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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Weed 4: Pot Versus Pills. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired April 29, 2018 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[20:00:06] ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special Report.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to work with the people who are so addicted and we're going to try like hell to get them off that addiction.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A national epidemic. Trump campaigned to end it. As president, he promised to fix it.
TRUMP: The scourge of drug addiction in America will stop. It will stop.
GUPTA: But one year later it hasn't stopped. People are still dying. 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. More than car accidents, breast cancer, or guns.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Literally everyone we know knows somebody who has died of an overdose.
GUPTA: And 2.5 million Americans are currently struggling with opioid addiction.
KYLE TURLEY, FORMER NFL LINEMAN: It's completely hopeless where I just was like suicide at all cost and thought.
JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: People need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out.
GUPTA: A solution some believe is this. Cannabis. It's controversial to many.
(On camera): Is cannabis a gateway drug?
(Voice-over): But a gateway to recovery for others.
(On camera): Did it help you get out off of the opiates?
MIKE JAMES, NFL PLAYER: Absolutely.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Cannabis has given me a reason to live.
GUPTA (voice-over): Join us as we investigate, search for answers and meet potential pioneers and outspoken critics, whether you struggle with opioids or know one of the millions who do, decide for yourself.
I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is WEED 4: POT VERSUS PILLS.
November 13th, 2013.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Second and goal.
GUPTA: Monday Night Football.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: James to the goal line.
M. JAMES: Ah, man. That is -- that day changed my life. You know?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They have lost Mike James.
GUPTA: Mike James was starting in the NFL. A childhood dream finally coming true. A dream born years ago in a small town in central Florida by a young boy and his single mom.
M. JAMES: My mom was a huge football fan.
GUPTA (on camera): I heard. I heard.
M. JAMES: Huge, huge, huge.
GUPTA: She used to chase you down the sidelines.
M. JAMES: Oh yes. Huge. And I got into football through her. I mean, she put me in it. She knew I needed something to do with that energy I had.
GUPTA (voice-over): And something to keep him out of the trouble got Mike says landed his absent father in and out of prison. That trouble was drugs.
M. JAMES: Drugs tore my family. You know? So I wanted to just play football, go to school, stay in my books, not get in any trouble.
GUPTA: By senior year, he was one of the nation's top high school running backs, offered a full scholarship to the University of Miami, a known launching pad to the NFL.
M. JAMES: My mom, she was crazy excited. I mean, it was everything that I ever hoped for. It was everything I wanted, you know?
GUPTA: And then, overnight Mike lost his biggest fan. His mom. Died in a car accident during the holidays of his sophomore year. Mike's wife Aubrey first met him not long after that accident.
AUBREY JAMES, MIKE'S WIFE: For him to be all right and mentally deal with this he was going to lean on football.
GUPTA: The funeral was New Year's Eve 2010.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here's the pass. Left side. Michael James.
GUPTA: The same day as one of Mike's biggest collegiate games, the Sun Bowl. An excruciating decision. M. JAMES: I was going to do the thing that made both of us happy.
Play ball. You know?
GUPTA (on camera): She would have wanted you to be at that game.
M. JAMES: Yes. My mom -- I know my mom. You know?
GUPTA (voice-over): Driven by grief, Mike became relentless. Pursuing that boyhood dream of playing professional football. He was drafted in 2013 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Second and goal.
GUPTA: And that takes us back to Monday Night Football.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: James on the carry.
GUPTA: Two yards from the goal line, Mike went in for a touchdown.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He comes right down on that left ankle.
M. JAMES: The pain I was feeling was excruciating.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's in some pain.
[20:05:03] GUPTA: Aubrey raced down to be with her husband.
A. JAMES: He just was very calm and he was like, yes, I broke my ankle. And immediately I just burst into tears.
GUPTA: Mike needed surgery, wires, screws and a rod were put in to repair the break.
A. JAMES: He was in so much pain he told me that he wanted to just cut his leg off.
GUPTA: And like so many post-surgical patients, Mike was given a cocktail of opiates to take home.
(On camera): Did you worry about these opiate pills yourself given what you'd seen with your own dad?
M. JAMES: No. Why? Because I was getting them from a doctor. You know? So I was like, I'm not getting this off the street. Must be cool for me to take it. You know?
GUPTA: Doctor gives it to you, it must be OK?
M. JAMES: Yes.
GUPTA (voice-over): Aubrey was worried, though. And tried to control how many he took. But Mike couldn't seem to get enough. At one point, taking nearly two dozen painkillers a day.
A. JAMES: I'm like you can't be taking all these pills. You know, you have to slow down. M. JAMES: I didn't want to stop. I didn't feel the need to. And I
didn't see the harm in it.
GUPTA: And that's something we've heard over and over as we've reported on opioids. I don't want to stop. I can't stop. Truth is, in the beginning the opioids work well, really well for certain kinds of pain. But as you're on them longer and longer, they become less and less effective. The result? You take more and more. And that's when they become dangerous.
Opioids unlike just about any other drug can turn off your body's natural instinct to breathe. Take too many, fall asleep and never wake up. And studies show opioid dependence happens fast. Within weeks, Mike James had joined the millions of Americans dependent on opioids putting himself at risk of dying every day and making him feel awful along the way. Nauseated, constipated, still in pain.
M. JAMES: I became immune to painkillers, like I still had pain, and now I'm sedated with pain.
A. JAMES: Our son was very young at that point. I'm trying to take care of Mike, take care of the small baby.
M. JAMES: I mean, I couldn't be around my kids sedated like that. I didn't want to be around anybody.
GUPTA: It was a scenario that started to look frighteningly familiar.
M. JAMES: The notion that I would do what my father did to me to my boys, I knew I had to make a change. You know?
GUPTA: And that change came from the most unlikely place.
M. JAMES: I thought, weed? No. Now that's street drug. Not even wanting to hear of what it had to offer.
A. JAMES: He's always been very anti-marijuana. I thought this is going to be a stretch.
GUPTA: But with their lives falling apart, Aubrey made one final plea asking Mike to try pot instead of pills. Mike finally tried it in February 2014.
M. JAMES: My pain subsided. I never had something where I can be coherent and still have pain relief.
GUPTA: Mike was once again himself. Clear of mind. And nearly pain free. But there was a problem. Cannabis is banned in the NFL. Using it can get you fined, suspended, even fired. A risk Mike wasn't willing to take.
TURLEY: If we get that stance right --
GUPTA: A risk former NFL lineman Kyle Turley understands. He was offered cannabis early in his career. TURLEY: This guy saw me and said, Kyle, you need to try this. And I
said, no way. I'm not going to risk my career and get positive on a drug test. I want to be in the hall of fame. When I'm done with this game, maybe I will. I'll try it.
GUPTA: And he did. As soon as he retired. Now every morning Kyle begins his day with a cup of coffee and a few hits of something he calls a necessary medicine. Marijuana. It's replaced all those pills he used to take.
TURLEY: Since '96 when I blew my knee out, you know, it was a painkiller, muscle relaxer, sleep aid, and anti-inflammatory. Those four are staples in an athlete's regimen of medicine.
GUPTA (on camera): It's the opiate. It's the painkiller that I think people are really coming to terms with.
TURLEY: Yes. Because it's very easy for those to go from one to two to three.
GUPTA (voice-over): To more than a dozen a day. It became a near deadly addiction.
[20:10:01] TURLEY: I was completely hopeless. These side effects are very real. Suicide is a constant thought. I'm raging on my family. All these things.
GUPTA: And raging on the football field.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And now Turley throws the helmet.
TURLEY: Everybody talks about marijuana as this gateway drug and reality is this was my gateway to drugs.
GUPTA (on camera): Football was?
GUPTA (voice-over): In many ways, football players are the perfect population to see just how bad this opioid crisis really is. One study shows former players abuse opioids four times more than the general population. It's a tough, brutal game after all. Constant pounding. Hard hits. Lots of pain. Kyle Turley, Mike James. They felt they needed the opioids just to be able to do their job.
M. JAMES: Your production is how you get paid. And you can't produce, you know, without playing on the field.
GUPTA: Opioids they were told by doctors were the best way to keep going.
DR. MARK WALLACE, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR PAIN MEDICINE, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA SAN DIEGO: I got into pain medicine at a time when we didn't have very good treatments for pain.
GUPTA: Dr. Mark Wallace is the director of the Center for Pain Medicine at the University of California San Diego. He, like most of us doctors, was taught in medical school to prescribe opioids.
WALLACE: We were told that, well, there's evidence that the use of opiates are probably not that risky and that we should use them more liberally.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They don't wear off.
GUPTA: It was the 1990s and doctors were seeing a lot of commercials like this one.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These drugs which I repeat are our best, strongest pain medications should be used much more than they are for patients in pain.
GUPTA: Problem is, while they were FDA approved for some kinds of pain, they were never intended to be used long term.
DR. NORA VOLKOW, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE: We started to see patients who were prescribed opiates for their pain condition who have never been addicted to anything becoming addicted to those drugs.
GUPTA: Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, believes that was the beginning of our opioid crisis.
(On camera): We knew that there was a danger. We knew that they weren't as effective after a period of time and yet it still happened anyway.
WALLACE: We've started questions whether we should be using opioids. But we didn't have a lot of good alternatives at the time.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Proposition 215 made medical marijuana legal.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Prop 215 allows the sick and dying to use marijuana for medical reason.
WALLACE: When it was legalized, I didn't jump on the bandwagon and say, I'm going to start using it. I was (INAUDIBLE), are we going to make the mistake? Because there's not a lot of evidence with cannabis either at the time.
GUPTA (voice-over): But there was history. Before marijuana was banned in the 1970s, it was used for more than a century as a treatment for many disorders. Including leprosy, epilepsy and pain.
WALLACE: And so you have to consider that. I started looking at medical cannabis as an alternative to opioids.
GUPTA: In 1999, the California state government gave $10 million to Wallace and others to study the plant at the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research in Southern California. Within a decade, there were half a dozen studies to show that cannabis could relieve certain kinds of pain. The results made the cautious doctor more comfortable. He started to use cannabis in his practice as an alternative to opioids. 80 percent of his patients, hundreds of patients, were weaned off of pills using pot.
(On camera): How are you?
MARK SCHECTER, PATIENT: Nice to meet you.
GUPTA: You, too.
(Voice-over): Patients like Mark Schecter (PH).
GUPTA (on camera): You're feeling OK right now?
SCHECTER: Feeling pretty good.
GUPTA (voice-over): Which is amazing when you consider Mark has an extremely painful spinal disorder that left him partially paralyzed 10 years ago.
SCHECTER: The nerve pain was something I never experienced before in my life.
GUPTA: Relentless and chronic, doctors offered opioids. Percocet. Oxycontin. Fentanyl.
(On camera): Roughly 10 tablets, different medications.
SCHECTER: Yes. Yes.
GUPTA: Ten tablets a day.
GUPTA: Every day?
SCHECTER: Every day. I had to balance how well they were working.
GUPTA: Almost 4,000 pills a year.
GUPTA: And 10 years. So 40,000 pills roughly. 40,000 pills. That really didn't do anything for you. Were you addicted to them?
GUPTA (voice-over): That led him to Dr. Mark Wallace who then recommended medical marijuana.
SCHECTER: It was amazing. I had immediate pain relief. Not that it was gone. But it was so tolerable that I was like in heaven.
GUPTA: Almost two years later, Mark is opioid free. And nearly pain free.
[20:15:07] (On camera): On a scale of one to 10? SCHECTER: Two. I mean, it feels just like a little bit of pressure
in my leg instead of burning. It is amazing. It really is.
WALLACE: What type of exercise are you doing?
GUPTA (voice-over): Yet despite Wallace's success in the lab and now in his clinic, most doctors he speaks to still favor opioids over cannabis.
WALLACE: I lecture all over the country on medical cannabis use and I still get some will speak up and saying I'm just not comfortable with this.
GUPTA: Not comfortable with a plant. More comfortable with the traditional medicine they can prescribe. It's the same concern Mike James had after using marijuana that one time.
M. JAMES: This is not regulated. Where am I going to get this from again? And it just -- you know, the pills was much easier to get.
GUPTA: At least that's what he thought. More on that when we come back.
GUPTA: It's growing season at one of Las Vegas' largest medical marijuana dispensaries. Shango.
(On camera): Is this what the grow fields of today look like?
[20:20:02] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are. Indoor. These are a lot larger.
GUPTA (voice-over): Fifty different kinds of cannabis are grown and cultivated here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much.
GUPTA: Kyle Turley is a loyal customer.
TURLEY: Here's Shango. I drive all the way back from Southern California.
GUPTA: That's nearly 500 miles round trip to restock his supply of cannabis every month.
TURLEY: There's a lot to say for cleanliness, purity of product, consistency, all these things that in the marijuana program in California still even is hit and miss. At the end of the day this is my medicine.
GUPTA: And while it may be his medicine, this plant is still not regulated like a traditional medicine. Despite the fact it's now legal to use marijuana medicinally in more than half the United States there is still no standard prescribed dose. After getting a recommendation, not a prescription from a doctor, a patient is pretty much on their own.
(On camera): Whoa. A little different.
GUPTA (voice-over): It's a lot of trial and error.
(On camera): How many strains did you try?
TURLEY: Everything California's had to offer.
GUPTA: Is that right?
GUPTA: And the one that helped him as a substitute for painkillers, a strain high in non-psycho active Cannabidiol, CBD. Remember, cannabis is made up of 400-plus ingredients. The two scientists know the most about are THC which is a psychedelic component of cannabis which makes you feel high and then there's CBD. Cannabidiol. The non-psycho active chemical. We told you about this one for years, especially how it stops chronic epileptic seizures in young children. There is also research showing the CBD is particularly helpful when it comes to pain. In fact, CBD can do something opioids cannot.
DR. JULIE HOLLAND, EDITOR, "THE POT BOOK": With opiates you're talking about killing the pain, masking the pain, you're done.
GUPTA: Dr. Julie Holland edited "The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis."
HOLLAND: With medical cannabis you're actually not just talking about decreasing pain but you're decreasing inflammation.
GUPTA: That's because opioids do a good job of interfering with pain signals going to the brain. But cannabis works on two receptors, one that blocks that pain and one that decreases inflammation. It's ironic that cannabis can do more than opioids yet prescription opioids are legal and cannabis is not.
Historically, that was not the case. For centuries both cannabis and poppy, two plants, the natural forms of marijuana and opioids, were commonly prescribed by doctors and dispensed at pharmacies. But that all changed in the 1930s. Opioids would go on to become a best- selling drug and cannabis became increasingly fringe, in part because one of cannabis called hemp was a threat to big business.
Hemp is a cheap fiber, good for making paper and canvas, it's more absorbent than cotton and could be used as a potential fuel.
HOLLAND: So there were a lot of vested interests that sort of put cannabis down, took it away from the doctors, made it illegal.
GUPTA: And despite many efforts we've reported on for the past five years, marijuana is still an illegal Schedule 1 controlled substance. Same as heroin and meth. Something Kyle remembers every time he crosses state lines with his month's supply of cannabis. The medicine he says he can't live without.
TURLEY: They could pull me out of my car and file federal charges against me for trafficking marijuana across state lines.
GUPTA (on camera): You know Kyle Turley?
M. JAMES: Yes, yes. All of those guys, man, I have a courage to be here in front of you because all those guy that paved the way.
GUPTA (voice-over): And the courage to finally give up the opioids. That came in the summer of 2017. Injured at practice, the opioids didn't help so he decided he'd stop using them for good.
M. JAMES: I was excited. You know, I felt like I was beginning a new life. You know?
GUPTA: A new life, pot over pills.
M. JAMES: I was looking for something maybe with inflammation, muscle spasm.
GUPTA: He got advice from friends and doctors, and Mike got more comfortable with cannabis and what strains to use.
M. JAMES: I like that dosage, though.
GUPTA: He got his medical marijuana card and like Kyle Turley went to the dispensary and found strains that worked for him.
M. JAMES: Leg and foot. This is going to be good for my ankle right here.
GUPTA: But also like Kyle, it was a risky decision. Remember, what we told you earlier. Marijuana, even non-psycho active CBD, is banned in the NFL so Mike had to be careful not to test positive.
[20:25:03] He was willing, however, to take the chance. But then Mike's luck ran out a couple of months later.
M. JAMES: Marijuana positive test.
GUPTA: The NFL put Mike in their substance abuse program. But what if he continued to test positive?
M. JAMES: It could ban me from the league forever because of marijuana.
GUPTA: And it could happen any day. An uncertainty Mike was not willing to live with as the 2018 football season approached.
DR. SUE SISLEY, DOCTORS FOR CANNABIS REGULATION: Hi, Mike. It's great to see you.
GUPTA: With two months until training camp, Mike decided to be the first NFL player to file a TUE, a therapeutic use exemption for cannabis. Basically he wanted approval to use medical marijuana even though it's banned.
SISLEY: This is the first active player who's been willing to put their professional career on the line to openly admit that they have been using this cannabis. So they want to know dose --
GUPTA: Dr. Sue Sisley is taking on the fight to help NFL players, like Mike, to use medical cannabis legally as part of a group called Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.
M. JAMES: They understand the risks that I have playing in the NFL and being a child of substance abuse. They take all that into consideration.
SISLEY: It does take a tremendous amount of fortitude to be able to question the NFL openly when you're getting a paycheck from them.
GUPTA: Mike knows he's put his career and his family in jeopardy.
M. JAMES: I just want people to listen. It would open the door for so many guys to use this as their medicine.
GUPTA: But will the NFL slam the door in Mike's face? That, a little later.
But first, researchers using cannabis to open the door as a new way to break the chain of addiction.
GUPTA: Poppy. A beautiful flower that looks harmless enough. But the opioids derived from this plant can turn people into addicts.
YASMIN HURD, DIRECTOR, ADDICTION INSTITUTE, MOUNT SINAI: They start seeking them out and at the cost of everything else, even their death.
GUPTA: Yasmin Hurd, director of the Addiction Institute at Mt. Sinai in New York, says that's because these pain pills make profound changes in the brain soon after you start using them.
(On camera): This is where you actually get to look at the brains?
GUPTA (voice-over): Hurd collects brains, hundreds of them, from opioid addicts who have overdosed. It's grim work.
(On camera): Is there anything that's different about the brain of someone who's an addict versus someone else's brain?
HURD: It is not the gross changes. It is how the cells communicate with each other that are changed.
GUPTA (voice-over): Hurd showed me under the microscope. This is a healthy brain. Lots of cells, lots of connections.
HURD: It's beautiful, the branching, the communication is essential for every single thing we do.
GUPTA: This is a brain on drugs. Specifically opioids.
HURD: So one of the things you can see is that there's not that many networks.
GUPTA (on camera): Just looks like a poorly populated neighborhood.
GUPTA (voice-over): This is what a brain disease looks like. Opioids have damaged these receptors, the glutamate receptors in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, making it harder to make decisions, use good judgment, making it harder to just say no.
HURD: The craving is so prominent. It's so enormous that they can't stop themselves.
GUPTA: So even if they want to stop they can't. Their newly wired brain won't let them. It could help explain why some therapies to treat addiction aren't successful. Take abstinence.
HURD: I think it's egregious. You're telling someone whose brain is fundamentally changed that all they have to do is to say no when those circuits that mediate those aspects of cognition are altered.
GUPTA: That's why Hurd says abstinence programs are usually only 5 percent to 10 percent effective. There is more success, however, with what's called medication assisted treatment MAT, use substitute lower dose, slightly safer opioids like Methadone and Suboxone instead of the potent pain killers. These drugs do reduce the risk of overdosing by more than 50 percent but Hurd's biggest concern, MAT is dill dependent on opioids. And as you've just seen, that means the brain disease of addiction is never fully treated, which is why Hurd started to focus on the CBD in cannabis, to no only treat the underlying pain but to also heal the brain.
HURD: That CBD normalizes that so by normalizing glutamate you can restructure and normalize back the impairments in the cellular level at the molecular level.
GUPTA (on camera): Helping get rid of the cravings that someone keeps taking someone back.
HURD: Exactly, exactly.
GUPTA (voice-over): And it's not just the pain. Or even the cravings that cannabis could help but also the withdrawal symptoms of getting off opioids. The nausea, the insomnia, the bone searing pain. It's like having an intense flu that just won't go away.
TURLEY: The withdrawals from opiates was horrific.
WALLACE: They say we'll get you through that.
GUPTA: And over the last several years, Dr. Wallace's team has figured out the right strains to soothe the withdrawal symptoms which are very similar to the side effects of chemotherapy. No surprise because for decades studies have shown that both THC and CBD can help cancer patients in treatment.
(On camera): Did it help you get off of the opioids?
M. JAMES: Absolutely.
TURLEY: A hundred percent.
GUPTA: You hear about CBD being able to help people with withdrawal type symptoms that they get trying to come off of opiates. You have been here as you mentioned that CBD can help repair the brain. Is that as promising as it sounds?
HURD: As a scientist, I definitely try to be optimistic.
GUPTA (voice-over): But also cautious. She knows we need more research but getting that done is not easy. It's something we've reported on for years. Because cannabis is a controlled substance, getting federal funding is difficult and getting the actual cannabis to study is challenging. It took Yasmin Hurd four years just to get started.
[20:35:13] HURD: I just don't understand why we can't go on to have more in-depth studies to really see indeed if this does work and can be effective for at least a subset of people even if it's not for all the 50,000 people who will die this year.
STACI GRUBER, DIRECTOR, MARIJUANA INVESTIGATIONS FOR NEUROSCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY, MCLEAN HOSPITAL: It's hard for to do.
GUPTA: Harvard's Staci Gruber has also struggled to do this kind of research. Her early studies show subjects who were given cannabis for the very first time reduced their opioid use by 47 percent. It's a staggering number. And like Hurd, Gruber also showed that their brains changed when off of pills and on pot. The brain's white matter which is what allows it to communicate from one region to another became better organized.
GRUBER: Those same folks show improvements in cognitive performance so it's very exciting.
GUPTA: Exciting for opioid addicts and now raising the question, could this help with other brain diseases? Like Alzheimer's and dementia. The latest research shows that in lab-grown neurons, cannabis removes the protein that accumulates in the brains of these patients. Again, nothing else has been identified to do that.
That doesn't surprise Kyle Turley. He was diagnosed with early CTE, a sort of Alzheimer's like disease and he is a firm believer CBD has helped return his memory, quell his anger and ease his depression.
TURLEY: We have a potential resolve to allow individuals to live better arrives.
GUPTA: But to know for sure means more research which as I've told you is hard enough. And it might get even harder.
SESSIONS: If I were sick I wouldn't suggest you take marijuana.
GUPTA: That when we come back.
[20:40:29] GUPTA: It's springtime in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For 47 years, this rally has been held every first Saturday in April at high noon to fight for the reform of marijuana laws.
M. JAMES: It's time to put players on the field with a less harmful medicine.
GUPTA: With his career and reputation on the line, Mike James is telling the world that cannabis worked for him.
M. JAMES: It is time for the doctors to listen to my doctors.
GUPTA: Mike is traveling around the country with Dr. Sue Sisley from Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. It's been a month now since he petitioned the NFL for a therapeutic use exemption for cannabis.
M. JAMES: It is my medicine. You know what I mean? It's not like I just -- it's not a game or anything.
SISLEY: Mike's case is such a perfect example of why cannabis needs to be made available because he's really not a candidate for opioids.
GUPTA: This crowd seems receptive to that message. But that's not the case 500 miles away in the nation's capital.
SESSIONS: The use of marijuana is detrimental. It is not a healthy substance. If I were sick I wouldn't suggest you take marijuana to cure yourself.
GUPTA: Attorney General Jeff Sessions who declined to be interviewed for this documentary has made it crystal clear. He sees no good to come out of marijuana. Including cannabis' role in the opioid crisis.
SESSIONS: I'm astonished to hear people suggest we can solve our heroin crisis -- have you heard this -- by having more marijuana. How stupid is that? These pills become so addictive. The DEA said a huge percentage of heroin addiction starts with prescription. We think a lot of this it's starting with marijuana and other drugs.
GUPTA: Marijuana as a gateway drug to more dangerous, more lethal narcotics. It's a notion that has steered policy and public opinion for decades.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Leading medical researchers are coming to the conclusion that marijuana, pot, grass, whatever you want to call it, is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.
GUPTA: But what if that long-held notion isn't true?
WALLACE: There's really no evidence that cannabis is the gateway to hard drugs. Ten years of clinical experience I have never seen it.
GRUBER: Gateway sure. Gateway to recovery. Gateway to feeling better. Gateway to getting my life back.
HOLLAND: Cannabis can actually as opposed to being a gateway, it can be a termis, it can stop drug use.
GUPTA: These are the researchers who write the books, advance the science, grow our knowledge, and they are seeing an increasing body of research suggesting marijuana can actually stop addiction and help offset the opioid epidemic.
A Rand Corporation study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed something few initially expected. Between 1999 and 2010, states with legal functioning medical marijuana dispensaries have seen lower opioid prescription rates and fewer deaths from opioid overdoses. Fewer. Not greater.
CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: We're going to be looking at 64,000 deaths in '16.
PATRICK KENNEDY (R), FORMER CONGRESSMAN: We got to stop the deaths.
GUPTA: Both former governor Chris Christie and former congressman Patrick Kennedy served on President Trump's Commission on combating addiction and the opioid crisis.
KENNEDY: So I had assembled a whole litany of recommendations for better mental health and addiction for this country.
GUPTA: Kennedy has been very public about his own addiction and recovery.
KENNEDY: I was on Suboxone for a number of years. It definitely stabilized me. When someone is out there in the throes of opioid addiction it is 100 percent sure that if you give them opioid replacement therapy you get them stabilize.
GUPTA: For Kennedy and the rest of the opioid commission, the best way to save lives is expanded access to MAT, medication assisted treatments. Not marijuana.
KENNEDY: The commission was reacting to a number of questions about whether you could substitute marijuana for opioids and obviously people would be stoned but they wouldn't be dead.
GUPTA: Zero fatalities. It's a point that has come up over and over again. No one has ever reportedly died from a marijuana overdose.
(On camera): Would you say that cannabis is safer than opioids? Is that a fair statement to make?
VOLKOW: In terms of overdoses, absolutely.
[20:45:04] GUPTA: If physical pain can be treated in this way, in a way that's less risky, when the midst of this opioid epidemic, isn't that worth considering?
KENNEDY: No. It's -- it seems eminently sensible to, if you're looking at the lesser of two evils, but by that logic, you know, we would be accepting a lot of stuff in this country and in my view if we really want to get medicines to people then we go about it in the way that we have always gone about it, Sanjay. And that's called NIH research, clinical trials, FDA approval. And the reason we have that as you know, Sanjay, is because of safety, efficacy and risk.
GUPTA (voice-over): It's a fair point. But the president's commission did not recommend any research into medical marijuana nor any of its compounds. Including non-psycho active CBD. A mistake, a missed opportunity according to researchers like Yasmin Hurd.
HURD: It should be treated like everything else. Let it have its due process and let's see what evidence is there for it treating or not treating a particular symptom or disorder.
GUPTA: Whether it's Cannabidiol in Hurd's lab or cannabis prescribed by Dr. Wallace, it's marijuana as medicine. An idea shot down time and time again by the country's top law enforcement official.
SESSIONS: I'm afraid that the public is not properly educated on some of the issues related to marijuana.
GUPTA (on camera): What would you say to the attorney general?
WALLACE: I would say he's wrong. And I think that he needs to be educated. If he came and spent a week with me in my clinic I think I could probably convince him otherwise.
GUPTA (voice-over): Education and understanding, the same goals Mike James has by going public with his story. Early word from the NFL is that they only give therapeutic use exemptions for drugs that are FDA approved. Cannabis, of course, is not. But the league is still considering it as is the NFL Player's Union which has already been looking at marijuana as part of their initiative to study pain and the best therapies for it. Executive director D. Maurice Smith.
D. MAURICE SMITH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NFL PLAYER'S UNION: Our job is to find the best medical research to support your therapeutic abuse exemption. What I would say to him and every NFL player, our job is to figure out how do we build the best medical support for the best treatment for you?
GUPTA: And while Mike waits, we are now closer than ever to the first FDA approved cannabis based drug. So how did it happen? That when we come back.
[20:51:44] GUPTA: Thousands of miles away from Mike James and the NFL, a big breakthrough brews in these secret labs.
(On camera): This is probably the most TLC for a weed I have ever heard of. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One would hope so. Absolutely.
GUPTA (voice-over): When we visited here five years ago, it was a dream that's now about to become reality. GW Pharmaceutical CEO Justin Gover.
JUSTIN GOVER, GW PHARMACEUTICAL CEO: We're now just a matter of a couple of months away from potential approval and launch of the first ever plant derived cannabis-based meds in the United States.
GUPTA: The first of its kind, a prescription medicine made from Cannabidiol, CBD. It's called epidiolex, a liquid solution that potentially can help thousands of kids who suffer from epileptic seizures. Young children like Vivian Wilson and Charlotte Figgy, who you met in our previous WEED documentaries.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll just have to do it the old fashioned way.
GUPTA: When it came to finding the right treatment for their kids, these families were often left to trial and error.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So we just add more oil in or we add more weed?
GUPTA: In some cases, even extracting the badly needed medicine in their own kitchens.
GOVER: We can assure patients they receive the same product day in and day out.
GUPTA: Five years ago when we started reporting on this, things were desperate. Parents left with the choice of cannabis or death. Researchers weren't behind them, society had turned its back and now we are on the eve of a new drug being approved. Could the same happen with opioids? Could pot become a reasonable and accepted alternative to pills.
GOVER: We have seen in early studies the potential for cannabinoids within the drug addiction field and within the opioid sparing and pain fields as well. So like with many other areas, we're at the cusp of a new era of potential uses for cannabinoids.
GUPTA: FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb.
SCOTT GOTTLIEB, FDA COMMISSIONER: If you can demonstrate that a product based on marijuana or derivatives marijuana can be used as a safer and effective alternative for some other -- for some condition, we want to look at that.
GUPTA: But cannabis-based pharmaceuticals for pain and addiction are still far off on the horizon. In the meantime, all over the country, people have taken action. Unwilling or unable to wait any longer.
Like in Maine, known for its rugged coastline, fishing villages and iconic lighthouses, and now known for overdose deaths, which have doubled here over the past three years. Jamie Higgins lost her brother to opioids. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Battling the opioid crisis is going to come down
to us doing things that a lot of people are going to feel uncomfortable about. It's going to be I think those shocking changes that really bring change to the epidemic.
GUPTA: Shocking changes and bold steps.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cannabis I think you're using it really well. When will the medical community catch up with what their patient populations are doing?
GUPTA: With two outpatient clinics in the state, Dustin (INAUDIBLE) has treated hundreds of people who have used cannabis to wean off of opioids.
[20:55:03] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We see the drug list whittling down and down. There's no pill, there's no spray, there's no drop, no puff, to completely solve this problem. But cannabis when it's used in the right way can take a big bite out of it.
GUPTA: So far it's worked for Angie Slinker (PH).
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know I'm never going to be pain free ever. But cannabis has given me a reason to live.
GUPTA: And cannabis has also worked for Doug Campbell. They are both patients of Dr. Sulaff (PH), and they believe without medical marijuana their addiction would have killed them. Doug tried everything to quit opioids. Dozens of rehabs including the gold standard Methadone and Suboxone treatments, but nothing worked.
(On camera): Then you try the cannabis. It filled the void. I don't want to overstate or understate this, but decades of opioid use, 32 times in and out of rehab, you try the cannabis and it works instantly, is that real?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's real. I have no craving. I have no desire. I do not have any thought about it at all, period.
GUPTA (voice-over): But to so many, these stories, thousands of stories around the country are simply not enough.
VOLKOW: I have no not seen a single story that has shown that by giving a patient suffering from an opioid disorder cannabis they are able to stop taking opioids. We cannot be guided by wishful thinking. We need objective date.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People are dying. You cannot help dead people. There's no waiting.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is transformation pain cream and it has 400 milligrams of active cannabinoid. It's got THC which is excellent for pain relief.
GUPTA: Roxanne (INAUDIBLE) recently opened one of the only pot-based substance abuse treatment programs in the country. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're good families, but literally everyone we
know knows somebody who has died of an overdose.
GUPTA (on camera): How ahead of the curve, if you will, is Maine and is what you're doing in all this?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're pioneers. We get a lot of pushback, but having actually experienced it to not share it would be immoral.
GUPTA (voice-over): It's a message being heard in the state capitol. Even by the most conservative politicians. Republican State Senator Eric Brakey is proposing radical legislation. He wants to add opioid addiction to the list of qualifying conditions for the state's medical marijuana program making it easier for opioid addicts to access cannabis.
(On camera): It's an age-old debate is this idea, are you trading one drug for another?
ERIC BRAKEY (R), MAINE STATE SENATOR: Even if we are doing a trade from a narcotic that people can overdose on to a plant that is non- narcotic and no one has ever overdosed on in the history of the world, you know, if that's the trade that we're making, then that sounds like not so bad a trade.
GUPTA (voice-over): And Senator Brakey isn't the only one willing to make that deal.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Medical marijuana.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Medical marijuana.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A big announcement by Governor Murphy about medical marijuana.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One that I think should be considered and that is recovery from opioid addiction.
GUPTA: Other states like New Jersey, Connecticut and New Mexico are now considering similar legislation.
BRAKEY: All people are asking for is the freedom to make their own choices with this, to try something for themselves as they are attempting to break the grip of addiction.
GUPTA: It's the same freedom Mike James is asking the NFL for as he fights for a therapeutic use exemption for medical marijuana. If approved, it would be the first of its kind in any professional sports league. It would also mean Mike James would no longer have to choose between the sport he loves and his health.
(On camera): If you look at your biography 30 years from now, it's probably going to say professional football player on the first line. But medicinal marijuana advocate? I mean, is that what you want to be known for? M. JAMES: Yes, I'm fine with that. And I'm not ashamed of it. I'm
not embarrassed by it. It is something that I will continue to use because I have a life to live.
GUPTA (voice-over): Mike James, just one of so many people who claim their lives were saved because they traded these pills for pot.
M. JAMES: Now hold on.
GUPTA: But now the struggle continues, for researchers to catch up, to gather data, and the scientific evidence to once again prove the power of this plant.