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CNN SPECIAL REPORTS
Weed 3. Aired 3-4a ET
Aired November 7, 2015 - 03:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): You're watching a growing revolution. For two years, we've reported from the front lines of a battle between those who say marijuana saved them.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The children and I have my husband and father with us.
GUPTA: The doctors who want to prove it.
DR. SUE SISLEY, PSYCHIATRIST: We had to demand that this plant be allowed to go through the drug development process of the FDA.
GUPTA: And federal agencies that have stood in the way.
RICK DOBLIN, FOUNDER, MULTIDISCIPLINARY ASSOCIATION FOR PSYCHEDELIC STUDIES: That was extremely demoralizing to me.
GUPTA: At stake, the ability to use marijuana as a regulated prescription drug. Some say it's the only thing that works, a veteran and a stay-at-home mom, suffering from PTSD, a painter with chronic pain, a truck driver with Alzheimer's. We are in the midst of a marijuana revolution. Scientists are poised to prove marijuana can change lives.
DR. STACI GRUBER, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: This is high times in marijuana research. It really is.
GUPTA: And for elected leaders as well.
SENATOR CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: This bill that we are introducing --
GUPTA: The tide may be finally turning.
BOOKER: Our drug laws in this country as a whole need a revolution of common sense and compassion.
GUPTA: I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. This is Weed 3: The Marijuana Revolution.
CHRISSY KIERNAN, WIFE OF SEAN: I just went every day and sat by his bedside, and they told me that he would wake up the next day, and he didn't. That he'd wake up the next day, and he didn't. He was five days in intensive care while I held vigil over his bedside.
It was very difficult, very difficult time. I don't like to even really go there.
GUPTA: Chrissy Kiernan doesn't want to go back to that day in 2011 when her husband, Sean, overdosed on prescription drugs.
C. KIERNAN: It was the most terrible and horrifying thing I've ever been through.
GUPTA: Did you want to die?
SEAN KIERNAN, U.S. MILITARY VETERAN: I wouldn't say -- I just wanted to end it that second. It was a, I want it to end. I want it to stop.
GUPTA: Sean Kiernan wanted it to end because the drugs he hoped would save him were killing him.
S. KIERNAN: I couldn't stick on any one long. And I just -- just wanted it to end. So, I did something that, thank God, it wasn't permanent.
GUPTA: Twenty-two United States veterans kill themselves every day. Sean was almost one of them. Like many vets, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic distress disorder, also called PTS. For Sean, it was the U.S. Army, the jungles of Panama. He saw too much after the U.S. invasion, when riots, ambushes and casualties were a regular occurrence.
S. KIERNAN: And there's sad times losing friends and people who you served with and you start to question everything.
GUPTA: Questions that lingered when he got home. Despite having a beautiful wife, whom he loved very much, four kids, a lucrative career in banking, Sean's life was full of darkness. He was prescribed dozens of different mediations to help his sleep to decrease his anxiety, to try and curb his depression. But none made it better. Most made it worse.
SISLEY: You can imagine how awful this situation is for vets. How you've overcome the symptoms and how you've --
GUPTA: Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist, has been treating veterans with post-traumatic stress for decades.
SISLEY: There's this huge constellation of symptoms, everything from insomnia to anxiety to, you know, flashbacks, and each one of those target symptoms generally would receive another prescription.
They end up getting stuck on eight, 10, or 12 different medications and suddenly they're like zombies. There's just a few meds on the market that work. And even those are really inadequate.
GUPTA: But there is one medication that holds a lot of promise.
DOBLIN: Marijuana is excellent for PTSD. GUPTA: Rick Doblin is a researcher and also has a doctorate from
Harvard. He's been trying to study marijuana for decades.
DOBLIN: One of the surprising things about marijuana is that it suppresses dream recall. For people that are traumatized and have nightmares, the opportunity to have a good night's sleep without remembering their nightmares can be fundamentally transformative.
Also, marijuana tends to focus people's attention on the here and now, and that's also really important for people that are carrying the trauma from the past into the present.
GUPTA: If all of that was true, it sounded like marijuana could be an ideal treatment for PTSD. Yet, understandably, there are many skeptics. Dr. Sue Sisley was one of them.
SISLEY: I was really stunned when more and more patients were coming out of the shadows and disclosing to me they were having some, you know, useful experiences with this marijuana plant.
When you use marijuana, what happens to the PTSD?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They relax me, and they help with my muscle spasms and my pains. And they make me sleepy, so they help me when I'm getting closer to bedtime.
GUPTA: But Dr. Sue Sisley would need more than just stories. She needed scientific proof that marijuana eases PTSD. She wanted to study this plant like you would any other medication.
SISLEY: We had a duty as medical professionals to demand that this plant be allowed to go through the proper drug development process of the FDA.
GUPTA: So Dr. Sue Sisley, the skeptic, and Rick Doblin, the believer, joined forces and started their crusade in 2009.
DOBLIN: That's what we're hearing from most of these vets, that they really want two different kinds.
GUPTA: Their goal, to investigate this simple, but profoundly important question. Could marijuana help save veterans like Sean Kiernan?
SISLEY: The veterans are saying they want an activating strain for the morning and then they want a sedating strain at night.
GUPTA: Problem is, they first applied to the federal government for approval in 2010 and were rejected, then again in 2012, but were delayed for years by government bureaucracy.
DOBLIN: That was extremely demoralizing to me. It was just frustrating.
DOUGLAS THROCKMORTON, FDA DEPUTY DIRECTOR: I can understand some concerns about inefficiency and some cumbersomeness. GUPTA: FDA Deputy Director Douglas Throckmorton.
THROCKMORTON: For marijuana, three agencies are involved in making sure that you're available to get the marijuana and then able to conduct a trial.
GUPTA: He's talking about the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And if you're a privately-funded cannabis study, like Sisley and Doblin's, you also have to get the approval of the United States Public Health Service.
It's a lot of government red tape and it is an issue that we reported on in our earlier documentaries.
"Weed", it was a Schedule I controlled substance. The government was saying it had no medicinal value --
DR. ORRIN DEVINSKY, DIRECTOR, NYU COMPREHENSIVE EPILEPSY CENTER: We're being handcuffed by the government preventing us from doing the right trials.
GUPTA: That's from "Weed 2: Cannabis Madness."
Rick Doblin believes the right people were watching because, just four days after that documentary aired --
DOBLIN: I got this letter saying that they had approved the study. It was fantastic. I mean, I was elated.
GUPTA (on camera): How big a deal was that? Some have called it a watershed moment in marijuana research.
DOBLIN: Yes, I believe that, and not because some reevaluation of the risks and benefits of marijuana. It was because of changes in public perception.
GUPTA (voice-over): For years, decades really, there has been hardly any United States research into the benefits of medical marijuana. On the contrary, most of the research focused on the harmful effects of the plant. Now, nearly five decades after it was deemed illegal, we are seeing history unfolding, the beginnings of a marijuana revolution.
THROCKMORTON: FDA's official position is, we want that drug studied. We want marijuana studied to decide its safety, its efficacy, its reliability, and we want to have that done as quickly as we possibly can.
GUPTA: That's music to the ears of veterans like Sean Kiernan, who had to be convinced that marijuana could be the right option for him.
S. KIERNAN: I talked to some people who weren't the stereotypical persons who smoked marijuana. They were highly successful, highly motivated people. GUPTA: He was once suicidal, but Sean now has hope, hope that comes
from this plant and from that new study, which might prove its benefit once and for all.
When we come back, first step, getting their hands on the precise strains of research-grade marijuana. It would prove harder than Sisley and Doblin could have imagined.
GUPTA (voice-over): Oxford, Mississippi, the middle of the campus of Ole Miss. This was our first visit here two years ago, spring 2013.
MAHMOUD ELSOHLY, DIRECTOR, NIDA MARIJUANA PROJECT: I can't remember the last time we actually grew more than an acre.
GUPTA: Since the 1970s, this field has been the only place in the United States where scientists can get marijuana to dispense and research. The reason? To control the quality and distribution all the way from the soil to the study.
(on camera): This is the place where marijuana is grown for federal research and there's nothing in the fields. And there hasn't been for six years, you say?
ELSOHLY: That's correct. The last time we grew was 2007.
GUPTA (voice-over): Mahmoud Elsohly is the farm's director.
ELSOHLY: We're not growing because there's not much demand for the material that we already have.
GUPTA (on camera): Why isn't there more demand? I mean, this is something that a lot of people --
ELSOHLY: No research protocols, no research proposals, no requirement for the material.
GUPTA (voice-over): But that was then. This is now. Nearly two years later, there is acre upon acre of marijuana. Ever wonder what a revolution looks like? A lush field of green for scientists, scientists like Rick Doblin and Sue Sisley, who hope to get research- grade marijuana from these fields for the first ever federally approved clinical study to see if marijuana can treat the symptoms of PTSD.
(on camera): I have to say, I'm kind of stunned because I think we were standing pretty much in the same spot and there was nothing here.
GUPTA: A year-and-a-half ago. ELSOHLY: Exactly.
GUPTA: Are you as surprised as I am?
ELSOHLY: To be honest with you, yes.
GUPTA (voice-over): In the last year alone, the federal government has increased their production of pot by 30-fold, from just 46 pounds to 1,400 pounds. The government anticipates studies on everything from cancer to pain to epilepsy. And they want to have the marijuana ready to push science forward.
DR. NORA VOLKOW, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DRUG ABUSE: NIDA will give the marijuana. And if we don't have it, we will have to grow it.
GUPTA: Dr. Nora Volkow is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. They're the agency in charge of the field and responsible for dispensing marijuana for government-approved research.
VOLKOW: We try to anticipate what researchers are going to need, and so we have, based on that, expanded our production.
GUPTA: Production of plants high in THC, the psychoactive part, plants high in CBD, the therapeutic part, and plants that are a combination of both. But one of the precise strains, the precise dose that Doblin and Sisley need, one they believe might save Sean Kiernan, is not here yet.
As part of our investigation, we learn that particular strain is available from other growers in the United States, but those farms cannot provide it for this federally approved study. Doblin and Sisley will have to wait for the grow at Ole Miss.
(on camera): When Rick Doblin got his study approved back in March, there were specific strains, as you know, that he wanted.
GUPTA: Did you have the strains for him at that time?
ELSOHLY: No. If I had, I would have delivered. You have to develop the strains. You have to get the right material, the right composition. And then you have to propagate it and produce the final product.
GUPTA (voice-over): And all of that takes time, causing potentially deadly delays.
DOBLIN: Our focus has to be, what's best for the patients? How do we get this to the patients, many of whom are committing suicide because of PTSD?
GUPTA: While Rick Doblin waits for his cannabis to be grown -- DR. DONALD ABRAMS, ONCOLOGIST: Let me just have a quick listen to your breathing. GUPTA: -- this man doesn't have to. Ole Miss already had the strain that oncologist Dr. Donald Abrams needed for his newest study.
ABRAMS: So, remember this is a two-part experiment.
GUPTA: And what he is doing is yet another sign of the revolution.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible) medical cannabis.
GUPTA: It's something we first saw in Israel two years ago.
(on camera): Filling up the spoon. So that's your medicine inside there.
(voice-over): And never thought we'd see in the United States, a patient using marijuana like this in a hospital room.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's unique. It's different. I never thought I would be smoking weed in the hospital.
GUPTA: This is San Francisco General, an academic teaching hospital that, because of Dr. Abrams, has a stash of marijuana in their pharmacy. It is stored next to all the other medications. And Abrams is using it to see if it can relieve chronic pain in patients with a rare blood disorder.
Janelle Lechose (ph) is a painter. She was also born with sickle cell anemia and has been in pain for as long as she can remember.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can exhale now.
GUPTA: She says marijuana makes her nearly pain-free.
(on camera): How long after you smoke do you start to have some sort of relief of your pain?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Instantly. It is like instantly.
GUPTA: A couple of minutes?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, a couple of minutes. Afterwards, you feel the relief of pain.
GUPTA: Janelle is in the study because she wants to know for sure, is marijuana safer and more effective than powerful painkillers and narcotics?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: With marijuana, even though I may be buzzed, I can interact with life more so than with pills.
GUPTA: Treating pain is the most common use for medical marijuana. It may be the anti-inflammatory effects or even the dulling of pain receptors. Regardless, this study could prove to mainstream medicine what millions of medical marijuana patients already believe, that a plant may be a better pain treatment than the powerful pills that are most commonly prescribed.
(on camera): And do we ever get to a point where we say, look, it's a medicine, like so many other medicines out there?
ABRAMS: I was just going to tell you, I always used to say, not in my lifetime, but now I'm becoming a little more cautious, because who knows. Let's just wait and see.
GUPTA (voice-over): Wait and see, that's been a mantra for decades when it comes to pot. But for Rick Doblin and his veterans, the time for wait is over.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U of A assistant professor now believes that --
GUPTA: Yet they're about to be faced with shocking news that could put the whole PTSD study in jeopardy.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's the University of Arizona researcher making national news for her study on marijuana and its impact on veterans with PTSD.
GUPTA (voice-over): As the sun rises in Phoenix, a battle is heating up at the University of Arizona, June 27, 2014, nearly four months after the revolutionary PTSD and marijuana study was approved.
SISLEY: H.R. notified me just a little before 5:00 on a Friday.
GUPTA: The University of Arizona has fired Dr. Sue Sisley.
SISLEY: I was stunned because they stripped me of all of my work.
GUPTA: Her work, studying medical marijuana.
SISLEY: It is so disheartening for all these veterans who have stood shoulder to shoulder with me.
GUPTA: Her termination became national news.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Veterans are demanding that Sue Sisley be allowed to continue her work.
GUPTA (on camera): A first-of-its-kind pot study has now hit a major snag.
(voice-over): A snag, because, without a job, Sisley's historic study is without a home. I spoke to her soon after her dismissal.
What do you think's happening?
SISLEY: I think Arizona legislature is dominated by several very extreme thinkers who are opposed to this type of research, even though this is an FDA-approved study. It's a randomized control trial, the most rigorous science we can conduct in the U.S.
CHRIS SIGURDSON, SPOKESMAN, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA: I can say that the University of Arizona is not bowing to political pressure either on research or any employee.
GUPTA: Chris Sigurdson is the spokesman for the University of Arizona. He insists Dr. Sisley's termination had nothing to do with marijuana research.
(on camera): What did you think when you heard that news?
S. KIERNAN: Anger.
GUPTA (voice-over): Sean Kiernan is angry because he knows what's at stake, the lives of thousands of veterans every year.
(on camera): How important are those scientific studies to you?
S. KIERNAN: It makes me speechless, which is something that doesn't happen a lot, that, as a society, as a university, as Arizona is, as a country that says we love our vets, we have 22 veterans killing themselves a day.
GUPTA (voice-over): Sean is particularly certain marijuana could have saved some of those lives, because, in some ways, it has already saved him. After his drug overdose in 2011, he turned to cannabis as his last resort. And now he vaporizes with it every day.
S. KIERNAN: That's it.
GUPTA (on camera): The symptoms of PTSD, the anger, the irritability, when you take this, how does it make you feel? How does it address those symptoms?
S. KIERNAN: It allows your brain to get back into a more healthy, normal pattern of behavior versus just spiraling worse and worse out of control.
GUPTA (voice-over): Here's how scientists think cannabis can work. People with PTSD have an imbalance in their brain, too many receptors associated with intense emotions like fear and anxiety, and not enough of a chemical that binds to these anxiety receptors to keep them calm and in check.
Marijuana is filled with a chemical that can bind to these receptors and help restore balance to the PTSD brain, a balance that is helping Sean Kiernan turn his life around.
C. KIERNAN: We really came to the conclusion that it was really the medicine for him.
GUPTA (on camera): It seemed very effective?
C. KIERNAN: It does seem very effective.
GUPTA (voice-over): But, for Sean, it's trial and error, how much to use, when to use, or even the best strains, and how will it affect him long-term? That's why the studies are need.
(on camera): How much does it concern you that there's not a lot of science behind this, that it hasn't really been studied, at least not in this country?
C. KIERNAN: If he wasn't doing this, the fear is he wouldn't be here. So, if there are some side effects that we're going to have to deal with down the road that haven't been studied yet, I figure we will take that when it comes. But, for now, the children and I have my husband and father with us.
S. KIERNAN: I want to get two things. One is, like, when I have that morning anxiety that I can --
GUPTA (voice-over): Sean is lucky. Cannabis is a legal treatment for PTSD in California.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would recommend, like, a (inaudible) push during the day.
S. KIERNAN: Okay.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you can actually still do things and function.
GUPTA: And he has enough money to buy his marijuana. It's not covered by insurance. But so many other veterans simply don't have that option. And the Veterans Administration hospitals cannot prescribe medical marijuana because it is illegal federally, a Schedule I controlled substance.
None of that is likely to change until research like Sisley's proves that cannabis is an effective, tested, mainstream medication. So to help other veterans, Sean is out front.
S. KIERNAN: The administrative appeal for Dr. Sue Sisley, and then a letter from a veteran.
GUPTA: Protesting and fighting to get the PTSD study back on track.
SISLEY: I'm going to find a home for this work, whether it is at the U-of-A or not. I feel such a deep sense of obligation to these veterans and to making this research happen.
GUPTA: So Sue Sisley is about to take a big gamble.
SISLEY: This is amazing.
GUPTA: The chances when we come back.
GUPTA (voice-over): Here in Las Vegas medical marijuana is still a gamble, but also a potential jackpot for Dr. Sue Sisley.
SISLEY: They have been courting us since the day my termination was announced.
GUPTA: Sue says the future of her study hinges on finding a research site, like the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
SISLEY: Without having a specific office, you can't even get a DEA license. Without a DEA Schedule I license, I can't purchase NIDA study drug.
GUPTA: Las Vegas would be ideal, progressive politics, a budding medical marijuana community, and lots of veterans, veterans who are fighting a battle on the home front and losing.
Sean Kiernan knows their pain.
(on camera): When you see these younger soldiers coming back now, how worried are you about them?
S. KIERNAN: Heartbroken, really. The stories I've heard and the stories I've seen firsthand, from the medication regimen these kids are being put on that's addicting them to opiates.
GUPTA (voice-over): It's senseless really, especially when you consider that a simple plant could save them, and a scientific study could prove it.
So, Sisley soldiers on, hoping the Vegas odds are with her. And while she waits, nearly 3,000 miles away in Boston, another study, another seed of the revolution is just getting planted.
GRUBER: It's the most exciting time I can think of, really, for marijuana research. This is high times in marijuana research. It really is.
What I need you to do is identify the number that's different, okay?
GUPTA: Harvard University's Dr. Staci Gruber has been researching marijuana since the early 1990s. They call her the pot doc. We first met her two years ago, when she was researching the possible damage of recreational marijuana to the brain.
Now she's also set her sights on the possible benefits of medical marijuana. Massachusetts, as it turns out, is the perfect sort of place for this study, because they just legalized medical marijuana. Gruber's goal is to study new patients who have never used cannabis.
GRUBER: Our goal was to look at these folks before they started using medical marijuana, and then three months in, six months in, and a year, primarily to look at frontal executive functions, because that's really the question.
GUPTA: That question, how does medical marijuana impact brain function longer-term?
GRUBER: All I want you to do is name the blocks of color for me as quickly as you can.
GUPTA: Before and after they start medicating, patients will take cognitive tests. And here's what's revolutionary. They're going to have their brains scanned to chart the change. For the first time, we will see what your brain looks like on weed.
(on camera): Nearly half the country now has medical marijuana laws on the books.
GUPTA: This is happening, and yet one of the most fundamental questions remains unanswered.
GUPTA: That's what you're trying to do.
GRUBER: I would like to see what it looks like from beginning to the end.
GUPTA (voice-over): Amelia Taylor, she wants to know as well, 34 years old, mother of three. She lives in the suburbs of Boston.
AMELIA TAYLOR, MEDICAL MARIJUANA USER: I just pour a little bit in like that.
GUPTA: Amelia is also a daily user of marijuana. Surprised? So were we.
(on camera): How long would that last you, then?
TAYLOR: That would be my dose for the day.
GUPTA (voice-over): She has been using this plant for relief. You see, Amelia, like Sean Kiernan, has PTSD. In her case, she was a firsthand witness to an attempted murder of a close friend.
TAYLOR: I felt like I couldn't breathe. I felt panic. I felt just very afraid.
GUPTA (on camera): You didn't expect that you'd have this sort of reaction to it.
TAYLOR: Oh, no, no.
GUPTA (voice-over): A reaction that turned her into a hermit, sheltered in her house, her bed, absent from her life as a wife and a mother.
TAYLOR: I felt like my mind was being held hostage.
GUPTA (on camera): Were you suicidal?
TAYLOR: I can't say I didn't feel that way.
GUPTA (voice-over): Like so many we have heard from before, the potent drugs prescribed for her didn't help.
TAYLOR: That's how I came across the cannabis, because I felt like I had tried so many things, to no avail.
GUPTA: Church-raised and homeschooled, Amelia was taught that marijuana was evil.
TAYLOR: What do you have that helps just like during the day for anxiety?
GUPTA: But now she decided it was necessary. She joined Dr. Gruber's study.
GRUBER: Okay. Just like we talked about, we'll do a little bit of setup scanning.
GUPTA: Knowing they'd monitor her progress, and it gave her the confidence to buy and try cannabis for the first time in the fall of 2014.
TAYLOR: I felt really relaxed and really happy. I felt, like, joyful. It was such a weird experience for me because I just hadn't felt that way in a while.
GUPTA: And it would only get better. Amelia got her life back.
TAYLOR: Oh, you are too quick.
I just noticed myself breathing during the day, that I wasn't holding my breath. I noticed I was less startled. There'd just be these constant moments of like, wow.
GUPTA: And, in just a short time, we will take a peek at Amelia's brain to see what cannabis has or has not done and get clues as to why it seems to be helping her PTSD. Clues that Rick Doblin, just miles away in another part of Boston, is also determined to find.
The precise strain Doblin and Sisley believe could quiet and heal the brains of people with PTSD continues to grow. It is late fall and harvest is about to begin.
(on camera): And so how many of these plants have Rick Doblin's name on it?
ELSOHLY: He has his name on three plants.
GUPTA (voice-over): But, as they are about to learn, starting a revolution can be tough. Even if they can get the medical marijuana, they still need to get DEA approvals and a final study location, because Las Vegas also said no.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So for the next several years we'll --
GUPTA: Their journey is about to have some serious ups and downs, but all eyes are on another equally revolutionary study, a study that could impact all of us. Could marijuana, the drug associated with short- term memory loss, in fact save the minds of millions suffering with Alzheimer's?
GUPTA (voice-over): It may not look like it, but Mike Dobson (ph) is trying to save his brain.
MIKE DOBSON, SUFFERS FROM ALZHEIMER'S: Clears things up for me, a little easier than it was before.
GUPTA: A few years ago, Mike was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Like every other patient, he was told there was no cure, very little treatment, and that he would get progressively worse. He became forgetful, yes, but also angry, isolated, disoriented. He would just wander.
DOBSON: You don't know which way to go or what to do or -- it is just being lost totally.
PAULA DOBSON, WIFE OF MIKE DOBSON: He was very depressed, really down.
In that one, sweetie.
GUPTA: Paula Dobson (ph) believes marijuana helped improve her husband's life.
P. DOBSON: His memory is still iffy, but he laughs. He can communicate. It's like we have the old Mike back for a while.
GUPTA: Dobson is part of a population using marijuana to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's, like mood swings, irritability, and disorientation.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We looking for more of an upper, euphoric feeling?
M. DOBSON: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Okay.
GUPTA: And now researchers think they may have figured out how cannabis might be helping.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's the Presidential Bush. That's got about 20 percent THC.
GUPTA: If they are right, it could mark one of the most significant stories in this whole marijuana revolution.
In this Florida lab, scientists have discovered that low doses of THC slow down the buildup of the sticky proteins, which create plaque in the brain, one of the telltale signs of Alzheimer's.
DR. CHUANHAI CAO, BYRD ALZHEIMER'S INSTITUTE: We discovered, low dose has the ability to reduce beta amyloid production.
GUPTA: Dr. Chuanhai Cao is an assistant professor at the Byrd Alzheimer's Research Institute in Tampa, Florida. His belief, not only is THC safe and effective, but that it could be the future for the treatment of Alzheimer's.
CAO: THC is not that risky. It's good, because Alzheimer's patient really has no effective drugs.
GUPTA: And it's not just THC that scientists think targets Alzheimer's plaques. They believe the marijuana's other active ingredients, the cannabinoids, could reduce the overall inflammation in the brain, possibly providing benefit to many brain diseases.
We first heard rumblings about this in 2013, when we visited GW Pharmaceuticals in the United Kingdom.
DR. GEOFFREY GUY, CHAIRMAN, GW PHARMACEUTICALS: The leaves' flowering parts and the leaves around the flowering parts are coated with thousands of little balls. They're called trichomes, and the content is about 67 percent pure cannabinoid.
GUPTA: GW's chairman, Dr. Geoffrey Guy, and many others believe these precious chemicals are in fact neuroprotectants.
GUY: They will protect brain cells against insult and injury.
GUPTA (on camera): So, not damaging, but protecting the brain?
GUY: When brain cells are stressed by trauma or other injury.
GUPTA (voice-over): If you're skeptical, consider this. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an actual financial stake in this exact sort of research. Their patent, number 6630507, covers the use of cannabinoids as neuroprotectants.
DR. MARK ROHRBAUGH, DEVELOPED HHS PATENT: It can protect against further brain damage.
GUPTA: Dr. Mark Rohrbaugh developed the patent for HHS.
(on camera): How do you patent something that comes from a plant?
ROHRBAUGH: We're not patenting the compound. People are free to use the compound in other ways, subject to laws and other patents. So this is a method of using the compound for developing drugs to treat these types of diseases.
GUPTA (voice-over): Like a progressive degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It is caused by repetitive brain trauma from multiple concussions or consistent blows to the head.
DEAN PETKANAS, CEO, KANNALIFE SCIENCES: Hopefully, we can intervene in the process of late-stage neurodegeneration and suspend that process. GUPTA: Dean Petkanas is the CEO of KannaLife, the company that bought
the patent rights. Like Geoffrey Guy and the scientists at HHS, he believes this plant has so much potential, potential to treat the untreatable, diseases that may also be related in the brain, Alzheimer's, CTE, and PTSD.
S. KIERNAN: Let's study it and let's get the data.
GUPTA: Veteran Sean Kiernan, stay-at-home mom Amelia Taylor, they are the new faces of PTSD. Successful, smart, but suffering, and unwilling to accept the fact that so little can be done to combat this invisible disease.
S. KIERNAN: Where we see promising treatments, we should pursue those. Really, what it should be about is compassionate use for the individual.
GUPTA: Compassion that he hopes can get Sisley and Doblin's PTSD research back on track. Little does he realize that support is about to come from an unlikely alliance.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALAE: I dare any center to meet these patients here --
GUPTA: In all the years I have been investigating and reporting on medical marijuana, I never expected to see this. We will go there in just a moment.
GUPTA (voice-over): December 2014, Dr. Sue Sisley has arrived in the Mile High State of Colorado. The Board of Health is granting $9 million from a surplus tax collected on medical marijuana to now study its benefits.
Sisley wants some of that money, so she can set up her own research lab. Sean Kiernan is here as well.
S. KIERNAN: I'm a survivor of a lot of the issues you guys are dealing with, with medical marijuana.
GUPTA: He wants to convince the board that the PTSD and marijuana study should win.
S. KIERNAN: I think it's going to hopefully show us what many of us vets anecdotally are experiencing, which is a simple plant that's been around for eons is helping.
GUPTA: And just an hour-and-a-half later, a vote.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All those in favor?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The motion passes unanimously.
GUPTA: There are signs everywhere of a revolution gaining momentum, mainstream medicine. Serious academic scientists, previously so unwilling to dip a toe into the heavily stigmatized world of medical marijuana, are now diving in head first.
DOBLIN: All sorts of people came out of the woodwork to try to help us, including VA researchers who are experts with marijuana use by vets with PTSD and also researchers funded by NIDA who are located at Johns Hopkins.
GUPTA: And now one year after the study was approved by the federal government, the plants are now fully grown, brimming with the chemicals that could hold so much promise.
But one question still nags at Rick Doblin. Did it have to take so long? For decades, researchers have wanted to speed things up by getting a variety of marijuana strains from places other than the University of Mississippi, even taking the government to court, but, every time, they lost.
Now, in the midst of this revolution, even that may be changing.
Director of NIDA Nora Volkow.
VOLKOW: We started that dialogue with DEA. In order for us to advance the science, we are going to have to be able to provide very specific marijuana product.
GRUBER: I think that would be a huge deal.
GUPTA: Dr. Staci Gruber knows what a turning point that would be.
GRUBER: Studies that have used marijuana from the government have been very, very helpful, but perhaps somewhat limited, especially as "street product" has gone through the roof in terms of potency and strain type. And I think the closer we get to studying real world scenarios in the lab, the better off we're going to be.
That was fantastic. We're going to come on in and get you out.
GUPTA: A real world scenario is exactly what Gruber was able to study. She didn't have to get the cannabis from Ole Miss. Patients like Amelia Taylor bought their marijuana from a local dispensary.
And now we finally get to see what the impact has been, her brain on cannabis. Now, remember, she's been using marijuana every day for three months. Dr. Gruber found no evidence of impairment to Amelia's brain. There was a change over here, in the anterior cingulate cortex. It is a part of the brain responsible for decision-making, emotion, and empathy, which could all play a role in PTSD.
GRUBER: Very, very compelling, and certainly leads me to want to look much more closely and much more in depth at this type of process. GUPTA: Most importantly, Amelia felt better, reporting a 60 percent
decrease in anxiety, something none of her previous medications had ever done. These are exciting results for a research revolution, a revolution that these three senators now want to take to the next level.
BOOKER: This bill that we're introducing seeks to right decades of wrong.
GUPTA: March 2015, Democrats Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with Republican Rand Paul, have just proposed the most audacious marijuana legislation in our lifetime. If it passes, it would create a fundamental change in the way the United States views and treats marijuana.
BOOKER: Our drug laws in this country as a whole need a revolution of common sense and compassion.
GUPTA: For starters, it would do something scientists have been begging for, reschedule cannabis from Schedule I to a much less restrictive Schedule II controlled substance.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: Once you make the class of drug Schedule II, you can then research it and find out, what are the medical impacts and when can you use it, when does it make sense? So, that's what necessary here. It's so simple.
GUPTA: The bill would mandate more farms to grow research-grade marijuana and allow greater access to it for those in need, including veterans, who would for the first time be able to get a prescription for medicinal marijuana from the VA hospitals.
BOOKER: Let's stop the pot hypocrisy. We have now had three presidents that have admitted to smoking marijuana. People that are in public office all throughout the Senate have said, hey, I have smoked marijuana recreationally.
How much of a hypocrite do you have to be to say that I broke American laws using pot as a recreational thing and that I'm not going to support this idea that, as a medicine for severely sick people, that they shouldn't be able to access this drug?
GUPTA: It's an important question, a question that I took to the president of the United States.
(on camera): There's a bill on the floor of the Senate now proposing that marijuana get rescheduled from Schedule I to Schedule II, saying that it has no medicinal benefit to possible medicinal benefit.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes.
GUPTA: Do you support that?
OBAMA: You know, I think I would have to take a look at the details, but I'm on record as saying that not only do I think carefully prescribed medical use of marijuana may in fact be appropriate, and we should follow the science, as opposed to ideology, on this issue.
GUPTA (voice-over): It has been that message all along throughout our history. Ideology has trumped science often, too often. But every now and then, a revolution takes hold. It is guided by those unwilling to give up.
S. KIERNAN: We have got to keep the pressure on, because the only thing that's getting this thing moved forward is the pressure.
GUPTA: A revolution that's moved so far in nearly three years, when we first met young Charlotte and saw her life transformed by medical marijuana. A government who once fought now supports. A farm once barren now abundant. Studies once forbidden now under way, trying to provide scientific proof that could change, and, yes, even save lives, like it did for Sean Kiernan and his family.
(on camera): You think it helped save him?
C. KIERNAN: I do.
S. KIERNAN: You know, we have walked down those roads together and it's been a process that has been by no means fun or painless, but we're here today. And that's kind of how we look it. And we look at it from the perspective of helping others.
GUPTA: Helping others and the changing the world. The marijuana revolution has only just begun.