Dr. Sanjay Gupta Calls It Weed’s ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ Moment
By David Bienenstock
Very quietly, the federal government has begun approving—and even subsidizing—a series of studies of cannabidiol (CBD) for children with treatment-resistant epilepsy. CBD is a completely non-psychoactive and non-toxic natural compound found only in the marijuana plant. It has shown tremendous efficacy in controlling seizures. There is no lethal dose of CBD and only a few, mild side effects.
Last August, thanks to Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s groundbreaking CNN documentary Weed, millions of viewers worldwide saw the way a high-CBD “whole-plant cannabis extract” proved over 99 percent effective in stopping a six-year-old girl’s seizures, after all other treatments failed. Many in the medical marijuana community had been pointing to such “miraculous” cases for years, often facing ridicule in response, but after Dr. Gupta’s special aired, everything changed.
Emboldened, more and more parents came forward, either to share their own dramatic success stories, or to demand legal access for their kids. In Weed 2, which premieres tonight, Gupta follows one of these families, the Wilsons, during their high-profile public feud with New Jersey governor Chris Christie—including a face-to-face confrontation at a diner where Brian Wilson accuses Christie of dragging his feet on implementing the state’s medical marijuana law.
“Please don’t let my daughter die,” he pleaded.
“These are complicated issues,” Christie responded.
“Very simple issue,” Wilson replied. Perhaps watching his two-year-old daughter Vivian suffer horrific, life-threatening seizures every day of her life helped clarify his thinking. In any case, the Wilsons, like hundreds of other families, ended up traveling to Colorado Springs to legally acquire a concentrated extract of Charlotte’s Web—a high-CBD strain of marijuana developed by growers at a local dispensary. Unfortunately, while the all-natural, “no-high” medicine helped Vivian immensely, federal law prevented bringing any home with them to New Jersey.
Meanwhile, in February, doctors at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and NYU Langone Medical Center began supplying an almost identical product to pediatric epilepsy patients, with the express knowledge and consent of the federal government. If fully implemented, this FDA-approved trial will eventually enroll 150 children at six different locations. According to the UCSF Pediatric Epilepsy Center, which will lead the study, “for one year the patients will be carefully monitored with seizure diaries and blood tests to measure the levels of the patients’ other seizure medications in order to learn about safety, dosage, effectiveness, and drug interactions.” GW Pharmaceuticals, a British corporation with ties to the world’s largest drug companies, will supply “purified” CBD for the trials via its trademarked, patent-pending product, Epidiolex. In Weed 2, Dr. Gupta visits the heavily secured greenhouse in Southern England where GW grows thousands of cannabis plants in order to extract not just CBD but also THC and other beneficial cannabinoids for use in prescription medicines like Sativex—a 1:1 blend of THC and CBD that’s already used to treat pain related to MS in 11 countries. Gupta spoke with me about the pharmaceuticalization of marijuana, and about his ongoing journey to fully investigate the plant’s true medical potential.
VICE: What’s changed—and what hasn’t—since your first Weed documentary aired last August? Dr. Sanjay Gupta: You’ve now got 15 more states seriously considering medical marijuana. In Georgia, it just passed the House 171-4. And I don’t think anybody could have predicted that at the beginning of the legislative session. So we’re seeing a momentum that’s much different from a year ago, certainly.
I also think there’s been so much more education about medical marijuana. It’s come out of the fringe—not just for the lay person but for the scientific community as well. We still face all the challenges of cannabis being a Schedule I substance in this country, like trying to get funding for research, and trying to get approval from all the various government agencies, but I think the overall level of discourse is much higher.
The tough thing for patients is that you still have a serious conflict between the states and federal law. As you’ll see in the new documentary, families are uprooting their lives and moving to Colorado to get this treatment for their children. Typically, they try everything else, nothing works, and then they have success with cannabis. But if they try to take it out of state, they could be arrested for drug trafficking. So they’re stuck.
You might think, “Are the authorities really going to arrest these parents for transporting their epileptic kid’s medicine, which by the way for a child might be a non-psychoactive oil?”
And yet it seems to be a very legitimate worry for these families.
In the first special, you said we’ve been “systematically misled” about marijuana and outlined the history of that, but who’s doing the misleading now? It’s been going on for so long, I don’t know if there’s anyone now who’s doing the misleading, so much as they’re not doing anything to make things better. It’s comical, almost, when you have the President of the United States, in his New Yorker interview, saying that marijuana is “no more dangerous than alcohol,” and yet alcohol is a legal substance that’s completely unscheduled, and marijuana is a Schedule 1 substance, alongside heroin.
On the other hand, you have Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, actually starting to soften her stance a little on this. So I don’t think I can point to anybody who’s continuously responsible for systemically misleading. There’s a lot of that still going on, but a big part of the problem is just poor education. As you know, I fell into that camp. If you look at the United States medical research on this subject, for all the reasons I just mentioned, all of the studies are designed to find harm. Which means, on a macro level, based solely on that criteria, the case for medical marijuana doesn’t look impressive at all.
It goes like this: Harm paper, harm paper, harm paper, harm paper, harm paper, benefit paper, harm, harm, harm, harm, harm, harm, harm… It’s 9-to-1, in terms of distortion in the literature. So only when you look outside that framework can you start to see a different picture.
And you don’t find it disingenuous for Nora Volkow to suddenly position herself as championing this research when she and NIDA have been such a big part of the campaign to systematically mislead people about the dangers of marijuana? I think Nora is a true scientist who genuinely wants to be a smart person on this. Frankly, she may have fallen into the same trap that I previously fell into. When I interviewed her for this new documentary, she told me she watched the first one and thought, There’s no question this is something we need to better research. And that’s a big step. That’s not just a throwaway statement.
Because even condoning some of this research was not on her agenda a year ago. And now we’ve got an FDA-sponsored trial in the United States for Epidiolex, the cannabis-based epilepsy drug for kids. That’s a really big deal.
Do you believe we’ve reached a sort of “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment? [Laughs.] Yeah, probably. When we shot the Weed documentaries, we wanted to set up segments where I have a kind of debate with someone who doesn’t share my point of view, and it’s almost unfair in some ways. Because science trumps politics. At least it should. Obviously, in the real world that doesn’t always happen. But as a cogent, practical, level-headed person who just sticks to the facts, I haven’t had a single instance where I thought, Oh, my God, I just completely missed something. I’m barking up the wrong tree!
In fact, part of the reason I say I’m “doubling down” on medical cannabis is that the more I look into it, the clearer it all becomes. It all makes sense. Meanwhile, I’ve got a guy like Raphael Mechoulam [the Israeli scientist who discovered THC] looking me in the face, and he’s 83, and he says, “I’ve been telling people about this for 50 years!”
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