CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta is making waves for his recent reversal of opinion on medical marijuana. Part of this has to do with an expansive body of medical evidence but the touching story of a 5-year-old girl may have also played a meaningful role.
What if you were the parent of a small child suffering from a severe form of epilepsy that sent her into debilitating shocks hundreds of times each week, disrupting nearly every moment of the day, often leaving her in a catatonic state and crippling her development? You’ve tried every treatment available, seen countless specialists and nothing seems to work.
You’ve taken your child home from yet another emergency hospital visit, this time carrying with you the immeasurable weight of a “do not resuscitate” order from her doctor. Her treatment providers have exhausted every avenue they know of and have left you with very little hope.
Finally, at the height of your desperation you discover one last course of action but it is not one without controversy. You’ve learned about a plant containing chemicals that have proven beneficial to children like your daughter. However, the first complication is that the plant also has psychoactive properties and as much as you want to help your child, you don’t want to keep her in a constant state of intoxication.
You find there are strains of the plant with less of the intoxicant chemical and more of the one you believe has the medical benefits you need. However, there is a second very daunting complication: the plant is illegal and this fact creates significant consequences.
Few clinical researchers have had the ability to do thorough testing of the plant and objectively review its side effects due to politics and the fact that the federal government has banned it. Getting a reliable and safe supply will be an extraordinary challenge. And even if your local laws permit limited access to the plant and your child improves with it, you may never be able to travel with her across state lines without the risk of arrest and possibly having your little girl taken away from you by the authorities.
A young couple from Colorado, Paige and Matt Figi, faced this very harsh dilemma and their story is the subject of Dr. Gupta’s special “Weed,” airing this Sunday night. Their 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, struggles with a severe form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome, and though they have endured extreme measures to treat her with medical marijuana, the results have been outstanding. Charlotte has gone from having hundreds of seizures a week to only one small episode each month with regular and carefully monitored use of the plant.
The Figi family’s breathtaking experience helped transform the views of Dr. Gupta, a respected neurosurgeon and once candidate for U.S. Surgeon General who had previously bought into the notion that the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. federal government have enforced a prohibition on marijuana based on sound scientific evidence. After poring over more of the data, meeting Charlotte Figi, and traveling around the world to interview experts for this special, Dr. Gupta dramatically revised his thinking and even issued a public apology for his previous dismissal of the medicinal benefits of marijuana.
Among the clinical experts interviewed for the special is Columbia University neuroscience professor and Drug Policy Alliance board member Dr. Carl Hart. Dr. Hart has been on a mission for over two decades to study the attributes of illegal drugs from a rational, scientific basis and intentionally avoiding the cloud of drug war propaganda. His new book High Price chronicles his personal and academic journey and the pitfalls of a research environment tainted by bias, knee jerk restrictions and political agendas limiting information that could prove vital to physicians, patients and families.
Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing the use and production of medical marijuana for qualifying patients. However, the medical use of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and patients in the remaining states are without any legal access at all. Even in states where medical marijuana laws exist, patients and providers are vulnerable to arrest and interference from federal law enforcement.
In New Jersey there is a bill sitting on Governor Christie’s desk that, if he is willing to sign, would allow medical marijuana to be recommended for children like Charlotte. The legislation was created in response to the case of Vivian Wilson, a two-year old also suffering from Dravet Syndrome in New Jersey, whose family has struggled to get her access to medical marijuana. Vivian suffers an average of 15 seizures a day and has had more than 20 hospitalizations due to her condition.
There are many casualties of the drug war, not the least of which is access to sensible science-based research on the beneficial properties of marijuana. Hopefully, Sanjay Gupta’s thoughtful and moving examination of this issue will help further boost the growing tide of reason, compassion and innovative thinking on this issue.
Sharda Sekaran is Managing Director of Communications at Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization promoting drug policies that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.