Ten years ago, Lindsey Ward was an aspiring filmmaker looking for his first job, when a local cannabis dispensary owner near his home in San Diego asked for his help making a film. Astounded by the wide variety of patients coming into his dispensary and lauding the benefits and relief using marijuana gave them, he wanted Ward to interview some doctors and gather as much information on the medical benefits and use of cannabis as possible.
Sure, Ward, 37, smoked weed, but he – like most of his generation – grew up believing marijuana was a harmful drug. The War on Drugs propaganda machine made sure every kid his age knew all about the supposedly terrible side effects, brain damage and myriad long term emotional and physical detriments, not to mention gang violence and sexual deviance, associated with this dangerous “gateway” drug. Having a conservative, Navy-veteran doctor for a father didn’t help things. “I knew I liked smoking weed,” Ward says, “but I always felt this deep underlying guilt when I smoked as the voices of my dad, the cops and all those D.A.R.E films echoed in my head.”
In desperate need of the job, Ward said yes to the dispensary owner, took the few thousand bucks and set out to interview a couple of doctors. What he heard during those first interviews radically changed his life and perspective on cannabis as a plant – both as a medicine and drug.
A new web docuseries, The Truth About Cannabis, scheduled to be released this summer, is the culmination of his decade-long quest to understand the true history, medical uses and current scientific knowledge of the cannabis plant. “I wanted to substantiate my own – and I think the general public’s – growing curiosity and acceptance of cannabis with facts,” Ward says. “I knew if I really wanted to do that, I had to go to the actual sources of information on both sides and speak with them face to face.” Along the way, Ward met multiple people with inspiring stories of healing, pain relief and improved quality of life through marijuana use that he felt compelled to share as well. The more he heard and saw, the more he wanted to know about the plant. “Ten years on and I’m still learning new things about the plant and meeting all these people with incredible stories about how it helps them,” he says.
In the decade since Ward began his research and interviews for the series, medicinal use of cannabis has progressed substantially as doctors across the globe are finding success using cannabis to treat a large variety of physical and mental ailments, from insomnia to glaucoma, Parkinson’s disease to PTSD. This rising tide of awareness and medical information is the surge Ward rides in The Truth About Cannabis. “It’s been an amazing journey,” Ward says. “Ten years ago there wasn’t much real scientific or medical awareness about cannabis. Now it’s progressing so quickly and the more scientists and doctors study and learn about cannabis, the more both communities are realizing how effective and safe a medicine it really is.”
The Truth About Cannabis draws directly from this deepening well of information, propelled by over 50 extensive interviews with prominent scientists, doctors, researchers, activists, governmental agencies and everyday people from around the world using marijuana to treat illness and disease. “When I first started researching cannabis there was a bunch of propaganda and misinformation floating around out there about its uses and health effects,” Ward says. “I wanted to change that and shed light on all the incredible and verifiable medical and scientific research and data that’s currently available.”
The interview list for The Truth About Cannabis is exhaustive. It includes well-known experts like Dr. Donald Tashkin, a pulmonologist and professor of medicine at UCLA who studied cannabis for over 30 years. Hired by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to prove that smoking cannabis is linked to lung cancer, Tashkin and his team found the exact opposite. “The THC in marijuana has well-defined anti-tumoral effects that have been shown to inhibit the growth of a variety of cancers in animal models and tissue culture systems,” says Dr. Tashkin, “thus counteracting the potentially tumorigenic effects of the procarcinogens in marijuana smoke.” In fact, he says, marijuana smokers are less likely to contract lung cancer than an individual who doesn’t smoke at all.
There’s Dr. Sue Sisley, an internist who’s been researching the potential of cannabis to treat PTSD. Fired by the University of Arizona in 2014 under the pretense of “funding and reorganization issues” after she received funding from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to study the positive effects marijuana use has in treating PTSD. Convinced she was fired because of her impending cannabis study, she pressed on. (The university said in a statement at the time that it would not comment on specific personnel issues, but did say that “The UA has not received political pressure to terminate any employee as has been suggested in some media and other reports.”)
Either way, the response to her ongoing study is positive thus far. Encouraged by the results, she’s quick to point out that no conclusions can be drawn until the data becomes available next year. Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRI’s – the drugs on the market for PTSD – have a number of brutal side effects, including insomnia, weight gain, impotence and suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Marijuana has the potential to help with the trauma, but without the harsh side effects.
Dr. Ethan Russo, a board-certified Neurologist and psychopharmacology researcher, offers one of the most illuminating interviews in the docuseries. Dr. Russo makes an extremely convincing argument that the use of cannabis on its own or in conjunction with opioids can reduce the dosages patients require along with the severity of opioid-induced side effects.
Can weed be part of the solution to the current opioid epidemic? Dr. Russo certainly thinks so. “THC and CBD compounds have pain-relieving properties,” explains Russo in the interview. “When used in conjunction with opiates the help lower the opiate dosage needed, prevent development of tolerance to and withdrawal from opiates, can rekindle the opiate analgesic effect without additional opiate dosage and there’s no evidence of clinically relevant adverse drug to drug interaction between cannabinoids and opioids.” There are also no cannabinoid receptors in the area of the brain that regulates respiratory function, which is why it’s impossible to overdose and stop breathing when using marijuana. This is a major difference between opiates and cannabis and the main reason why one can kill you and the other can’t.
Some of the most potent and eye-opening interviews found in The Truth About Cannabis come from folks who are using pot to manage and treat life-threatening illnesses and debilitating diseases.
There’s a 14-year-old kid diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and a host of other complications who states he went into full remission thanks to cannabis treatment. Claiming bluntly, “cannabis saved my life.” Ward shoots hoops with an ex-professional basketball player, diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live over five years ago who’s convinced the only reason he’s still alive is because of cannabis. There’s the mother of a child with a brain tumor who was told not to expect her baby to live past one – now, the child has been tumor free for four years. The victim of a horrible car accident, confined to her bed due to pain and the inability of her body to accept opioids that can walk once more and hug her children again. These are people who have no interest in “getting high,” but found an incredible amount of relief and hope through the consistent and measured consumption of marijuana. For Ward, these stories are the ones that matter.
“The story of cannabis is really the story of humanity,” Ward says. “It was one of the earliest forms of human medicine, has been used to convene with the divine by numerous cultures throughout history and offers relief for such a wide variety of physical and mental ailments plaguing the world today. That doesn’t even consider its benefits on an industrial and environmental level via hemp cultivation. The truth is out there and it isn’t going anywhere.” He stops talking and takes a deep breath, flashing a wide smile. “I sincerely hope The Truth About Cannabis helps empower people through that truth.”