Conversions -- religious or otherwise -- can be hard-won. For Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the well-known medical correspondent for CNN, all it took was science -- hold the political ambition.
In January 2009, when Gupta was reportedly on the short-list for an appointment to the post of Surgeon General, he penned a piece slamming cannabis as a legitimate drug. He was amazed anyone used marijuana, he wrote, and added that the DEA's classification of cannabis as highly dangerous and addictive and medically worthless was spot on. (He didn't get the Washington job).
It took four years but Gupta appears to have completed a full flip-flop on the issue. Ahead of a Sunday night special on weed -- entitled "Weed" -- Gupta "apologized" for his old hard-line stance on cannabis in an op-ed published on CNN's web site.
"We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that," he writes. "Now I know" that the DEA is wrong and the "loud chorus of legitimate patients" were right, he says.
What changed? He's no longer a politician, for starters.
Gupta's on-air admission session with Piers Morgan -- in which both talking heads admitted to using marijuana but only as "younger lads," in Morgan's charming vernacular -- could be seen as a breakthrough. Suits on cable television weren't talking about using pot a few years ago; no one on network TV has gone as far as, say, Bill Maher in advocating the drug as a regular companion to be embraced as often as some uncork a bottle of wine.
Except this kind of speech is becoming safer and safer. A majority of Americans want marijuana outright legalized, according to recent polls by all the major polling firms. Far more than that want the plant to be used freely and safely by sick people.
Gupta's conversion is a bit puzzling -- or it would be if it weren't blindingly transparent. In dismissing out of hand a drug that's proven to be good for dozens of afflictions, many serious, the good doctor said that the DEA's classification of marijuana was good enough for him. He admits today, however, that he didn't look long or hard enough at studies.
That's hard to believe. It belies either intellectual dishonesty or an incredible laziness. Gupta says he reviewed the medical literature on cannabis in 2008 and 2009 and found it "lacking," and wasn't swayed by the millions of people who claimed relief from the plant.
However, some of the research he references in today's article as reasons for his reversal were available in 2009. If the government's claims on the drug are garbage now, they were garbage then -- as others less concerned with convenience have maintained.
It's smart politics to swallow whole the government line if one wishes to join the government, and by adopting the party line -- the same one that prevents marijuana from being available to researchers, even as the anecdotal evidence of cannabis as a cancer-curer grows -- Gupta was doing his duty.
It would be nice to be able to believe that it was purely by experimentation and science that Gupta's conversion came about. But while Gupta may at last be smelling the truth, he's also smelling an opportunity.
The tide of public opinion has clearly shifted. The Justice Department of his would-be boss, President Barack Obama, is waging a tiny and timid war on state-legal weed that, despite being so limited, appears incredibly unpopular.
And Gupta has a television special coming out on Sunday night to promote.
So welcome, Dr. Gupta. Many will be glad you at last found it convenient -- though we wonder how a Surgeon General Gupta would have welcomed the Washington D.C. marijuana dispensary when it opened its doors this summer.