Marijuana and cancer – Sanjay Gupta’s anecdotes are not science

Editor’s note–this article has been updated and included into a multi-part series on marijuana and medicine. Check it out there. 

Unless you were hiking in the Amazon River jungles, with no access to the internet or American TV, you probably have heard that CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, changed his mind about marijuana (or “weed” as he keeps saying). Of course, this has become big news, because he’s such a “respected doctor” (why is that? Because he’s on TV?), and because a few years ago he was vociferously anti-cannabis.

I have no doubt that Dr. Gupta’s “conversion” to being pro-weed is genuine (and that his previous stance of anti-weed was similarly authentic), but we need to weed out what is real and what’s just smoke about his comments. His first major point about cannabis* was that the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) considers marijuana to be a Schedule 1 drug, which is defined as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Dr. Gupta thinks this classification is ridiculous, and on the surface, many people, even those who are not devoted pot smokers, would probably agree. However, this is a political discussion, at least in the USA, and it is hardly a medical/scientific one. The chances of any political party having the fortitude to correct this classification is about as close to 0 as you can get, without actually stating that there is a 0 chance. But if Gupta wants to make a big deal of this, or that he’s so self-centered that he thinks he’ll change the mind of politicians, more power to him. But for me as a skeptic, it is not the most important thing he says.

In his article, he mentions a young girl who “started having seizures soon after birth. By age 3, she was having 300 a week, despite being on seven different medications. Medical marijuana has calmed her brain, limiting her seizures to 2 or 3 per month.” This is simply an anecdote of no quality whatsoever. Did he thoroughly investigate her case to determine if the number of seizures actually went down? Do we know that cannabis has anything to do with the change? Is this nothing more than a Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, that just because she consumed cannabis and the seizures decreased does not mean anything about cannabis’ causative properties with regards to this type of seizure. And then, Dr. Gupta continues with the anecdotes by stating, “I have seen more patients like Charlotte first hand, spent time with them and come to the realization that it is irresponsible not to provide the best care we can as a medical community, care that could involve marijuana.” Why do these TV doctors (like Dr. Oz) think that their anecdotes are better than anyone else’s.

Anecdotes are useless because they aren’t controlled, because they are subject to all levels of bias, and because these stories aren’t peer-reviewed. In other words, anecdotes have no value in science-based medicine. Anecdotes do have value in formulating testable scientific hypotheses, but assuming that anecdote=data, and more anecdotes=more data is simply pseudoscientific. I don’t care what Sanjay Gupta writes or says publicly, but providing these stories as “evidence” that marijuana has a medical benefit is essential like telling me that he observed homeopathy (which is just water) working. It’s laughable.

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