Most medical cannabis advocates can name one key moment in their life when they knew they had to come out of the closet and campaign for regulated, legal access to the cannabis plant.
For me, it was when a friend’s mother was prescribed cannabis oil in the final months of her life, allowing her to pass away free of pain and with dignity. For others, it was when the plant had helped ease their own debilitating health condition.
But there are a clutch of extraordinary individuals who, when confronted with real evidence about the cannabis plant’s therapeutic potential, have done a 180 degree turn, transforming themselves from herb hater to cannabis campaigner, changing careers, moving state, and even risking their professional reputation.
1. The Doctor
Dr Sanjay Gupta, practicing neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, is perhaps the most high profile cannabis critic to come out in favour of the plant.
Gupta for many years had been against cannabis, even writing an article for Time Magazine entitled “Why I would Vote No on Pot.”
In a subsequent article on CNN he explains, “I had steadily reviewed the scientific literature on medical marijuana from the United States and thought it was fairly unimpressive. Reading these papers five years ago, it was hard to make a case for medicinal marijuana.”
And then comes his astounding revelation when he says, “Well, I am here to apologize.”
So what happened in the meantime?
Well, Dr Gupta had embarked on a now infamous documentary called ‘Weed’ that would change his life and the lives of many others. In it he met the likes of Charlotte Figi, the little girl with the rare epileptic condition, Dravet Syndrome, who suffered up to 300 seizures a day. After taking a high strength CBD oil, Charlotte’s seizures reduced to almost zero. Calling into question Dr Gupta’s previously held belief that cannabis had no therapeutic use.
“We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that,” says Gupta.
“I apologize because I didn’t look hard enough, until now. I didn’t look far enough. I didn’t review papers from smaller labs in other countries doing some remarkable research, and I was too dismissive of the loud chorus of legitimate patients whose symptoms improved on cannabis.”
By publicly lending his support to medical cannabis, Dr Gupta was potentially risking his own professional reputation. But confronted with the overwhelming evidence found throughout the course of the documentary, he knew this anti-cannabis stance was no longer tenable. Now Dr Gupta is perhaps one of the most well known cannabis advocates in the medical profession, and there is even a strain of marijuana named in his honour.
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2. The DEA Agent
Patrick Moen made headlines in 2013 when he became the first Drugs Enforcement Agency official to leave the organisation to join the cannabis industry. He’d spent 10 years leading a team in Portland investigating methamphetamine and heroin traffickers.
So how did he go from the DEA to Managing Director of marijuana industry private equity company, Privateer Holdings?
In an interview with The Cannabist he says:
“Joining Privateer Holdings was an incredible opportunity for me to help bring professionalism to an exciting new industry in a very complex regulatory environment.” He goes on, “my personal belief is that prohibition is a failed policy, and that a professional and well-regulated cannabis industry is the most effective mechanism to hasten the end of that failed policy.”
In the DEA Moen had been mostly unaware of the medicinal use of the cannabis plant, saying, “it was my first exposure to medical cannabis, and I got to see firsthand that it was not the evil that it has always been made out to be.”
Since Moen jumped ship, there have been several other high profile cases of DEA officers joining the cannabis industry, such as Paul Schmidt a former high ranking DEA agent in Oregon who is now a medical marijuana business consultant.
3. The DEA Spokesperson
It’s not just DEA agents who have undergone some sort of ‘road to damascus’ moment, coming out in favour of medical cannabis. Belita Nelson, DEA spokesperson from 1994-2008, couldn’t have moved further away from the official position she peddled on programmes such as The Oprah Winfrey Show during her time with the Drugs Enforcement Agency.
Now a medical cannabis advocate focussing on the treatment of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in professional football players, she describes how right from that start she knew that the DEA position was a lie.
“Marijuana is safe, we know it is safe. It’s our cash cow and we will never give up,” she claims she was told on entering the agency by education coordinator, Paul Villaescusa back in 1998.
Nelson continued towing the official DEA line until in 2004 she began investigating a heroin epidemic in Plano Texas. She discovered that addicts using cannabis experienced higher success rates of coming off opiates, and with that information she felt compelled to resign.
Unfortunately for the DEA, Nelson hadn’t signed a confidentiality agreement and has been free to share her experiences and knowledge ever since.
4. The Judge
Doug Bench, a retired Judge in Florida, was responsible for sending 311 marijuana users to jail during his legal career. But then in a twist of fate, Benson himself became struck down with the debilitating lung disease, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and on his wife’s insistence, began taking cannabis oil.
In a statement made to the Florida Department of Health Public Workshops on Medical Marijuana Implementation, he made the following impassioned testimony.
“I’ve been haunted for thirty years wondering how many of those were using it for medicinal reasons, because our government suppressed that information for 70 years. I am now an advocate for medical marijuana because two years ago I was diagnosed with a terminal disease, that my blessed wife did four hours of research on the internet and discovered the benefits of cannabis oil for COPD. It was a tough decision because I hated marijuana, I hated the use of marijuana and the violation of law. But I had no choice if I wanted to live. I had to violate Florida law.”
5. The Millionaire Businessman
Barry Lambert, one of the most successful and richest businessmen in Australia, had never smoked a joint in his life. More than being against cannabis per se, it just wasn’t on his radar. That was until his desperately ill granddaughter Katelyn began to run out of treatment options.
Katelyn aged 5, also has Dravet Syndrome which saw her suffering up to 1400 seizures a day. Her future looked bleak as she was resistant to conventional treatment. While researching on the internet, Katelyn’s father came across the numerous anecdotal accounts of children whose seizures had been dramatically reduced after taking CBD. After placing an order online, they were delighted to find that Katelyn also responded to the CBD extract.
Millionaire granddad, Barry was so moved by Katelyn’s improvement that he decided to donate $33.7 million (Aus) to Sydney University to fund vital research into medical cannabis.
Barry told Endoca: “We only came across it because of our granddaughter. We never smoked the stuff. We wouldn’t be doing this if we hadn’t stumbled across it because it’s not mainstream.”
But now Barry is the cannabis plant’s biggest fan. “I think the cannabis plant will be proven to be the wonder plant of this century, I know it’s been around for previous centuries, but I think scientists will discover what a wonderful plant it is, and it will be a great benefit to mankind.”
6. The Political Lobbyist
Cindy Sovine-Miller, 37 from Colorado is a political lobbyist and lifelong republican. For 15 years she’d lobbied the interests of health companies and big business.
In her career Cindy had steered clear of the marijuana industry. That was until her father became seriously ill with cancer. Despite several round of chemo, his conditioned worsened, and out of desperation Cindy’s mother decided to try medical cannabis.
But Sovine-Miller herself was against the decision. In an interview with Westword she describes how she remembers telling her mother; “There is no evidence. You should leave it to the doctors, to the people who know what they’re doing.”
But as the size of the tumour noticeably shrunk on her father’s face, Cindy’s position began to soften. Sadly her father died in 2015, but his death was peaceful, something she attributes to taking medical cannabis.
From then on there was no going back for Cindy. She says, “I saw my dad go from being a vegetable in a hospital waiting to die to being at home again, thanks to a plant.” She goes on, “I had spent my career helping to build a system that was failing people. I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this. I worked for the wrong people.’”
After cutting ties with her clients, she began lobbying for medical cannabis patients whose interests needed representing on Capitol Hill, including Stacy Linn whose son Jack had cerebral palsy and used cannabis to manage it.
Using her lobbying contacts Cindy helped Linn get a bill passed that would ensure schools enforced ‘Jack’s Amendment,’ allowing children to take their medical cannabis medication while at school.
“Here is that moment to redeem yourself for when you were a jerk to your mother when she put your dad on cannabis,” Cindy remembers thinking.
She continues to represent interests of medical cannabis patients to this date.
7. The Mother
A year ago Vera Twomey was just an ordinary Irish mother of four children. It just so happened that one of her daughters had Dravet Syndrome, the same condition as Charlotte Figi. Like Charlotte, 7-year-old Ava didn’t respond to conventional medicine, and had been effectively told by her doctors to go home to die.
Like any parent of the 21st century, Vera and her husband Paul took to the internet, where they read about the seemingly miraculous effects of CBD on children with Dravet Syndrome.
Neither Vera or her husband had consumed cannabis before themselves, but with no more treatment options available, they decided to try what seemed like their one remaining hope.
“I was completely terrified, of course,” says Vera. “Even though I’d researched medical cannabis for the last 4 years. This is my little girl”.
Thankfully Ava responded positively to the high strength CBD oil.
“She was standing up straighter,” recalls Vera, “she was making more eye contact and the next thing in a family joke, Ava’s giggling just like the other kids. She had never laughed like that before.”
But a reduction of 80% wasn’t enough for Vera, as she believed that with the addition of a small amount of THC, Ava’s seizures could reduce even further. So, she began a tireless campaign to draw attention to Ava’s story both nationally and internationally.
Over the last few months she has walked the 200 kilometers from her home in south west Ireland to the capital, Dublin, camped outside the Irish Parliament, spoken in the European Union both on Ava’s behalf and also for the thousands of Irish citizens who believe their condition would benefit from medical cannabis.
Vera still continues with her battle to give Ava the medical cannabis she believes she needs.
8. The Scientist
Donald Tashkin is an old school scientist. As a pulmonologist he was involved with many studies funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse to prove that consuming cannabis is bad for the lungs.
However, in 2013 he published a scientific paper stating that smoking cannabis, even on a long term basis does not cause cancer, going against the many findings he’d published over the years stating that smoking marijuana damages bronchial tissue.
The paper was presented at the International Cannabinoid Research Society. In a question and answer session Tashkin was asked whether there might even be a possible a negative correlation between cannabis use and lung disease i.e. that smoking cannabis might even have a protective effect.
“Yes,” Tashkin replied. “The odds ratios are less than one almost consistently, and in one category that relationship was significant, but I think that it would be difficult to extract from these data the conclusion that marijuana is protective against lung cancer. But that is not an unreasonable hypothesis.”
While Tashkin’s cautiously expressed findings haven’t converted him into a pro-pot activist, they do represent one of the most significant turnarounds in the scientific community to date. One cannot underestimate the importance of a leading scientist publishing a paper that contradicts his earlier work, particularly in a field as controversial as cannabis.
So there we have it. Time and time again, the combination of scientific fact and firsthand experience has shone a light upon the veil of mistruth that has hung over the cannabis plant for the last 70 years.
It’s only right and fair then that we salute these brave individuals, and the many more who champion the right to access the cannabis plant for our health, and the health of our children.