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Documentary Discusses Challenges in the Legalization of Marijuana

Story at-a-glance -

  • CNN’s Sanjay Gupta makes the case for across the board legalization of medical marijuana in “Weed 3: The Marijuana Revolution”
  • The first study of marijuana’s therapeutic potential for PTSD has been federally approved, after years of bureaucratic hurdles and setbacks
  • The proposed CARERS Act reclassifies marijuana to a less restrictive category and removes barriers to research, application, and access

By Dr. Mercola

CNN's medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta says medical marijuana should be legalized — period. In his third special on the subject, "Weed 3: The Marijuana Revolution," he calls for all healthcare providers to re-evaluate their stance on this natural therapy, in light of the latest science.

According to Dr. Gupta:1

"There is now promising research into the use of marijuana that could impact tens of thousands of children and adults, including treatment for cancer, epilepsy, and Alzheimer's, to name just a few.

With regard to pain alone, marijuana could greatly reduce the demand for narcotics and simultaneously decrease the number of accidental painkiller overdoses, which are the greatest cause of preventable death in this country."

Dr. Gupta is not alone — marijuana's stigma is rapidly dissolving. For the first time in history, a majority of Americans favor legalization: 53 percent favor legalizing marijuana across the board, and 77 percent support legal medical use.2

In 1969, only 12 percent of Americans favored marijuana legalization — support has risen 11 points in the past few years alone!

In terms of public policy, the tides seem to finally be turning toward compassion and common sense. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are casting votes in favor of legalization. Even the new surgeon general cites data on just how helpful medical cannabis can be.

One of our major challenges is the revision of federal drug laws so that they'll no longer clash with state laws, which will smooth the path toward better scientific research and improved marijuana accessibility.

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Marijuana Is Legal... Sort Of

Laws related to marijuana are changing so rapidly that keeping them straight can be daunting. Below is a summary of where things stand, in terms of the practical application of recent marijuana laws:3

Medical marijuana is legal in 24 states and Washington DC Anyone over age 21 can smoke marijuana legally in Alaska, Washington DC, and OregonAnyone over age 21 can now buy marijuana in Colorado and Washington State
No one can smoke marijuana in public, anywhereYou can still be fired from your job for smoking marijuana, anywhereThere is still a black market for marijuana, even in states where it's been legalized
There is one government-run pot store (in Washington State)Banking remains a huge problem for marijuana shopsEveryone in Colorado could get a pot tax refund

Pain, PTSD, and Suicide Among Vets

PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a major problem for many veterans who've experienced the horrors of war. The Veterans Affairs Department estimates between 11 and 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from PTSD.4

Twenty-two vets commit suicide every day because they're haunted by nightmares and insomnia, flashbacks, anxiety and depression, and a sense of disconnection from their loves ones upon returning home.

Standard treatments are often unsuccessful in providing relief, and many veterans develop even more symptoms from the multiple drugs typically prescribed. Many trying to deal with physical pain become addicted to opiates, and overdoses are far too common.

Marijuana May Offer PTSD Sufferers the 'Gift of Forgetting'

Some veterans have reported that marijuana is helpful in relieving many of their PTSD-related symptoms.5

Marijuana seems to suppress dream recall — so for those having nightmares, it can be transformative. Marijuana is also reported to help individuals stay focused in the present, which is beneficial for those experiencing flashbacks.

PTSD sufferers have an "overactive fear system." When you encounter something scary, your brain's fear system goes into overdrive. Your heart pounds and your muscles prepare for action, but once the danger has passed, everything goes back to normal — ideally.

That's not what happens if you have PTSD as it appears to be characterized by insufficient amounts of endogenous cannabinoids, which is why marijuana may be therapeutic. Cannabis endows sufferers with the "gift of forgetting" by temporarily deactivating traumatic memories.6

Unfortunately, veterans' access to medical marijuana is often limited, and when they can obtain it, it's a guessing game about what strain to use, how much and how often.

Nine states now allow physicians to recommend medical marijuana for PTSD patients, but there is little scientific research to guide them, in part due to the difficulty researchers have in getting their studies approved.

Three times now, the Colorado Board of Health has rejected a petition to put PTSD on medical marijuana's list of approved conditions, citing lack of scientific evidence of its benefit.7

More studies are urgently needed about condition-specific benefits before marijuana can be approved for the treatment of specific disorders, but that may be about to change in the case of PTSD.

First Federally Approved Study of Marijuana for PTSD

Researchers are several bureaucratic hurdles closer to a green light for a major scientific study on marijuana's benefits for PTSD. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is on the verge of commencing a study involving the use of marijuana for combat veterans, led by Dr. Suzanne Sisley, who is one of the scientists featured in "Weed 3."8

After years of setbacks, the study has received approvals from nearly all of the required agencies — National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

While I'm not in favor of smoking in any form, this will be the first federally approved study in which the subjects will ingest marijuana by smoking, and it's also the first whole-plant marijuana study, as opposed to an extract.

Why has this taken so long? Politics and outdated laws have stood in the way of scientific progress. Approval has been a hot mess of bureaucratic red tape — one of which is the question of who will grow and supply the marijuana used in the study. The fact that so many agencies are required to approve marijuana studies creates extended delays, and there's built-in bias.

For example, one of the agencies required to sign off on all marijuana research, NIDA, was designed to prevent people from using marijuana! There is only one place in the US where pot is allowed to be grown for scientific purposes — a field at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. In the past year alone, they've increased their production 30-fold, from 46 to 1,400 pounds.

New Hope for Alzheimer's Patients

Alzheimer's is a disease with no known cure and few effective treatments, but cannabis is renewing hope for Alzheimer's patients and their families. Researchers at the University of South Florida and Thomas Jefferson University9,10 found that low-dose THC directly impedes the buildup of beta amyloid plaque in the brain, which is associated with the development of Alzheimer's — and unlike so many pharmaceutical drugs, it produces no toxicity. THC was also found to "enhance" the function of your brain cells' energy factories — the mitochondria.

Lead author and neuroscientist Chuanhai Cao, PhD writes:

"THC is known to be a potent antioxidant with neuroprotective properties, but this is the first report that the compound directly affects Alzheimer's pathology by decreasing amyloid beta levels, inhibiting its aggregation, and enhancing mitochondrial function."

Cannabis is also known to have strong anti-inflammatory properties, as well as reducing some of the non-memory-related symptoms typically experienced by Alzheimer's sufferers, including anxiety, irritability, and rage.11 So, it looks promising that cannabis may have multiple benefits for Alzheimer's sufferers.

Download Interview Transcript

This Is Your Brain on Weed...

Harvard University's Dr. Staci Gruber has been researching marijuana since the early 1990s. Her colleagues affectionately call her "The Pot Doc." Most of her past research focused on the risks of marijuana, but now she's shifting her focus to its benefits. The federal government has signed off on a large study about the effects of marijuana on the developing brain.

The ABCD study (Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development) will investigate marijuana's impact on the cognition, brain structure, and function of 10,000 youth, age 10 and older. This research is important given the reports of marijuana's adverse impact on brain development in children and adolescents that's been quoted for decades, but in reality is scientifically flimsy.

According to Dr. Alan Budney of Dartmouth's medical school,12 "We know a lot, but we don't know a lot about what we know." The evidence linking pot to stunted brain development is "fairly weak and somewhat inconsistent" and may very well be limited to a subset of early heavy users. It's hoped that Dr. Gruber's research will shed some light on this issue. Her study uses brain imaging to evaluate structural and functional changes in response to marijuana.

Preliminary reports suggest no evidence of impairment after three months of daily marijuana use. However, there is an observable structural change in the anterior cingulate cortex — the part of your brain responsible for decision-making, empathy, and emotion. As the study progresses, we'll have better information about what these changes actually mean.

New Legislation Proposes 'Downscheduling' Marijuana

Senate Bill 683,13 or the CARERS Act (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States) was recently introduced by three senators —Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Rand Paul. This comprehensive legislation would create fundamental changes to the way the US views drug law, allowing states to set their own marijuana policies without federal interference, without fear of prosecution.

Firstly, the CARERS Act "downschedules" marijuana, reclassifying it from Schedule 1 to the less restrictive Schedule 2, and it removes low-THC, high-CBD strains from controlled substance status altogether, which paves the way for interstate commerce.14 It removes some of the federal barriers to marijuana research and allows more farms to begin growing research-grade marijuana, which would relieve many logistical problems. However, this arrangement has a drawback. The strains available from government-sponsored farms bare little resemblance to the potency and chemical composition of those available in modern marijuana dispensaries.

Another proposed change in this legislation is the relaxation of financial constraints on the marijuana trade by providing safe harbor for banks and credit unions to offer services to dispensaries, growers, and manufacturers. The act also improves veterans' access to marijuana by allowing prescription within the Veterans Administration. Overall, Senate Bill 683 has received fairly broad support and is believed to stand a good chance of passage.

EFT Is Available RIGHT NOW to PTSD Sufferers, and Others

In discussing treatment options for PTSD sufferers, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a technique that's been scientifically proven effective in reducing the symptoms of PTSD — and it's completely free, legal, and immediately accessible. The technique is EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), a form of psychological acupressure that utilizes the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture for more than five thousand years, but without the invasiveness of needles. The best part is you can learn to do EFT for yourself but please understand that self-administered EFT may not work and you're far more likely to get benefit by seeing a skilled therapist.

A large proportion of the scientific research about EFT has been done using populations of PTSD-diagnosed veterans — with stunning success. This ongoing study is part of the Veterans Stress Project. In a randomized controlled trial, veterans with moderate to severe PTSD received six sessions of EFT. Upon completion, 90 percent had such a profound decrease in symptoms that they no longer met the criteria for PTSD. Their levels of pain were also assessed, and even though pain was not the primary target of the study, it decreased by 41 percent.15

If you would like to be considered for participation in the Veterans Stress Project,16 you can obtain information on their website. A key aspect of PTSD is anxiety, and EFT is typically effective with many forms of anxiety. You can read more, including how to find a professional practitioner, in our prior article about EFT for stress and anxiety.