The Cannabis Question
As state-legalized cannabis spreads, NOVA investigates the latest scientific evidence for its potential benefits and risks, and how criminalization has disproportionately harmed communities of color.
A multi-billion dollar industry is moving
from the illicit market into our daily lives,
creating a stark divide.
KASSANDRA FREDERIQUE: In a country where people are talking about its medical use,
someone gets arrested for cannabis every 58 seconds.
NARRATOR: A plant demonized to arrest millions
now marketed as a medicine.
EVELYN NUSSENBAUM: My son had a devastating form of epilepsy,
and a cannabis compound gave him a life.
NARRATOR: How does the vast array of chemicals in cannabis
engage a mysterious system in our bodies?
YASMIN HURD: The cannabinoid receptor
is the most abundant receptor in the brain.
MATTHEW HILL: How a single system can influence
so many biological processes is surprising.
NARRATOR: Will regular-- even daily-- use
cure us or hurt us?
PAUL DEBASSIO: If someone were to tell me that I was dependent
on marijuana, I would have said no way, absolutely not.
NARRATOR: Smoked, dabbed, vaped,
and eaten, today's cannabis is hyper-potent,
and far from understood.
ZIVA COOPER: These products are coming online
much faster than we can actually research them.
NARRATOR: As federal law blocks science,
an unintended public health experiment is underway.
CHINAZO CUNNINGHAM: Really the questions are for what conditions
is it beneficial and for what conditions is it harmful?
It's not black and white and it's complicated.
NARRATOR: What's the right dose?
Who should use cannabis?
STACI GRUBER: It's a highly contentious subject,
but it's not about your personal thoughts or feelings.
What does the data tell us?
What does the science tell us? Truth through science.
We should know the answers.
NARRATOR: "The Cannabis Question,"
right now on "NOVA."
NARRATOR: More than 80 years after America ended
one type of prohibition, it's ending another.
The majority of people now live in a state
where cannabis is legal.
As a multi-billion-dollar industry rises,
our country is at a crossroads.
HILL: Cannabis is genuinely one of the most
fascinating discussion topics I've ever seen
because of how emotionally polarizing it is amongst people.
And it's very strange because the entire field
of cannabis science is very poorly developed.
There's not been a lot of research and there's a lot
of things that we don't understand.
And yet, what we have in society is groups
of people that very fervently believe
it is this panacea that can cure any disease that exists,
or it's the devil's grass,
and it's going to cause the downfall of society,
not recognizing that the reality of cannabis
is somewhere in the middle.
NARRATOR: Americans everywhere are turning to cannabis,
seeking relief from a wide range of ailments,
including veterans, like Sean Worsley,
who uses cannabis to treat his
post-traumatic stress disorder caused by combat in Iraq.
SEAN WORSLEY: Our sole purpose was to
clear the routes for supply convoys that came through,
looking for roadside bombs that were on the route.
I was on a mission and we rode over
a hole that was in the center of the road
and unfortunately it was an IED that went off.
Knocking me unconscious, and when I woke up,
medic was in my face, asking me was I okay,
could I hear him.
NARRATOR: After his tour, Sean struggled with a traumatic brain injury
and disturbing symptoms caused by PTSD.
WORSLEY: For me it's paranoia, insomnia,
seeing things that aren't necessarily there--
"shadow people," as they call them--
night terrors, dreams,
but these nightmares were very realistic.
If I was shot in the dream, I would wake up grabbing
my chest because I felt the pain.
NARRATOR: Sean's medications for PTSD had troubling side effects,
so he got a medical cannabis card.
RYAN VANDREY: Cannabis at a low dose
can help reduce anxiety, relax someone.
And individuals who have PTSD that newly initiate
cannabis use report it being life-changing.
So, I can sleep for the first time in two years,
and I can go to the grocery store without
being so intense and on edge.
That's why individuals with PTSD
heavily gravitate towards cannabis use.
NARRATOR: For thousands of years,
humans have cultivated cannabis for its fiber,
seeds, and medicinal properties.
Ancient Hindu texts claim it was brought
by the god Shiva for the pleasure of humanity.
The plant contains over 400 chemicals,
including cannabinoids, which are most abundant
in the resin glands of budding female plants.
In the 1960s, Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam
the psychoactive cannabinoid that makes users feel high.
The discovery launched a new chapter in neuroscience.
DANIELE PIOMELLI: Cannabis opened a window
into the functioning of our body,
completely unexpected window.
Because what was discovered was that THC binds
to receptors in the brain
and outside the brain, and when it does so,
when it binds to these receptors,
the cells now behave differently.
NARRATOR: Cannabinoid receptors, named after cannabis,
are found on nearly every organ in the body.
They bind with our own cannabis-like molecules,
which regulate functions like sleep,
cognition, memory, and mood.
Unlike other brain chemicals, they travel backwards,
across the synapse, where they control the release
of most neurotransmitters.
GRUBER: One of the most amazing things that happened
was the discovery of the endocannabinoid system.
Every mammal has one.
And this is a system of chemicals and receptors
throughout the brain and body.
And really the primary goal of the endocannabinoid system
is homeostasis-- keeping things in balance.
NARRATOR: At Mount Sinai Hospital,
neuroscientist Yasmin Hurd remembers the first time
she looked for cannabinoid receptors
in the human brain,
seen here in vivid red,
orange, and yellow colors.
The cannabinoid receptor is the most abundant
receptor in the brain.
When we looked at where these receptors were expressed,
they're expressed in brain regions relevant
for motor coordination,
emotional regulation, reward.
All of these brain areas are key to so many
normal behaviors, obviously,
but also psychiatric disorders as well.
A key role of the endocannabinoid system
is to manage stress.
In fact, the first endocannabinoid found
in our body was given a Sanskrit name,
anandamide, meaning "bliss."
HILL: In response to stress,
our body mobilizes an endocannabinoid signal.
And so, if something aversive happens
to us and we suddenly see a threat in front of us,
our body kind of goes into a high alert mode and we shoot up.
Once we've been removed from that threat, though,
our body needs to turn that stress response back off.
And what we have learned is that this burst of endocannabinoids
that occurs in response to stress is really
critical for that recovery phase.
NARRATOR: Scientists suspect this signal goes awry in people with PTSD,
and that's why THC,
which mimics our own endocannabinoids, might help.
VANDREY: And so, when you look at individuals that have
PTSD and use cannabis, in short-term trials,
you see very beneficial outcomes.
But if all they do is use cannabis
and they don't engage in other behavior therapies
to help work through their trauma,
they're not treating the root cause of the disorder.
And it's important to recognize that THC
at higher doses increases anxiety.
CUNNINGHAM: Cannabis is not a miracle,
nothing is a miracle.
And so really the questions are for what conditions
is it beneficial and for what conditions is it harmful,
and for whom is it beneficial and for whom is it harmful?
So, it's shades of gray.
It's not black and white, and it's complicated.
NARRATOR: In 1996, cannabis was legalized
in California for medical use.
But federally, it remains a Schedule One drug,
like heroin, making research difficult,
and leaving patients like Elizabeth Pinkham on their own.
To cope with her cancer treatments,
Elizabeth has turned to cannabis.
ELIZABETH PINKHAM: When you go through chemotherapy,
there are side effects that can be... like nauseousness.
You may have loss of appetite,
you may have difficulty sleeping.
So I was looking for something that wasn't
another big, heavy-duty pharmaceutical.
NARRATOR: On display, one can find
sodas, candies, bath salts,
psychoactive body washes,
and flower, with THC,
that can ease nausea when smoked.
PINKHAM: The effects are pretty immediate.
I've definitely gotten my appetite back a little bit more.
It also helps with neuropathy,
which is like the numbness in your fingers and your toes.
This is super medicinal.
You see how, like, dark and dense that is? Mm-hmm.
That's indicating more of the indica family.
Good for the body, good for pain.
STEVE D'ANGELO: My staff needs to do the best
that they can to try and guide people
to the products that are going to serve them the best.
But my staff, they're not trained doctors,
and really we should have cannabis medicine
being taught in every single medical school
across the United States.
And that's not happening now because of federal law.
It's really a voter-approved quote-unquote "medicine,"
so people say, "Oh, there's medical cannabis
It has not been, it has not gone through
FDA rigorous research process.
And that's what's critical for medicine.
PINKHAM: I think it would be great if there was
a bit more science behind this.
But I think in the meantime you have to do what works for you,
and you have to figure this out as you go.
NARRATOR: But it's challenging.
Scientists aren't sure whether cannabis sativa,
indica, and ruderalis are distinct species.
Most cultivars grown today are hybrids.
They have distinct chemicals called terpenes,
which create flavors and smells.
And in addition to THC,
the plant contains over 100 other cannabinoids.
One, called CBD, is flooding the market.
COOPER: One in seven adults
in the United States are using CBD.
You see CBD everywhere, you see it in the pet stores,
you see it at Bed Bath and Beyond,
at Whole Foods.
And so there's a multi-billion-dollar industry
that's built on this plant
and there are all these different hypotheses
of what these different chemicals can do to help us.
But these products are coming online much faster
than we can actually research them.
NARRATOR: Despite CBD's availability today,
it took a group of determined parents to bring it to market.
One quest began in Palo Alto, California,
where Stanford neuroscientist Catherine Jacobson
set out to treat her son Ben's epilepsy.
CATHERINE JACOBSON: Watching your child have a seizure is
really, really scary.
It's awful, right?
It's awful because you know that brain damage is happening.
The kids get scared, they get confused.
And with uncontrolled epilepsy,
we all live with this fear that they're going to die.
NARRATOR: About a third of epilepsy patients
don't respond to medications.
Catherine knew the longer Ben's seizures continued,
the less likely they'd be controlled.
Could you have just given him medicine?
NARRATOR: And she was not alone.
In Berkeley, California, her friends Fred Vogelstein
and Evelyn Nussenbaum also felt powerless
to control their son Sam's epilepsy.
FRED VOGELSTEIN: I mean the thing about seizures that most people don't realize
is that they're dozens of different kinds.
So, the kind of seizures that most people know about
are the grand mal seizures
where you just lie on the ground and, like, start flopping.
The other seizure that a lot of people know about
are staring spells.
Sam had a version of those seizures
because he would go unconscious for, like, 15 seconds.
NUSSENBAUM: When anyone has a seizure,
you could compare it to an electrical storm,
or an overtaxed electrical grid.
We all have electricity in our brains.
And when someone has a seizure,
the electricity becomes irregular.
FRED VOGELSTEIN: Every single drug we tried didn't control the seizures,
and some of them had pretty nasty side effects.
NUSSENBAUM: One time he had hallucinations and thought
he had holes in his skin
and there were bugs crawling out of them.
I thought we were going to have to take him to the psych ward.
VOGELSTEIN: And then there were all the medicines
that made him a zombie.
NARRATOR: Then, they stumbled across research suggesting
cannabis might quell seizures.
JACOBSON: I knew nothing about cannabis,
but I did some research and I found out that obviously
there are many different chemicals in cannabis,
the two most prominent are CBD and THC.
We know that THC makes people high.
CBD doesn't do that.
And so, my preference was of course to try CBD first.
NARRATOR: CBD doesn't bind to cannabinoid receptors directly,
but it's presence seems to reduce the impact of THC.
It also increases levels of anandamide,
our bliss molecule,
and interacts with receptors like serotonin,
which affect our mood.
Yet in 2011, it was hard to find extracts high in CBD.
JACOBSON: And so we would get these vials
and sometimes they would work a little bit
and then the next vial wouldn't work.
So, after probably six to eight months of doing this
and seeing no benefit to Ben,
I just said, look, I'm going to make my own.
NUSSENBAUM: When Sam first took
Catherine Jacobson's CBD tincture, it was clear as day,
his seizures were going down immediately.
Unfortunately, Catherine only had
enough for five days.
And so we had this incredible five-day stretch.
And then we ran out.
NARRATOR: CBD also helped Catherine's son, Ben.
But her next batch of tinctures were too weak to use.
Drug companies get a lot of abuse
for their marketing tactics.
But the one thing that they do really, really well,
is they make every pill exactly the same.
It's sanitized, it's quality controlled.
And I wanted that for my son.
NARRATOR: Then, they heard about an English company called
with greenhouses full of cannabis, and labs
that could make chemically pure drugs.
Since CBD was illegal in the U.S.,
Sam's family flew to London for treatment
while Ben's family waited.
(plane engines roar)
After four days of taking GW's CBD,
Sam's seizures dropped from 68 to six per day.
On the eighth day of treatment, he only had three.
NUSSENBAUM: It worked and it worked fast.
But the other thing about him improving was that
I saw this child that I hadn't seen since
he was four years old and started having seizures,
except now he was 11
and he was clever and funny
and wanted to ride a zip line over London.
NARRATOR: Sam is now seizure-free.
His story led to clinical trials,
and in 2018, FDA approval
of the first CBD drug, called Epidiolex.
In certain types of epilepsy,
it can reduce seizures by some 40%.
Sam is now in college.
But since seizures cause brain damage...
Is that a seizure?
NARRATOR: ...for Ben, help came too late.
Okay, okay, hey.
I have no idea whether Epidiolex
given at six months would have changed
the course of his disease.
I feel like it has reduced the severity
of the most severe kinds of seizures he has,
so I feel like it helps.
But Epidiolex is not a miracle drug.
It's a tool in the toolbox,
just like every other anti-seizure drug.
You try it, if it doesn't work, you stop it.
If it works, then, you know, it changes your life.
One of the things that's like super important
about a drug like Epidiolex
is that for the first time, you've got a drug
that's derived from cannabis that is completely legitimate
for mainstream medicine to study.
And we're only beginning to see where that can lead.
Scores of clinical trials are now underway,
including at U.C. San Diego's Center
for Medicinal Cannabis Research.
Look at each dot until it explodes.
NARRATOR: 14-year-old Braylon has severe autism.
RESEARCHER: Okay, look with your eyes, look right here.
NARRATOR: His parents are hoping CBD might help.
DORIS TRAUNER: Braylon is a very sweet boy
who has a great personality.
He gets extremely anxious if he doesn't know
what's going to happen.
And if something happens that he didn't expect,
he can be very difficult to manage.
I'll just go home.
KEVIN PULLEY: I want you to get up, please.
Uh-uh. No, thank you.
KEVIN PULLEY: We wanted to see
what can be done
to try to curb that behavior.
He was hitting, being kind of violent.
LETITIA PULLEY: And I'd never forget one therapist
told me you want to get a handle on it because
it affects his learning.
If you can't control the behavior,
it's going to be hard for him to focus in class.
NARRATOR: Children who have autism
have different brainwave patterns
than children who don't.
TRAUNER: There is something different about the way
the brain develops that causes children to have
tremendous difficulty with social interactions,
with social communication.
And it appears that one of the problems
may be a type of sensory overload.
RESEARCHER: There you go, yeah.
Touch my finger and then touch your nose.
NARRATOR: To find out if Epidiolex might treat severe autism,
Trauner is running a double-blind clinical trial.
Keep them out, and close your eyes.
NARRATOR: Over two eight-week sessions,
children will take either CBD or a placebo,
and researchers will use a battery of tests
to see if the drug helps.
NARRATOR: To study CBD's impact on the brain,
in another part of the trial,
Alysson Muotri will work with human skin cells.
That's because skin cells can be converted back
into master builder cells,
and then coaxed to develop as brain cells do,
forming networks of neurons.
ALYSSON MUOTRI: These brain cells,
they will actually self-arrange and form
what we call a brain organoid.
And as they mature over time, they start to become
more and more electrically active.
NARRATOR: That activity is captured by electrodes placed
beneath the cluster of brain cells.
When their neurons fire,
they create electrical signaling comparable
to a developing brain.
Next, the brain cells are treated with different
doses of CBD to see if the drug has any impact.
One of the biggest surprise that we see
is that by adding CBD in the culture,
we actually silence or quiet the activity
of these brain cells over time.
This is not permanent.
We can wash it out, CBD, from the system, and we see
that the brain is able to restore electrical activity.
So what are you going to do in the morning?
Wake up. Wake up.
Wash up. Wash up.
NARRATOR: But will CBD calm excess neuronal activity
in the brains of children with autism?
Momma, car. Yes, we're gonna drive...
NARRATOR: The study is still blinded,
but Braylon's parents are certain
CBD helped him in phase one of the trial.
(overlapping indistinct chatter)
KEVIN PULLEY: It was dramatic.
It was like night and day.
So, I could be wrong,
but, you know, I... we both saw the difference.
All right... LETITIA: Focus...
LETITIA PULLEY (voiceover): Having eight weeks
of really no hitting,
no perseveration and things like that was wonderful.
KEVIN PULLEY: And then when we went on the second half of the trial,
he was back to his normal self.
So, I'm hopeful the first round was the CBD.
Here, I need you to take this, take your medicine.
TRAUNER: What we are hearing from the parents is pretty remarkable.
And we don't know whether
they were on placebo or CBD.
But it's really important to get good data
that demonstrates whether CBD
is effective and whether it's safe,
because we're talking about long-term treatment.
NARRATOR: Treatment that uses hundreds of milligrams of Epidiolex.
Not the small amounts of CBD you can buy in a dispensary.
HILL: As little as four percent
and maybe as great as 20%
of the CBD that you consume orally
actually gets into your body.
And so, it seems like you need to take
around about 100 milligrams of CBD oil orally
for there to even really be a signal
in your bloodstream that you have CBD on board.
HURD: Most of the products being sold
are like ten and 20 milligrams.
And some people say that they benefit from that.
And even if it's a placebo effect,
I'm actually fine with it.
But what I'm worried about is that the CBD
that they're taking has other chemicals.
NARRATOR: Generally, only products in legal states
that contain THC,
not CBD, are regulated.
Before they can be sold, they must be tested
in licensed labs for potency and contaminates
like pesticides, molds, and heavy metals.
Using untested cannabis is dangerous.
But when it comes to assessing risk,
a key factor is your age,
because the endocannabinoid system,
which cannabis targets, changes over our lifespan.
PIOMELLI: As we grow from being a fetus
into becoming an adolescent,
eventually an adult and an elderly person,
the endocannabinoid system follows us
and, at each of these stages of our life,
serves a slightly different purpose.
NARRATOR: During adolescence, our natural endocannabinoids
reach their highest levels, as the brain rapidly changes.
It's also a time when many first try cannabis.
PIOMELLI: So when one consumes THC,
you're basically indiscriminately activating
all your cannabinoid receptors in your entire body
and the entire brain.
HURD: So, THC, it's like a hammer
on all of these receptors.
Our natural endogenous cannabinoids
are never these hammers.
NARRATOR: To understand the impact of cannabis,
clinical psychologist Joanna Jacobus
has scanned over 1,000 teenage brains
to search for differences between those
who use the drug and those who don't.
Today, she is evaluating Angel,
who has smoked cannabis at least once a week for the past year
and is curious to learn about its impact.
All I needed to really hear is, like,
"Hey, do you want an MRI of your brain?"
Like that... to me, that's like really cool.
I know it's nerdy, but, like, the substance you're doing,
you don't get to see what it does to your brain.
NARRATOR: Using functional magnetic resonance imaging,
Jacobus can study brain structures
that are critical for healthy development in young adults.
The brain is rapidly changing from infancy through childhood,
adolescence, into young adulthood.
Two types of tissue are rapidly changing
that support cognitive development.
So, gray matter contains the cell bodies
and makes up the cerebral cortex.
So, the outermost lining of the brain.
And white matter allows gray matter regions
to communicate quickly and efficiently.
NARRATOR: During the teenage years,
white matter increases and grey matter diminishes,
as weaker neural connections are eliminated
and new ones formed to make the brain more efficient.
Jacobus has found that teen cannabis users
have a thicker cerebral cortex,
suggesting that this pruning of synapses has been disrupted.
JACOBUS: Now I'm going to read the same list again.
NARRATOR: And it's not just physical brain changes.
I want you to tell me...
NARRATOR: Thousands of cognitive tests reveal that teens
who use cannabis regularly
struggle more on learning and memory tasks
than those who don't.
Bowl, dinner, mug...
It made me realize that memory
is probably the biggest thing
that impacts me with cannabis.
But definitely if I stop for a little bit,
I have a feeling that, like,
it would be easy to remember those things.
NARRATOR: Research shows after a period of abstinence,
cognitive performance can bounce back.
And the brain changes?
Other studies link them to alcohol,
or genetic and environmental influences.
ARPANA AGRAWAL: It is possible that cannabis itself is not the culprit.
That these differences that we see in the brain
are preexisting and that they come before
a child ever picks up their first joint.
Go ahead and release your breath.
NARRATOR: To unravel the role of drugs, genes, and the environment,
over 11,000 children are being tracked
through their teenage years
in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study.
And would you say that's definitely a no, kind of no...
NARRATOR: N.I.H. researchers will evaluate
the children's physical and mental health,
academic achievement, and drug use
with tests of saliva and hair.
So far, few of the children have tried cannabis,
but there is data from surveys
about their parents' use.
One of the things that we are most interested in
was prenatal exposures, and we saw that
there were a fair number of mothers in the study--
just like what we're seeing in the general population--
that used cannabis during their pregnancy.
CYNTHIA ROGERS: And we were able to look and see, among those children
whose moms used cannabis during pregnancy,
did we see any difference in their developmental outcomes?
And one questionnaire that really stood out to us
was the psychosis-like experiences assessment.
And although you couldn't see anything or anyone,
did you suddenly start to feel that
an invisible energy, creature,
or some person was around you?
RESEARCHER: Yeah, okay, and did that bother you?
Uh, no. Not so much.
AGRAWAL: And this data set gave us an opportunity
to roll back the tape
to a period of time in an individual's life
where they're being exposed at a time
when their brain is exquisitely vulnerable.
Did you start to worry at times that your mind
was trying to trick you or wasn't working right?
Uh, yeah. Okay.
RYAN BOGDAN: So, among kids who were exposed to cannabis
following their mother's knowledge of their pregnancy,
they experienced more psychotic-like experiences,
they experienced more depression and anxiety-like behavior,
they're breaking more rules,
they have more attentional thought problems.
NARRATOR: Psychotic-like experiences are also associated with
an increased risk for mental illnesses
like schizophrenia and depression.
ROGERS: We know that the use of cannabis
during pregnancy is increasing.
We've seen advertisements online,
social media, targeting women saying
this is something that's safe for you to use
during pregnancy for things like nausea or insomnia.
And these women are not trying to harm their babies,
they're just trying to get through
what can be a challenging time.
As you know, we're interested in looking at...
NARRATOR: Rogers and Agrawal are now scanning 250 babies
to see if brains exposed to cannabis during pregnancy
are different from brains that were not.
ROGERS: THC crosses the placenta.
So, we know the baby's brain is exposed to it.
We also know that the receptors in the brain
that THC binds to
develop very early during pregnancy.
The endocannabinoid system is critical for hard wiring
of the brain during development.
So, if cannabis comes on board
while the endocannabinoid system is regulating
neural circuits that are laid down,
how the cells communicate as they're being developed,
obviously, it can have an impact on that.
And that is the thing that
is critical for people to understand,
cannabis is not a benign drug.
NARRATOR: While scientists worry about the risks,
most agree that far greater harm
has come from criminalizing cannabis,
starting in 1937.
The treasury department intends to pursue
the despicable, dope-pedaling vulture...
NARRATOR: Harry Anslinger, head of the Bureau of Narcotics,
stoked racism towards Mexican immigrants
by demonizing their word for cannabis, marijuana,
and claiming "the evil weed" corrupted users.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: Debauchery, violence,
If you look at the way
that they talked about marijuana,
part of the strategy was to make cannabis
something that wasn't acceptable, make it foreign,
and create the hysteria to put laws in place
that control a group of people that were not white
and push forward a narrative
that the government is keeping us safe.
NARRATOR: In the 1970s, Richard Nixon ignored an expert panel
and declared a "war on drugs."
Soon drugs would become the key reason
for being arrested in the U.S.
Do you mind if we search the car?
NARRATOR: Since 2000, over 14 million people have been arrested,
and some 40,000 Americans are now behind bars
for cannabis-- mainly for possession charges.
FREDERIQUE: Someone gets arrested for cannabis every 58 seconds.
In a country where we are now legalizing cannabis,
people are talking about its medical use,
in the midst of COVID-19, it is an essential service,
cannabis is one of the driving forces
fueling mass incarceration in this country
and it is disproportionately targeting poor people
and communities of color.
In every single state in the United States,
whether cannabis is legal or not,
Black people are arrested
for cannabis-related offenses more than white people.
FREDERIQUE: Despite the fact that all government data shows
that usage is equal across races.
NARRATOR: Although many Americans believe the war on cannabis is over,
for Black people especially,
like Sean and Eboni Worsley,
it's a war that's still going on.
To manage his post-traumatic stress,
Sean had gotten a medical cannabis card in Arizona.
But as he and Eboni began a cross-country trip
to see family, they would drive through states
where cannabis is illegal
and racial profiling common.
EBONI WORSLEY: We needed gas.
We have no idea, especially in a place
you are not familiar with,
when is the next place you're gonna be able to stop for gas?
SEAN WORSLEY: I get out of the car.
As I'm walking away,
a vehicle pulls in front of my wife's car
and it is a police vehicle.
EBONI WORSLEY: And all of a sudden,
I am approached by an officer.
It startled me, when I looked up and he's like, you know,
"Where are you heading?" and I'm like,
"We're heading to North Carolina."
And then he began speaking to my husband,
who is outside of the vehicle.
SEAN WORSLEY: He asked me about any weed
being in the vehicle and I just was honest
and I told him, "Sir, you know, I am a medical
"cannabis patient from Arizona and I do have my cannabis,
but it's zipped up and it's in the trunk."
At that point, he puts me in handcuffs
and proceeds to search the vehicle.
I give him my IDs,
and he said, "Hmm, well you won't need these
where you're going."
NARRATOR: The officer found a third of an ounce of medical cannabis.
LEAH NELSON: He charged them as severely as he could
with possession for other than personal use,
and that was because Sean had with him a grinder
and he had rolling papers,
and he had a scale.
All of those things were recommended by his doctor.
If you smoke marijuana medically,
it's not uncommon for a doctor to tell you to use a scale
so you know how much you are smoking.
NARRATOR: Eboni and Sean spent six days
in jail before getting a hearing.
At the Pickens County Courthouse,
they were charged with multiple felonies.
After struggling to pay a bondsman
and impound fees for the car,
the couple returned to Arizona.
EBONI WORSLEY: The fines and the fees became astronomical.
By the time we made it back to Arizona,
we literally couldn't afford to pay our rent or bills,
and we ended up evicted.
We were homeless.
NARRATOR: Under stress, Sean had a stroke.
Eventually, Eboni's charges were dropped,
but due to prior minor convictions,
Sean was sentenced to five years and put on probation.
NELSON: Probation requires a stable address,
it requires you to pay money,
and one of the conditions of Sean's probation
is that he needed to get drug treatment.
And the V.A. looks at him and says,
"You have a medical marijuana card, man,
"We're not going to treat you.
You don't qualify because you don't have a drug problem."
SEAN WORSLEY: Probation and parole,
they're just traps to send you right back,
to keep you in their grasp.
You want to lock me up for not having a job,
you want to lock me up for not having a place to stay.
How am I supposed to get these things
if I can't get a job because you have me labeled as a felon?
NARRATOR: In March 2020, Sean was extradited to Alabama
to serve the remainder of his sentence behind bars.
CUNNINGHAM: I see the harms of the war on drugs
every single day in all of my patients' lives.
It is so clear.
There's not a single family that I know
that doesn't have some member
who's been arrested or incarcerated.
And what I see is that
what happens in society, the arrests,
the incarceration, the poverty,
dramatically affects people's health,
their lives, their quality of life.
NARRATOR: As criminalization destroys lives,
at the same time,
the cannabis wellness industry is thriving.
One entrepreneur is Eugene Monroe,
a former football player who believes cannabis
can help address chronic pain.
EUGENE MONROE: Playing in the NFL was a lifelong dream.
I love the sport.
That explosive power...
to propel my body
and essentially flatten people. (players grunting)
Each time that happens, each time your brain
rattles in your skull,
you pay a price.
The job creates a need for pain relief inherently,
so I was given a lot of opioid drugs,
which would let you go into a game
with acute injuries and perform because you don't feel bad.
I was taking my oxycodone just as prescribed,
and saw my daughter walking down the hallway
and didn't recognize her.
And I realized that they were causing a serious issue,
and I stopped taking them.
And that's the point where I decided that
cannabis is a better option.
Cannabis didn't just allow me to cut back on opioids,
it allowed me to eliminate all pharmaceutical drugs.
It hasn't cured my injuries,
but what it did for me was
alleviate my pain, so I felt motivated to go
in the gym and work out and take care of my body.
CUNNINGHAM: We know that cannabis leads to less pain
and it alters people's ability to tolerate the pain.
It affects the immune system
and reduces inflammation.
It's certainly safer than other medications
that we've been using for decades.
NARRATOR: Monroe is now a partner and consultant
for one of the nation's largest cannabis companies.
Yet, while many praise the benefits of cannabis,
some scientists warn there are risks,
especially for those who use it daily.
About nine percent of users will develop
a cannabis addiction.
One is Paul.
DEBASSIO: I was in my junior year of high school
and it was a 400 freestyle relay.
The last leg of the race,
always you go just as hard as humanly possible.
And as I came up from the flip turn and I snapped my head up,
I just felt this twinge just right
in between my shoulder blades, and it just killed me.
But it wasn't until I went into college that
it became a recurring detrimental thing.
And I started using cannabis to alleviate
a lot of the pain and to help me sleep at night,
because I could never get a full night's rest.
NARRATOR: Cannabis seemed to cure Paul's insomnia.
DEBASSIO: I loved how calming it was.
I'd have the best night of sleep that I've ever had in my life.
And I said, "This is amazing."
NORA VOLKOW: It would be fantastic if we have a drug
that could actually calm you when you need it,
that makes you feel groovy, more social,
and there's no negative consequences.
It would be extraordinary, but that's not the case.
Biology basically adapts to stimuli that you give.
NARRATOR: Cannabis is less addictive
and safer than tobacco, heroin,
cocaine, and alcohol,
which kill hundreds of thousands each year.
But, you can take too much.
We're seeing an increase in the number of people
that end up in emergency departments
with a full-blown psychosis
because of the high content THC.
Dependence can impair memory, mood, and motivation.
Paul didn't know he had a problem
until he needed a drug test for a job.
DEBASSIO: And so I quit cold turkey,
and almost immediately
I noticed a big change in my mood.
They get irritable, they get aggressive,
and they can feel depressed.
DEBASSIO: There were stretches of weeks that I slept
for maybe two to three hours a night, every night.
And that was all I could get.
DEEPAK CYRIL D'SOUZA: We looked at sleep architecture and what we found
was that when people quit using marijuana,
slow wave sleep,
which is the kind of sleep that makes you feel rested
the next morning, was significantly disrupted.
Okay, hi, Paul, how are you?
NARRATOR: In a new clinical trial,
Deepak D'Souza hopes to harness the endocannabinoid system
to prevent cannabis withdrawal.
I need to observe you take the medication.
So let's just go through that.
NARRATOR: When the brain is repeatedly flooded with THC,
it reduces the number of cannabinoid receptors.
Once a person is dependent on cannabis,
abruptly quitting triggers withdrawal.
To replace THC,
D'Souza is testing a drug that increases our own
cannabis-like molecule, anandamide.
There was a two-week period where I was taking
either the placebo or the study medication
and still smoking at the same time.
And then I had to quit cold turkey.
And the day that I quit,
I thought that there was no way I was going to sleep that night.
I had no issues.
It was very, very easy.
I'll never forget that first night
that I was able to sleep after, after not smoking.
I, I woke up the next day in absolute shock and awe.
Paul doesn't know if he got the study drug.
But an earlier trial showed that it helped people quit.
And PET scans reveal that after cannabis is stopped,
the brain's own cannabinoid receptors come back.
HURD: Our endocannabinoid system is really powerful.
And that's why we shouldn't really
play with it that much.
A drug may be fine for one person,
but it isn't for everyone.
When you take it during development matters.
We need to really understand what these drugs do
to the brain, even if they will, and I do believe
have some medicinal benefits.
NARRATOR: So what does the future hold for cannabis as a medicine?
Moving on to the sky walker OG.
NARRATOR: To find out, Staci Gruber is following adults
who buy cannabis from dispensaries
to treat a range of ailments.
This is fantastic for the afternoon.
Chronic pain is the number one condition.
Anxiety is probably number two.
PTSD, difficulties with sleep.
And we have patients who come to us and say,
"You know, I use these types of products for this problem."
And then we go, "Hmm, we should look at that."
How's the anxiety?
In all honesty, how is it?
Things are going really good...
NARRATOR: Gruber's study has yet to be peer reviewed,
but two years of clinical and psychological tests
show patients improving.
Wow, so that's a decided change.
Reduced symptoms of pain,
reduced anxiety, improved sleep,
and improvements across the board
on a number of different cognitive tasks
that require executive function.
The question is why?
It may very well be that the restorative sleep
that people are starting to get once they find something
that works for them is the key to the improvement.
I think this was the most important document.
NARRATOR: Back in Alabama,
Leah Nelson is working with Eboni Worsley
to get her husband Sean paroled.
NELSON: Alabama's war on cannabis has failed.
People like Sean, and particularly Black men,
are paying this horrific price
for doing something that is already legal
in states where half of Americans live.
NARRATOR: In November 2020,
Sean was released from prison and placed on parole.
It's time to go.
SEAN WORSLEY (voiceover): It was scary being inside.
It rocked me to the core.
It was probably one of the most
difficult things I've had to do.
I would pick going back to war
before going back to prison.
EBONI WORSLEY: It set us back so far.
It's supposed to help rehabilitate individuals.
Instead, it's putting us in positions where we need
so much more mental help.
We need much more financial help,
we need so much more than we needed before.
FREDERIQUE: It is past time for us to end the war on drugs.
We need to legalize cannabis.
We need to be pumping money into research
to actually learn more about this substance.
This moment is about building new responses
to drugs that are based in science
and that are based in the rights of people.
NARRATOR: There are still many questions to answer.
Should cannabis be marketed as candy?
Should the THC potency of products have limits?
From reducing harms, to expunging convictions
and ensuring equity,
getting legalization right
is as complicated as the plant itself.
GRUBER: Cannabis is not one thing.
Our recreational consumers have a different goal
for using cannabis than our medical patients.
Our medical patients say,
"I'm not looking necessarily to change how I feel.
I just want to address this set of symptoms."
But we have frighteningly little data
on the long-term effects of medical cannabis use.
The plant is comprised of over 400 compounds-- 400.
If people turn to it, we should know the answers.
ALOK PATEL: Discover the science behind the news
with the "NOVA Now" podcast.
Listen at pbs.org/novanowpodcast
or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.
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