Sanjay Gupta: What the Next Surgeon General Doesn’t Know About Pot

By Russ Belville, NORML. Posted January 8, 2009.

The next surgeon general needs to stop putting politics before science. Gupta may not be ready for that.

If Dr. Sanjay Gupta is picked for the post of surgeon general, he would become the nation’s leading medical advocate. His experience in the media would be beneficial in bringing the Surgeon General’s office back to the prominence it held when C. Everett Koop was successfully battling tobacco smoking.

But is Gupta ready to deliver the Obama administration’s promised end to the politicization of science and medicine? More specifically, will Gupta toe the federal line that cannabis is lacking in any medical value, or will he recognize what 13 states and the past 12 years of research prove — that cannabis is a beneficial medicine for some people and an intoxicant far less harmful than alcohol for others?

In 2002, Gupta was more than willing to echo the outrageous claims that smoking pot would lead to psychosis, depression and schizophrenia:

But the three studies you are talking about talk specifically about schizophrenia and depression, and the fact that marijuana use earlier in life actually may lead to an increased — 30 percent increase — in schizophrenia later in life.

Depression, also a very big diagnosis — roughly 18.8 million in this country have it. Again, they looked this time at 1,600 high school students and followed them over about seven years. This is in Australia, not in the United States. But they actually found that all of these boys and girls, particularly girls, were more vulnerable to the symptoms of depression later on in life, again if they were frequent or even daily marijuana users.

I hope that the next surgeon general has been following the research on cannabis and mental health since 2002. This year, Dr. Mikkel Arendt of Aarhus University in Risskov, Denmark, said that people treated for a so-called cannabis-induced psychosis “…would have developed schizophrenia whether or not they used cannabis.”

I hope that Gupta has kept up with the journal Schizophrenia Research and the research published there last year by the London’s Institute of Psychiatry, which found no statistically significant “differences in symptomatology between schizophrenic patients who were or were not cannabis users,” found no “evidence that cannabis users with schizophrenia were more likely to have a family member with the disorder” and that these findings “argue against a distinct schizophrenic-like psychosis caused by cannabis,” authors concluded.

Regarding depression, in 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore found “that the associations observed between marijuana use and subsequent depression status may be attributable not to continued marijuana use, per se, but to third (common) factors associated with both the decision to use marijuana and to depression.”  In fact, the year prior, researchers at USC had found among cannabis smokers, “those who used once per week or less had less depressed mood, more positive affect and fewer somatic (physical) complaints than non-users,” and that “[d]aily users [also] reported less depressed mood and more positive affect than non-users.”

Or we could just ask the incoming surgeon general to apply some common sense.  If smoking cannabis is a strong predictor of future depression or schizophrenia, then shouldn’t there be a spike in the reporting of those conditions around 1978, when 37 percent of high school seniors reported past-month cannabis use, and a decline in depression and schizophrenia around 1992, when the modern low of 12 percent was reported? Instead, what we find is that about 1 percent of the population develops schizophrenia, and that figure stays relatively steady even as cannabis use rises and falls.

In 2006, Gupta was penning the article “Why I Would Vote No on Pot” for Timemagazine as Colorado and Nevada had non-medical-cannabis-regulation ballot measures pending. It doesn’t seem like he’s been following the past two decades of research:

I’m constantly amazed that after all these years — and all the wars on drugs and all the public-service announcements — nearly 15 million Americans still use marijuana at least once a month.