The Cannabis Question Looks at Weed and the Body and Brain

The new PBS/NOVA film ‘The Cannabis Question; delves in to the scientific questions behind weed that we are still finding the answers to.
The Cannabis Question
Andrea Coria Examines Cannabis Bud – Photos Courtesy WGBH

The more cannabis becomes accepted in the U.S., the more frustrating it becomes that cannabis researchers are barred by Schedule I status and cannot freely research, as well as that communities of color remain more at-risk for incarceration. The new PBS and NOVA documentary The Cannabis Question tackles both problems in one, succinct film. 

The film looks at what scientists have discovered so far about the body and brain, as well as the potential medical benefits and risks of using cannabis and how people of color have been harmed by its criminalization. Released on September 29 of this year, the film takes an unbiased and fair look at the way cannabis has been treated. 

“A majority of Americans now live in states where cannabis is legal. As more people make their own choices about cannabis use, this film explores what scientists have learned so far about the potential benefits and risks,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort in a press release.

“We hope The Cannabis Question will inspire people to join the national conversation about cannabis—informed by the science, and also by the story of how the plant has been weaponized against marginalized communities, causing irreparable harm.”

The Cannabis Question
Yasmin Hurd of Mount Sinai Hospital – Courtesy WGBH

The film looks at scientists Yasmin Hurd at Mount Sinai Hospital and Daniele Piomelli at University of California, Irvine. Both researchers are heading up studies on the endocannabinoid system. By sharing the personal stories of patients and users, the documentary uses a mix of science and emotional appeal to shake the stigma against weed. 

“Such research is critical on a number of levels,” Hurd told High Times. “First, the endocannabinoid system, through which cannabis mediates its actions, is a critical biological system in the brain. It has a broad role in numerous brain functions relevant to cognition, memory, emotion, hormonal regulation and motor behavior and thus is highly implicated in various neuropsychiatric disorders. 

“Moreover, the endocannabinoid system is critical for hardwiring of the developing brain. As such it is important to understand the impact of cannabis exposure especially as THC concentrations have dramatically increased over the years thus leading to far greater perturbation of the endocannabinoid system over its normal physiological bandwidth. In addition, given the neuromodulatory role of endocannabinoids in the brain, it is important to study whether cannabis/cannabinoids can be leveraged to modulate neuropsychiatric disorders.

According to the Director of The Cannabis Question, Sarah Holt, the film is the first of its kind to closely examine the scientific research on how cannabis interacts with humans’ endocannabinoid systems. 

I hope viewers will come away with an understanding of why [the endocannabinoid system] is one of the most important regulatory systems in our body—and anytime you use cannabis, you are interfering with it,” Holt stated in a press release. This isn’t Holt’s first dive into filmmaking to uncover and share scientific data about how drugs interact with the brain. 

“In 2018, I produced a NOVA film called Addiction,” Holt told High Times. “The film investigated how opioid drugs alter the brain, and why addiction should be viewed as a brain disorder that can be successfully managed with evidence-based treatments. As more Americans favor legalizing cannabis, NOVA and I agreed it was time to investigate the latest science studying the vast array of chemicals in this plant. 

“Scores of clinical trials were underway exploring the potential medical benefits or risks of cannabis. Instead of anecdotal stories, the hope was that our film could report on real data to help viewers make informed decisions about cannabis.”

Courtesy WGBH

The film focuses on how cannabis benefits patients with conditions like PTSD, anxiety and pain. It also traces the history of cannabis criminalization throughout the U.S., including the racist history of the word “marijuana” and the demonization of undocumented people throughout the War on Drugs. It specifically focuses on the stories of those who have done or are still doing hard time for cannabis possession. 

“I hope the film helps people understand the larger context and impacts of our drug policies,” Holt said about the movie. “A public health crisis has been unfolding for decades—caused by the war on drugs. The film highlights the influence of racism in forming US policy and its implementation around cannabis over the last century. Cannabis arrests are fueling mass incarceration in this country, and disproportionately targeting communities of color. Incarceration dramatically affects people’s health, and conviction records make it difficult for people to get jobs. 

“At the same time that we have an estimated 40,000 Americans behind bars for cannabis charges, the cannabis wellness industry is thriving, creating a stark divide. I’m hoping that this film widens people’s perspective on cannabis and helps them see how science could inform policy in ways that are both more equitable and beneficial to public health.”  

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