A change of heart on medical marijuana

After investigating the potential of cannabis as a medication over the last year, I had a change of heart. I am more convinced than ever that we need to study this like any other medication and not deny it to people who may currently benefit.

The response to our reporting on this topic has been robust, and we will continue to seek the answers people want and deserve.

People have commented on many aspects of the documentary “Weed,” but they seem to be especially captivated — as was I — by 5-year-old Charlotte Figi, now 6, affectionately called Charlie.

Charlie’s parents, Matt and Paige, had exhausted all options in an effort to stop — or at least reduce — the chronic seizures Charlie had suffered almost since birth. Her diagnosis was Dravet Syndrome.

At one time, she was on seven different anti-epileptic medications and her doctors had even suggested compounding a veterinary medication. They didn’t work, and she only continued to worsen.

By age 2, Charlie was experiencing up to 300 grand mal seizures a week — despite being on seven different medications. She was practically catatonic. In the mornings, her twin sister would hug her, saying simply that she “was glad Charlie survived the night.”

While deployed in Afghanistan, Matt watched a video about how marijuana helped stem the onslaught of seizures in a little boy. Not only did he feel medical marijuana could be the right decision for his daughter, but it was the only choice left — a courageous move for Matt, a military man, and Paige, who had consistently voted against legalizing marijuana.

Even though the Figis live in Colorado, where pot is medically and recreationally legal, the journey that would lead to Charlie’s first dose of medical cannabis was not an easy one.

Because of Charlie’s age, doctors were hesitant to prescribe pot for her and growers were skittish about selling it to her parents. All resistance faded, however, when they met Charlie.

Another challenge for the Figis was to find a strain of pot that had less THC (the compound that causes the high) and more CBD (the substance thought to help control seizures). Growers typically don’t invest in low-THC, high-CBD strains because no one wants them. They’re not a money-maker.

As fate would have it, however, a team of brothers in the marijuana business, named the Stanleys, were experimenting with just such a strain. They offered it to Matt and Paige at whatever price the two could afford.

By all accounts — including Charlie’s parents, doctors and Charlie herself — it worked.

The change that I’ve seen in Charlie in the year that I’ve known her is phenomenal. She is feeding herself, riding a bike, and enjoying horseback riding. Her parents told me they actually “see her brain making connections, putting the world together in a way that makes sense to her.”

Truly, Charlie’s is a heart-warming story, but there is much more to the debate about medical marijuana than the story of this sweet 6-year-old girl. This is hardly just about Charlotte. There are dozens of patients with a similar diagnosis, who are currently improving with their seizure control after taking cannabis. Again, for all these children, nothing else had worked.

I have spent the last year investigating many of the issues surrounding medical cannabis — including some amazing research taking place in Israel. I can only hope that my eye-opening journey will inspire others to open their minds, encourage true scientific research, and seek answers to questions that can sometimes be painful to ask.

Sanjay Gupta is editor, The Gupta Guide at MedPage Today, where this article originally appeared, and chief medical correspondent, CNN.

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  • NewMexicoRam

    Then why not make CBD in a pill or liquid?
    Do we have to use the whole plant?

    • MedJ

      Well the benefit of plants is that they just grow. I’m sure that the pharmaceutical industry can produce a pill containing CBD, but it will be patented, licensed and marketed and thus: terribly expensive. I’m not saying medical marijuana is cheap but in my opinion there is no real reason to create pills to copy the effect. There’s more than enough ways to ingest/inhale the active components without relying on smoking the stuff, so the most detrimental part about marijuana use is already taken care of.

    • Jess

      Doesn’t Big Pharma make enough money already?

  • Dinah

    Perhaps Dr. Gupta could inspire the FDA to take another look at the issue and marijuana for therapeutic purposes could go through the usual route and qualify as a medication with clear indications to be dispensed by pharmacies with specific doses for specific indications, rather than having “medicine” dictated by state legislators with access to a one-year card and no monitoring for efficacy and side effects.

    • sandyvc

      I would not let the pharmaceutical companies near it. They are not in business for health. They are in business to keep you buying their products. They have killed so many people by not doing the right research. I would prefer it be in the hands of experienced growers. We don’t let the pharmaceuticals run the breweries even though alcohol does have medical uses. No matter what, those of us who find drunkenness disgusting but still want a bit of relaxant after work or at a party with conversation instead of idiocy will smoke it to get high. I have not stopped since 1967 and have no intention of doing so especially now that I am retired after a very successful couple of careers.

  • ninguem

    Just bloody legalize it and tax it already.

    • Trina

      I was just going to say that: “Oh for goodness sake, just legalize it already.” And don’t give doctors a monopoly over it, as they had with alcohol during prohibition. That was just trouble with a capital “T”. Just legalize it the way alcohol is today.

      • ninguem

        Well, they don’t in my area. The naturopaths have entered the marijuana authorization biz in a big way. All the marijuana mills in my immediate area are run by naturopaths, though there are plenty of MD’s and DO’s in the market as well.

  • azmd

    For sure there are appropriate indications for the medical use of marijuana. But since it’s a psychoactive substance, let’s regulate it just like we do all controlled substances. The existing programs are a thinly veiled step toward legalizing recreational marijuana use.

    I for one am getting somewhat weary of treating young male patients with treatment-resistant psychotic syndromes which appear to be related to the (not clinically justified) use of high-potency medical marijuana.

    • Trina

      Do you want alcohol to revert back to being a prescription-only drug as well?

      • Guest

        Legalize it and let people deal with the side effects. I personally do not know physicians interested in this business (and it is BIG business down here).

        Marijuana is a drug, not medicine. So is alcohol. Neither should be prescribed, both should be legal.

        • Dana

          I agree. I’m no fan of either alcohol or marijuana, but decriminalization seems to be the least worst option. At least we can take all the money we’ll be saving on enforcement and jails, and hopefully devote it to rehab and mental health assistance for those who need it.

        • sandyvc

          Both can be medicinal but one can kill you and cause sclerosis of the personality. The other one has PROVEN (look it up) medicinal properties and provides a safe for adults way of relaxing their way. I hate booze. I hate what it did to my family. I hate what it did to me until I quit and went to only weed. Ignorance solves nothing.

    • ninguem

      Just treat marijuana like alcohol.

      Legalize it, tax it, misdemeanors for minor in posession or public intoxication.

      If I were dictator, what I might insist on, is clear immunity for employers to drug test and fire employees using marijuana, or refuse to hire in the first place. Just because it can be legal doesn’t make it a civil right.

      azmd is right, Marijuana may not be as harmful as was portrayed in generations past……..but it is not harmLESS.

    • sandyvc

      Children should not drink alcohol. They should not have sex. They should not drive cars. If marijuana is only illegal because it is bad for kids I want all of the other adult activities banned too! It is only rational.

      Yes. Today’s street drugs are dangerous to children and, if you only smoke them once in a while you can have absence seizures. The thing to do is take it out of the hands of the criminals and give it to the people who grow medical marijuana and know what the balance of the strains in each different one does. Do you think every strain of weed is the same? Why do you think they have so many different strains? Do you think people are too stupid to notice the more expensive kind is just like the cheap one? I don’t trust doctors who do not keep up on all the facts.

      I am a highly educated and trained analyst. I never accept the first thing I see or the thing I hoped to see. I am capable of extensive research into many topics. Among other things, my training included being able to see and push my bias to the back until I have evidence for it. I had a very successful career in education and software development. Multiple degrees and certificates. And I smoked weed from the age of 18 to today. As I have managed to keep up over the years I expect doctors to do the same.

      That a doctor does not know there is more than one strain is simply unacceptable to me.

  • ninguem

    I will say, categorically, that legalization of marijuana will be the biggest public health advance in a century.

    Tens of thousands of people who now have “debilitating disease” to justify their marijuana application, will be cured, instantly, the minute the drug becomes legal.

    • Guest

      And the price will come down! But the criminal justice system will suffer along with the police and court systems so I doubt it will be legalized in our lifetimes.

      • Dana

        I’m pretty sure the criminal justice system, police and courts will have a fair bit of time on their hands when they no longer have to devote 50% or more of their resources to fighting an unwinnable and frankly idiotic “war on drugs”.

        • Guest

          The police, criminal justice system and prisons make loads of money off of the war on drugs. They have a lot to lose if marijuana is legalized and head the fight against legalization of it.

          • sandyvc

            So will the pharmaceutical companies. They tried with that Marinol garbage. They moved the psychoactive parts and it did not work. For those of us who have kept up since our first hit in 1967 it is ridiculous to ignore that real experts. It was not someone who never touches the stuff that found out its value.

      • sandyvc

        I suspect that the DEA will fight this so they can keep their little kingdom going.

    • sandyvc

      Yes but the government and the medical professions will start from scratch instead of including the people who use the stuff and create the various medicinal strains. They will waste years on it. There is so much good work that has been done but they will refuse to use it. It is not just weed either. It is the entheogens used for decades to help addicts in Europe and now in Vancouver and for healing of mental illnesses. People travel to South America for treatment because they cannot get it here. People who have the money!

  • Dinah

    I enjoyed Dr. Gupta’s “Weed” special on CNN last night.
    –I found it interesting that the little girl who was using medical marijuana for her seizures was using a strain so low in THC as to be worthless for substance abusers, and that she was taking it orally, not smoking it.

    –As a psychiatrist, I am opposed to “medical marijuana” because it can induce psychosis and decrease motivation (Dr. Gupta also showed the increased need for rehab for MJ in Colorado, 3X in the last few years). It too often gets inappropriately prescribed for psychiatric disorders.
    –THC is already available in pill form from your local pharmacy (it’s called Marinol).
    My thoughts are that 1) it’s medicinal uses should be monitored by the DEA like any other medication or 2) it should be legalized and people should have the choice of one more substance to use — that would take doctors out of the picture as the middle man, allow taxation, and allow law enforcement to reallocate their resources away from the low-end range of our failed war on drugs.

    While marijuana may have some appropriate medical uses (as does xanax, percocet, morphine, and cocaine), deeming it ‘medical’ to be used with a “Go Card” (rather than a prescription and monitoring) fosters the false belief that it is part of wellness and of course our youth see it as less potentially harmful than it is.
    Nice job illustrating the different aspects of the problem, Dr. Gupta.