NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 06: Dr. Sanjay Gupta attends the 'Weed: Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports' screening at Time Warner Center on August 6, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Time Warner)
USA TODAY - The haze surrounding Sanjay Gupta's stance on medical marijuana use has cleared. The TV doctor says he just wasn't looking hard enough.
CNN's chief medical correspondent announced his change in heart Aug. 8 in an online op-ed, Why I Changed My Mind on Weed, promoting his special Weed, a documentary premiering tonight at 8 p.m. on CNN.
Gupta says he used to oppose the use of medical marijuana. But after more research, he says he has changed his mind, and has apologized for earlier statements, including his 2009 TIME magazine article Why I Would Vote No on Pot.
"I have apologized for some of the earlier reporting because I think, you know, we've been terribly and systematically misled in this country for some time," Gupta told Piers Morgan on CNN. "And I did part of that misleading."
Mason Tvert, the director of communication for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group promoting the legal use of medical and non-medical marijuana, says the situation illustrates the establishment's misinformation and scare tactics for the past 70 years.
"Most Americans are recognizing that marijuana is not as harmful as they were led to believe," he says. "There's so much evidence out now that any person looking at it objectively would have to call our current marijuana policies into question."
The often-cited health risks associated with marijuana, he says, are not as malignant as previously conceived. And, like Gupta, he points out that alcohol and nicotine are just as unhealthy and cause a larger number of deaths compared to cannabis.
But Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse says the issue isn't whether marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or nicotine, it's whether society is willing to deal with the harm legalizing another drug could cause. "If you look at the data ... the costs associated with drugs in our country, which are gigantic, are driven mostly by legal drugs because they're so accessible. (The legalization of marijuana) will immediately increase the adverse affects."
Though some compounds in marijuana may be beneficial, she says it's difficult to determine if they can be extracted for treatment, to avoid the drug's harmful effects.
Also, she says, marijuana poses an even more unique challenge, because each plant and its chemical levels, including THC, vary.
Volkow says marijuana is very harmful to the developing brains of adolescents, who may have more access to the drug if legalized, and may interpret it as less harmful or dangerous because doctors condone its use. She notes that prescription medications, while legal, are the leading cause of drug-related deaths for adolescents.
Gupta's proclamation, and the growing movement to legalize marijuana and medical marijuana, "definitely make the work we do more difficult," says Jamison Monroe, founder and CEO of Newport Academy in California, a drug treatment program for adolescents. "I don't think you could say just because one drug is legal something else should be legal. If it does become legalized though, there should at least be an age limit."
Volkow also questions the use of the term "medical marijuana," because the medicinal use of the drug or its chemical contents has yet to be assessed or approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which is required for all medicines used in the USA.
Though Gupta's comments may be well-meant, she says, he may be jumping the gun.
"I wish I could stand up and say to people 'Yes, this will help.' I want to help, but it would be irresponsible on my part," Volkow says. "The evidence is not there and if we look at what has happened in the past with cocaine and even methamphetamine, doctors also believed these drugs would be beneficial, until they realized the (negative) effects."
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