Does marijuana make you crave other drugs? There is no evidence to show that is true; the brain doesn’t change in some way, it doesn’t make you crave other drugs.

It comes back to the old adage: Correlation doesn’t create causation. If people smoke tobacco, does that lead to them using other drugs?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta (right) interviewing a medical marijuana patient

Dr. Sanjay Gupta (right) interviewing a medical marijuana patient

MediReview: What do you want viewers to think about after they watch your medical marijuana documentary Sunday night?

Dr. Gupta: I want to inform people. On both sides of this issue, there’s plenty of hyperbole and anecdotal knowledge, and there is real science out there now. Whatever point of view, if you have an informed discussion based on real data, it becomes a smarter discussion. I got into broadcasting to have an opportunity to provide a great public health service to educate people, and I think that’s what Weed will do.

MediReview: So is WEED a one-off for you to look at medical marijuana or will you continue reporting on cannabis research in the coming years?

Dr. Gupta: Getting a full hour on CNN is big deal for us, and I’m certainly grateful for that,  but if I have the opportunity to do follow-up reports on patients or on the science behind medical marijuana, I will. This is a topic I’d like to stay on top of, for sure.

Editor’s Note: On Sunday night starting at 8 p.m. ET, follow @Medireview for live coverage of Dr. Gupta’s documentary Weed airing on CNN.