Since 1970, marijuana has been classified by the federal government as a Schedule I drug, meaning that:
- it has no recognized medical use in the United States (never mind those twenty medical marijuana states and the city in which the federal government operates recognizing marijuana's many medical uses);
- it has a high potential for abuse (despite ranking lower in addictiveness and toxicity than alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, meth, heroin, Oxycodone, Vicodin, Dilaudid, and many more drugs, and unlike all those listed, cannot possibly cause a fatal overdose);
- and it has no acceptable safety for use under medical supervision (forget about the tens of thousands of doctors who've recommended it in medical marijuana states and 5,000 years of safe medical use throughout human history).
CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta rocked the mainstream and shocked drug policy advocates both pro- and anti-marijuana with his recent apology regarding U.S. medical marijuana policy:
"It doesn't have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works," he wrote. "We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that."
Such an esteemed neurosurgeon and television personality pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes is the death knell of a prohibitionist policy. The industries that depend on the criminalization of marijuana have been fighting against the acceptance of whole-plant cannabis as a legal medical alternative, whether to protect the profits from their products (pharmaceuticals) or their services (incarceration and rehab).
No group has been more vocal about the need to continue the prosecution of marijuana users, even medical users, than Project SAM, the alleged "Smart Approaches to Marijuana". Founded by Kevin Sabet, a lifelong moral entrepreneur, former ONDCP staffer, and shill for the forced rehabilitation of cannabis consumers, Project SAM has repeatedly demeaned the medicinal value of cannabis:
Opium has medical value, and it is called morphine. Marijuana has medical value, too --- but just as we don't smoke opium to receive beneficial effects, we need not smoke marijuana to get its medical value.
It is important to distinguish between the whole marijuana plant material and individual components within the marijuana plant. Some constituents of marijuana, including THC, are available today in pill form (dronabinol, or Marinol® is man-made THC); some synthetic mimics of those constituents are also available (nabilone, or Cesamet®).
The idea that the chemicals in the plant are medicinal but the plant itself is not is one of the prime talking points of Project SAM. It's a plan to reapportion the supermajority public support for medical marijuana to support of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals. This serves three purposes: making pharmaceutical companies rich, undercutting support for plant marijuana, and maintaining the criminality of plant marijuana that allows for drug courts to force cannabis consumers into rehabs they do not require or want.
On Sunday, Dr. Gupta's about-face as a medical marijuana supporter culminated in a CNN documentary called "Weed". In the show, a 5-year-old girl suffering from 300 epileptic seizures a week is treated with a cannabis extract high in cannabidiol (the non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana). Her seizures are reduced to one per week. A 19-year-old man suffering a rare spastic disorder of the diaphragm smokes cannabis and his halting, hiccup-like speech transforms within one minute to the steady voice you'd expect from a healthy young adult. Elderly patients in Israel are shown treating Alzheimer's, pain, and depression with raw plant cannabis.
Kevin Sabet and Project SAM are now trying to spin this landmark television program to their advantage, issuing the following press release following the airing of "Weed" that characterizes Dr. Gupta's endorsement of medical marijuana as a sarcasm-quotes "reversal", and going so far as to portray Dr. Gupta's own statements like "it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana" as support for Project SAM's goal of keeping plant-based medical marijuana illegal:
"We are troubled that some of CNN's coverage of Dr. Gupta's views muddies the water on this issue. For example, a headline stemming from Dr. Gupta's upcoming documentary on CNN.com is 'Marijuana stops child's severe seizures'. However, this story is about a child who is benefiting from a non-smoked marijuana extract that does not get her high because contains trace amounts of marijuana's active ingredient, THC, and high amounts of the non-intoxicating CBD. Because most Americans think of marijuana as the THC-filled, smoked substance, this headline is misleading. It would be like broadcasting, 'Opium cures pain for millions of people,' instead of acknowledging that Morphine, an extract of opium, is the substance at play.
Notice how Sabet easily dismisses the 19-year-old man who is smoking raw plant marijuana chock-full of that THC to focus on the little girl using a CBD extract. Dr. Gupta even delved into the potential for a "high" created by that young man's marijuana use and found that not only did he not get "high", he was perfectly capable of driving Dr. Gupta around in a car shortly after getting "high". (By the way, opium is used as medicine in America in the tincture form of paregoric and morphine will get you really, really high.)
It is also curious how Sabet is now demonizing THC, when his own Project SAM website is touting the medical benefit of synthetic THC contained in Marinol pills. Apparently, THC is OK when it is by itself in a pill, CBD is OK when it is a non-smoked extract, but CBD and THC naturally occuring in a marijuana plant is somehow a dangerous, addictive drug with no medicinal benefit.
As for the little girl with epilepsy, she gets her CBD extract from a team of brothers who, empowered by Colorado's constitutional medical marijuana amendment, are growing marijuana plants for her. Project SAM and its board members, particularly Dr. Christian Thurstone in Denver (the rehab entrepreneur featured in "Weed"), oppose Colorado's medical marijuana law. If they had their way, those brothers would still be a "continuing criminal enterprise" under Colorado law and subject to numerous felonies, including a four-year mandatory minimum sentence for sales to a minor. It is more than likely that little Charlotte would still be suffering 300 seizures a week, assuming she'd have lived through them.
Just because marijuana is a Schedule I drug, it does not mean that medicines based on certain parts of the marijuana plant cannot be approved in the United States.
No, that's exactly what Schedule I means. Dr. Gupta did a great job explaining this in "Weed", how legitimate researchers are stymied by the Schedule I designation and the approval process that includes permission from the National Institutes on Drug Abuse. As the New York Times noted in a 2010 story, Researchers Find Study of Medical Marijuana Discouraged:
Marijuana is the only major drug for which the federal government controls the only legal research supply and for which the government requires a special scientific review.
"As the National Institute on Drug Abuse, our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use," said Shirley Simson, a spokeswoman for the drug abuse institute, known as NIDA. "We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana."
Sabet and Project SAM continue by putting words into Dr. Gupta's mouth:
We fully agree with Dr. Gupta that the medicinal value of marijuana should be studied to develop pharmacy-obtained, legitimate, standardized, non-smoked medications.
I searched Dr. Gupta's essay on medical marijuana and could not find the words "pharmacy", "standardized", or "non-smoked". In fact, I saw numerous people in his documentary smoking a non-standardized plant not obtained from a pharmacy and Dr. Gupta was endorsing their use. I did, however, find "legitimate" three times:
...I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis. [Not "pharmacy-obtained, legitimate, standardized, non-smoked medications."]
[Marijuana] doesn't have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. [Nnot "medicinal value of marijuana should be studied".]
Stuck in the middle are the legitimate patients who depend on marijuana as a medicine, oftentimes as their only good option. [Not patients who depend on "standardized, non-smoked" marijuana as a medicine.]
Sabet concludes by again trying to paint Dr. Gupta's support of the current use of plant marijuana by "legitimate patients" as only support for the research into developing cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.
Dr. Gupta is a person America looks up to with high esteem --- and for good reason. He is thoughtful, thorough, and dispassionate about the science. That is why we are troubled by how people might interpret his comments: as a license to support legalization, when in fact, it appears that he is simply arguing for the need to study marijuana's medicinal value and end the demonization associated with marijuana. Project SAM agrees with those ends too, and urges the media to correctly cover this story.
Without the medical legalization enacted in Colorado, the 5-year-old and 19-year-old profiled in "Weed" would still be suffering their life-threatening seizures and downing handfuls of stupefying, side-effect-laden, toxic, addictive pharmaceuticals to no avail. When Kevin Sabet tells you he supports research into marijuana's medicinal value, even under the best case scenario of the FDA approval process, those young people would be suffering for another two-to-four years. That's what Kevin Sabet supports.