Blog Post

Have we reached a 'tipping point' in the debate over medical marijuana?

August 22, 2013

    Hanna Jaquith, Daily Briefing

    CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta has helped begin a national conversation about medical marijuana that triggered a response from the White House on Wednesday, which has some pundits wondering if America is reaching a "tipping point" on the issue.

    "I am here to apologize," Gupta wrote in a CNN op-ed earlier this month, adding, "I'm here to apologize because I didn't look hard enough, until now."

    For a documentary that aired on the cable news channel, Gupta spent a year investigating the science of cannabis by traveling to pot farms in Colorado and hospitals in Israel. There, he examined weed's benefits for neuropathic pain and for bolstering appetite and reducing nausea in cancer patients.

    The documentary also followed the story of five-year-old Charlotte Figi, who has a severe form of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome. Charlotte's family tried endless medications to stop her seizures, which occurred at a rate of nearly 300 per week. Oil extracted from a rare strain of marijuana low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the compound in weed that's psychoactive—and high in cannabidiol (CBD)—which has medicinal properties—was the only drug that reduced the seizures.

    The Figi family hails from Colorado, which—along with 19 other states and the District of Columbia—has legalized the use of marijuana to treat a variety of medical conditions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Illinois became the 20th state to legalize it this month.)

    But even as the legal landscape has cleared in these states, the medical landscape remains confusing, largely because of limited research on the topic.

    Under federal law, marijuana is classified a schedule 1 substance, which is defined as "drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." As Gupta notes in his documentary, former Assistant Secretary of Health Roger Egeberg recommended the schedule 1 classification "until the completion of certain studies now underway resolve the issue."

    However, many of those studies were never completed, and Gupta estimates that only 6% of U.S. studies on marijuana are investigating its potential benefits.

    It is that lack of clinical research into medical marijuana that appears to keep many in the medical community from embracing the drug. According to a recent NEJM study, three in four physicians are in favor of marijuana for medical purposes.

    The study—which asked 1,446 physicians whether they would prescribe marijuana to a 68-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer—found that doctors who favored medical pot "focused on our responsibility as caregivers to alleviate suffering." Physicians who opposed it, however, "targeted the lack of evidence, the lack of provenance, inconsistency of dosage, and concern about side effects."

    Slate's Stephanie Slade argues that "the nation [has] arrived at a tipping point" on medical marijuana. And yet, the White House on Wednesday said that there are no plans to change laws classifying marijuana as a schedule 1 substance.

    Responding to a question about Gupta's change of heart on marijuana, deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama "does not, at this point, advocate a change in the law."

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