Bill Nye on the Science of Pot: 'If it Works, Let's Go'

From conspiracy theories to male virility, America's favorite science guy explains why we need to study weed

"People [in Israel] get very well-documented benefits from marijuana use as a medicine," says Nye. "So this is worthy of investigation." Credit: Lev Radin/Getty Images

Everyone's favorite science guy is back – and, like the millennials who grew up watching him on TV, his interests have matured. Netflix's Bill Nye Saves the World tackles the science behind complex subjects like climate change, the sexual spectrum, and, yes, marijuana. As disorienting as it is to watch the bow-tied Nineties goofball drop words like "kush" and "coitus," it's also rather encouraging, in today's world of alternative facts, to know that Bill Nye is still out there fighting the good fight: educating the public, debunking pseudoscience and doing his darndest to make learning fun. In his episode about weed, released at the end of December, Nye buys bud from a dispensary in Los Angeles, talks to stoner-movie director Kevin Smith about getting high with Seth Rogen, and learns about the advanced medical cannabis research happening in Israel. We reached Nye recently at his home in California to talk all things pot and science.

Jeff Sessions famously said "good people don't smoke marijuana." Do you think good scientists can smoke marijuana?
Yeah! I don't really see eye to eye with Jeff Sessions on this issue. If you want to smoke marijuana you should be able to smoke it. We should have the same controls that we have on other substances. I don't want to be on an airplane with a bunch of people smoking weed, in the same way that I don't want to be on an airplane with a bunch of people smoking cigarettes. I enjoy a martini as much as the next guy – maybe more – but then I don't operate a motor vehicle after having a martini. I don't want to be on the road with drunk people, and I don't want to be on the road with stoned people. All things in moderation.

On the marijuana episode of your show, you talk about how annoying it was when your ultimate Frisbee teammates would play stoned, a few decades back. It did seem like you think using cannabis gets people impaired in a way that could be problematic.
Athletically, yeah. But you know we had the [Liquor Cannabis Board Director] from Washington State on the show and his message was, "We legalized this and the sky didn't fall. The world still spins." And the thing I find interesting is that use among young people in Washington State did not go up measurably. So let's not criminalize it. Let's tax it! It's a crop that we can raise and monetize. I can remember when hemp rope was still around. I guess it grows, if it may, like a weed, so having hemp fiber available to society sounds like something of benefit.

Your former professor and predecessor as CEO of the Planetary Society, Carl Sagan, was rather famously a fan of marijuana. Did you ever hang out with him when he was smoking?
No, I didn't, but I know his widow, Ann Druyan, likes it. She uses it in moderation, or that's my understanding, and she gets pleasure and enjoyment and doesn't see what the big deal is.

I wouldn't be surprised, when further studies are done, if it turns out your genetic predisposition has a great deal to do with how you respond to it. Like alcohol. Environment is a factor in why people become alcoholics or do not become alcoholics, but apparently there's another factor in addiction, which is the hand you're dealt genetically. I'd be surprised if that's not true of marijuana. Some people get addicted, some people don't. Some people get high, some people don't. So we should study this.

As a journalist who covers this, I find it really hard to find trustworthy information about marijuana. What sources did you find to be most helpful in getting educated on the subject?
Well the guy in Israel, [legendary cannabis scientist Raphael Mechoulam], and the [medical marijuana] program in Israel was for us the most compelling and reasonable analysis. People there get very well-documented benefits from marijuana use as a medicine in various forms. So this is worthy of investigation.

Scientific study is of great value, and I think marijuana is worthy of scientific study. Nobody is quite sure how it works. That right there is a chin-stroker. So to give you an example. Commercial pilots are allowed to fly eight hours after their last glass of wine. If you test people the following morning for alcohol, it's not present. It is metabolized. But cannabis derivatives stay in your system for a few weeks. So whatever effect they're having, it's reasonable that it persists for a couple weeks. Is that important, or not? I'd kind of like to know. Perhaps it's of great benefit and gives pilots better judgment. I don't know.

Well, the National Institute on Drug Abuse did some studies around that and a scientist there told me that two weeks after you smoke a joint, if there's still THC in your system you are twice as likely to get into a car accident.
Really?

That's what she told me. Really freaked me out.
That's a chin stroke, isn't it.

You've said that we need more research about cannabis. You are friends with politicians and a lot of powerful folks: the kind of people that could potentially influence that. Why do you think we aren't seeing more money going into funding medical marijuana research?
Right now, the U.S. Congress has got a lot of other problems on its hands. And I gotta tell you, this is not my main thing. It's not something I generally bring up with politicians. And I myself, let us understand, I don't really like smoking marijuana. But you guys, knock yourselves out.

Then again, the strains of marijuana may change. My general health situation may change. And I may become a big fan of marijuana. But right now it's not my thing.

Okay, sure.
But I will say another thing that's important to consider. There is mounting evidence that when men smoke marijuana a great deal, it is more difficult for their wife to get pregnant. And this has to do with the way sperm swim when a guy smokes a lot of dope, apparently. So that's something, as a taxpayer and voter, I would like to know more about. The virility consequences.

Sure, we definitely don't spend enough money researching male virility…
Well, we do spend a lot of money on women's fertility, and we're maybe spending the money in the wrong place – presuming it's the women's plumbing that's the issue, and it's really the guy's. Not enough work has been done finding out whether or not they're treating women with in-vitro fertilization but they really should be restricting the marijuana use of the father.

I think I meant more like, we already put a lot of money toward Viagra and things like that. Studying the relationship between male virility and marijuana seems somewhat low priority.
But couples go crazy, and spend millions of dollars trying to get fertile. I've met a great many people in the television and movie industry who every morning get high. And they come to work and they function okay, I guess. But maybe it's affecting their ability to get pregnant. I've also known a great many women who have spent a lot of money, fractions of their income, like in the tens of thousands of dollars, in order to get pregnant. And this is a very important issue to couples in the developed world.

With all that said, there were 3 billion people in the world when I was 10 years old, and now there's 7.4 billion. So fertilization, shmertilization, if I may. We're making more people like crazy.

Do you think other people you talk to who are leaders in the science world take the idea of studying marijuana seriously?
Sure. Especially people in neuroscience.

At what point did it click for you that cannabis had genuine medical purposes?
My mom had breast cancer. A guy I worked with, his wife had cancer, and she claimed she had great benefit from cannabis pills to relieve her chemotherapy. My mother never took them. This would be in the 1980s. My mom didn't try it because she was not of that age. I think it was a generational bias. But if it works, let's go.

Did you look into any of the research around cannabis replacing opioids as a painkiller?
No, but certainly people are using it as a painkiller or a palliative. So if one thing is relieving pain, you'd presume you wouldn't buy the other thing. And marijuana, because it grows so well, it should be an inexpensive alternative to all kinds of other molecules and drugs.

A lot of people think the reason why we haven't seen more research or legalization might be that Big Pharma opposes legalization – cannabis is inexpensive, it's easy to grow at home and it's really difficult to patent, so it would be it would be hard for them to make money off of it. Do you think that's conspiracy theory, or do you think that's legitimate?
Any time you presume that a big corporation is out to suppress another technology I'd be very skeptical. What you would watch for instead is big corporations investing in it, if it really worked. The thing about conspiracy theories is they're easy. If only there were 60 people in a conspiracy running everything, then we could just go find those sixty people and straighten it all out.

But it's much more reasonable that it's just 320 million people, in the world's third most populous country, all competing for resources and economic benefit. Let's not connect the newspaper articles with yarn and pushpins on a big bulletin board. It's much more reasonable that it's just everybody trying to make a living and pushing against each other.

I'm real down on conspiracy theories. The earth is not flat. It's somehow connected for me with this idea that one's own opinion, one's own point of view, based on anecdotes, is every bit as valid as scientific research published in peer reviewed journals. And marijuana is often caught up in that.

Right, but part of the problem is we can't do that real research, and the stuff that the government has been telling us for so long, that marijuana has no medical purposes, is incorrect. And that opens the door to this level of doubt that means people can say anything.
Well, that's why we did the show.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.