Dr. Sanjay Gupta Explains Change Of Heart On Medical Marijuana

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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains why he has had a change of heart about the legitimacy of medical marijuana and how it can be safer than narcotics.

WOLF BLITZER: You're referring to an article you wrote back in 2009 for "TIME" magazine, Sanjay, which was entitled, "Why I Would Vote No on Pot." So tell us briefly why did you change your mind?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, I think a lot of it was in that quote. I -- when you look at the literature surrounding marijuana, if you do a search through the medical journals, you know, some 20,000 papers will pop up. And I was keeping up steadily on the scientific literature, but what I was realizing was that the vast majority of these studies talked about the harm, the perils, the problems with marijuana. A very small percentage, less than 10 percent, close to 6 percent actually evaluated benefit.

So when you looked at all these studies in aggregate, Wolf, you would think that there was a -- it was a distorted picture, you would think there was a lot more harm with marijuana than potential benefit, but it wasn't until I started looking at laboratories outside the United States, smaller laboratories that were doing amazing work, listening to the chorus of legitimate patients for whom not only did marijuana work, it was the only thing that worked.

And that was quite stunning to me. I also looked closely at the DEA's scheduling policy. They classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, saying it's in the category of the most dangerous substances out there. And when I looked carefully at that, I found there was really no scientific evidence to say it was that dangerous, that it had high abuse potential and that it had no medical applications.

I believe it does have medical applications, and that's I just thought was an important message to get out there.

BLITZER: And you also conclude, Sanjay -- and I read your excellent article -- you conclude that in certain cases, medical marijuana is even more effective than various pharmaceutical drugs, right?

GUPTA: Absolutely. And this is, again, I think very important for people to hear the medical community is starting to understand this better, but this idea that, for example, neuropathic pain. That's this terrible sort of burning, lancinating pain patients have described to me. Oftentimes, these patients are miserable. They get in narcotics, on morphine, Oxycontin, Dilaudid.

These types of medications don't work, maybe at all, but certainly not after a few months. People can develop tolerance to them. And you come to find that marijuana in a percentage of patients, not only does it work better than these narcotics, it's much safer, because on those narcotics, Wolf, you and I have talked about this, there is a death, an accidental overdose death from prescription medications every 19 minutes in this country.

Those are dangerous medications. You know, they have a role, but they can be dangerous. Whereas with marijuana, I couldn't find a confirmed, a single confirmed overdose death. So you have something that works better, may work when other things don't and probably much safer.

And again, I think that's important for both patients and the medical community to hear.

BLITZER: All right, so medical marijuana serves a useful purpose, you conclude. What about recreational marijuana? What are the pros and cons?

GUPTA: Well, you know, I do make a distinction between these things, and I think it's important. I mean, I really am approaching the medical marijuana angle of this in many ways because I've seen so many legitimate patients with legitimate problems not be able to get the treatment they needed. But -- so I do make a distinction. But look, if you want to talk about, if you want to raise the issue of moral equivalence with recreational marijuana and other substances that are out there, again, marijuana is considered a drug of high abuse, the highest abuse.

Dependence rates are around 9 percent, as compared to alcohol, which is closer to 15, heroin 23, 25 percent, cocaine 20 percent. So it's probably not as problematic as those other types of -- those other types of drugs.

I'm concerned about it as far as its use for young people, people with a developing brain still, up to age mid-20s. But you know, again from a moral equivalent standpoint, you'd be hard pressed to find additional harm from this in adults as compared to some of the other things.

BLITZER: Sanjay Gupta, our chief medical correspondent, thank you very much.

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