Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Changing The Face Of Medical Marijuana

Feb 10, 2014

Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Credit World Economic Forum via flickr

Maryland lawmakers say the medical marijuana law they passed last year has problems and they’ve proposed tweaks.

But the bill may not have passed at all if not for the influence of one man, CNN’s medical star, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

“He’s a game changer,” Baltimore City Delegate Cheryl Glenn told WYPR’s John Lee. “We needed someone of his stature.”

Gupta, a neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, penned a January 2009 TIME magazine article explaining “Why I Would Vote No on Pot.” Since then he has become a reformed skeptic whose own research convinced him of medical marijuana’s value.

In August 2013, Gupta produced “Weed,” a CNN documentary on marijuana. He followed patients using medical marijuana and witnessed how the drug treated their symptoms. In one case marijuana was able to decrease a child’s seizures from 1200 times a month to just two or three times a month.

Gupta expressed regret for his earlier opposition:

I apologize because I didn't look hard enough, until now. I didn't look far enough. I didn't review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.

“He actually said he apologizes. How big is that,” Glenn marveled. “I wish everybody could do that. When you know that a position that you were espousing is determined to be wrong, just apologize for it and say ‘I was wrong and here is what we should be doing.’”

Baltimore County Delegate Dan Morhaim, the General Assembly’s only physician, agrees that Gupta had a profound influence on public opinion about medical marijuana. “And since he is one of the gurus of what's good and not so good in health care, his shift of position was dramatic,” said Morhaim, the lead sponsor of the House medical marijuana bill. “And really, I think, changed a lot of people's attitudes about medical marijuana. He now fully supports it."

"The Katie Couric Effect"

After Katie Couric underwent an on-air colonoscopy on The Today Show, screenings across the county jumped.

The University of Michigan published a study on Katie Couric’s impact on colon cancer screenings:

These findings suggest a celebrity spokesperson who does not have the specific disease he or she is promoting can have a substantial impact on public behavior related to that disease. In light of these results, celebrity spokespersons should be advised to deliver carefully targeted, evidence-based recommendations that will ultimately improve public health.

Gupta is one of the most recognizable medical professionals in the United States. He was among President Obama’s top choices for surgeon general. He appears regularly on news and talk shows, has  written three best-selling books and claims 1.77 million Twitter followers.

Champion for the Cause

While Gupta acknowledges that marijuana has the potential for abuse, he says the value of medical marijuana cannot be ignored. Marijuana is far less addictive than prescription painkillers. Patients can also develop a tolerance to painkillers, thus limiting their effectiveness. He found in an earlier report that someone dies due to a prescription drug overdose every 19 minutes, while deaths from marijuana use are virtually unheard of.

According to Gupta, government research is not keeping pace with the use of medical marijuana. “About 6% of the current U.S. marijuana studies investigate the benefits of medical marijuana. The rest are designed to investigate harm,” Gupta wrote for CNN. “That imbalance paints a highly distorted picture.”

Gupta’s public endorsement of medical marijuana may have eased the way for the Obama administration to back off of prosecuting individual marijuana users.

The Department of Justice released a memo soon after Gupta’s documentary aired, indicating that it would not interfere with states that have legalized marijuana, as it is not an efficient use of federal resources, as long as these states maintain strict regulations.

For advocates of medical marijuana, Dr. Gupta lends credibility and publicity to their arguments. Medical marijuana is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia and recreational marijuana use is legal in two states – Colorado and Washington. Check out this map from USA Today.

And check out this CNN interview with Gupta, soon after he changed his position on medical marijuana: