To Sanjay Gupta: We Need a Scientific Approach to All Drugs, Not Just Pot

PHOTO: marijuanaGary Morrison/Getty Images
CNN's chief medical correspondent researched the science behind marijuana prohibition.

"I apologize."

That's what CNN's chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta said about marijuana on Thursday.

For years, he spoke out against the drug, which the U.S. government classifies as one of the most dangerous illicit substances that have "no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse."

Now, after investigating the plant for his upcoming documentary "Weed," he's come to the conclusion that he may have been wrong.

"We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States," he wrote.

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Gupta decided to take a scientific approach to evaluating the drug, going back to the original research that led to it being classified as a "schedule 1" substance, on par with heroin.

Pot was originally classified as a dangerous drug in 1970, after the recommendation of Roger O. Egeberg, a doctor who was the assistant secretary of health at the time.

"Since there is still a considerable void in our knowledge of the plant and effects of the active drug contained in it, our recommendation is that marijuana be retained within schedule 1 at least until the completion of certain studies now underway to resolve the issue," he wrote.

Basically, it was placed on the list of dangerous drugs because there was a lack of research, not because it was found to cause actual harm.

In an article about the his own investigation, Gupta cites research from before marijuana prohibition, from 1840 to 1930, an era when scientists looked at the medicinal value of the drug.

Nearly all studies on illegal drugs today look at the harm they might cause, not the potential medicinal purposes. According to Gupta, about 6 percent of marijuana studies look at the benefits of the drug. The rest focus on the potential negatives.

He makes a strong case for medicinal marijuana, pointing out that someone dies from an overdose of a prescription drug every 19 minutes -- a mind-blowing statistic. Meanwhile, he couldn't find evidence of a single marijuana overdose, ever.

His honest and science-based look at pot carries a lot of weight. Doctors have been touting the benefits of medicinal marijuana for years, as well as its relative harm when compared to legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco. But Gutpa is the kind of trusted voice that can bring that research to the mainstream.

In some ways, it was an easy message for him to espouse. More than half of Americans already support its full legalization.

And there's no reason he should stop with marijuana.

We should look at every illegal drug using a scientific approach. The amount of money that we spend on the drug war -- $51 billion annually -- is significant enough that it deserves an honest appraisal from the scientific and medical communities.

And of course there's the human impact. More than 1.5 million people were arrested for drug violations in 2011.

Look at the effects of the anti-drug crusade on Latin America, and the statistics are even more staggering. In Mexico alone, an estimated 60,000 people were killed in drug-related violence from 2006 to 2012.

The Obama administration has put forth the message that drug abuse "is not a moral failing," and that it's a medical problem.

Yet, most of our drug-related spending is still focused on making arrests. We spend more on enforcement operations domestically and abroad than we spend on treatment and prevention.

Doctors and researchers like Sanjay Gupta have the ability to challenge this logic. After all, it's clear there are lives at risk, not only from drug use, but from a government that shapes drug policy without fully considering the scientific merits behind the substances themselves.

Update, 1:30 p.m. I originally wrote that "more than 50,000 people had been arrested for drug violations in the U.S. since 1980." The number of arrests is actually far higher, as a reader pointed out. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, more than 50,000 people were arrested for drug violations in 1980 alone. In 2011, more than 1.5 million were arrested on drug charges.

Update, 2:25 p.m. I originally wrote that "someone dies from an overdose of a prescription drug every 19 seconds." It should have read "minutes," and has been corrected.