VICE correspondent Krishna Andavolu meets those whose lives hang in the balance of the new pot paradigm. Each episode of this mini-series, which has evolved from his regular column of the same name on VICE, explores a different aspect of cannabis use in the USA from a unique perspective.
Krishna provides an intelligent and critical appraisal of the myriad issues faced as the United States rapidly changes its attitudes towards this plant. The show succeeds in being thought-provoking, compelling and most noticeably compassionate throughout; the only drawback being that Krishna has somewhat incongruously weaved some gratuitous footage of himself getting high into the show.
Episode 1: Stoned Kids
“Seeing kids stoned still weirds me out.” This statement is something that we can nearly all agree on, unlike a lot of other comments from the people featured in this episode. The first instalment of Weediquette feels at first a lot like an episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends. The show examines the lives and beliefs of a small group of people who are breaking the boundaries of conventionally socially acceptable behaviour by treating their children’s cancer with cannabis.
Cannabis, as well as being the world’s most popular illicit drug, is also proven to treat many of the chronic and debilitating side effects of chemotherapy such as pain, lack of appetite and sleep deprivation. However, these parents are not only advocating the use of cannabis in addition to chemotherapy, but as a substitute to their doctor’s recommended treatment in the belief that cannabis can fight tumour cell growth. Krishna asks, “are they deluded or are they truly pioneers?”
Some of the footage will be shocking to many viewers, such as when a conspicuously Christian couple give their eight and half month old child cannabis. In a slightly disjointed twist, the show then goes own to show a rather ‘trippy’ portrayal of Krishna on a high dose of concentrated cannabis oil before returning to the issue at hand and exploring the medical evidence.
The most well-argued and resonant point made in the show is that the current federal scheduling of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug deemed to have no medical benefits has limited the opportunity for clinical trials studying its efficacy. There are in vitro (test tube) and mice trials which have shown the promising potential of THC (the main active ingredient in cannabis) to reduce tumour growth but the further human trials needed to test whether these initial indications translate into a cancer treatment are stymied by federal regulation.
There is abundant anecdotal evidence flooding the internet with claims that cannabis can cure cancer. Whilst restrictions preventing research from determining the validity of this claims one way or another remain in place, it seems likely that many parents and patients facing desperate choices and low chances of long term survival will continue to seek desperate measures by ignoring their doctors and turning to as yet unproven medicines. “Does weed cure cancer? Maybe.” Should we be satisfied with that answer? No. There’s likely to be plenty more media attention for this issue until the research is permitted.
Episode 2: Stoned Vets
“PSTD is a new name for an ancient idea. Homer talked about it in the Odyssey. Shakespeare called it ‘a cursed melancholy.’ After World War 1 the term shell shocked became popular and in World War 2 it became known as battle fatigue. Soldiers returning from Vietnam were said to suffer from the thousand yard stare. Yet despite being around for as long as civilisation, we still haven’t found a solution for vet’s with PTSD.”
In the second episode of Weediquette, Krishna paints a chilling picture of the scale of the problem with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the United States. One fifth of all soldiers suffer from PTSD. Those soldiers are often prescribed a cocktail of prescription medications including opioid-based painkillers by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs (“the VA”). Krishna poses a simple question: “Can weed help veterans navigate the nightmare that is PTSD?”
One veteran on the show certainly thinks he has the answer; “22 veterans a day are killing themselves because they don’t have access to this plant”. The shocking number of people dying from this condition certainly warrants the show’s investigation and provides evidence for why many have turned to cannabis as a potential alternative.
Krishna meets Danny Palmer, an Iraq vet’ with severe PTSD who has spent four years on VA medication and whose family have been broken apart. His distress is palpable when he speaks about his experiences: “You don’t think people are going to cut open **stifles tears** deceased children and stitch them back up with bombs in them because they know that we would offer aid to them.”
The show isn’t all doom and gloom though. We meet families whose position has been greatly improved and they are convinced that weed is the reason why. A compelling and emotive argument for the need for access to cannabis for those suffering from PTSD is presented, grounded in the anecdotal evidence of those featured. This episode also touches on some of the reasons why the only evidence we have is anecdotal. Federal scheduling of cannabis, a theme throughout the series, deems it to have no medicinal value and makes research almost impossible. “Without the research to back up what amounts to just a collection of anecdotal evidence, science and maybe more importantly public policy won’t be able to catch up with the scale of the problem.”
Episode 3: The War on Weed
The show opens on a police force with an arsenal sufficient to topple a rogue state. However the target isn’t a terrorist cell in the Levant, or dissidents of any sort, it’s some bags of weed.
Cannabis is still the drug in question in more arrests than for all other drugs combined. The war on weed is still huge business in the United States, about $50 billion tax dollars a year are spent, despite an ever growing number of states relaxing creating fully legally regulated markets for its sale.
It’s in this context that Krishna meets the family of one of the men most unjustly deprived of his liberty in the name of the war on weed. Bernard Noble has been sentenced to 13 years in prison for the possession of two joints of cannabis. Thanks to Louisiana’s ‘tough on crime’ stance, they are one of the many US states with a ‘3 strikes law’. Bernard Noble had two previous convictions for drug possession so when he was caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis, this was the third strike and he was eligible for an egregiously elevated sentence.
Krishna meets Bernard’s likeable family to discuss the impact that his incarceration has had on their lives. Then he sets off to investigate the root of the problem with the system in which Bernard and his family are only a few of very many victims. Krishna introduces us to Bernard’s pastor who provides the context: “they see you as a potential criminal instead of a citizen that needs protecting. Our kids are being stopped just on a random bias because they fit the description: young and black.”
The show investigates the prisoner-for-profit system which provides law enforcement and the prison system with perverse incentives to encourage high sentences, and to continue supporting a system in which “You are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, charged, imprisoned, and imprisoned for longer, if you are black for drug crimes than if you are white.”
George McBride is the Policy Officer at the drug research and policy think tank the Beckley Foundation. Tweets @GeorgeMcBride1