Behind The Scenes: NBC Dateline’s Medical Marijuana Documentary, Growing Hope
With the increase of medical marijuana legalization around the country, traditional media has begun playing a more critical role in sharing the success stories of patients across the country. Since Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s first special covering cannabis almost two years ago, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of coverage from major networks including reality shows from National Geographic and a look into the “green rush” from CNBC.
“No tie-dye, no black lights, no Bob Marley posters, just plants and science.” – Harry Smith, Journalist with NBC News
I got a chance to speak with Harry Smith, NBC’s journalist from Dateline’s newest medical marijuana special, Growing Hope. Over the last six months, their team has traveled, filmed and interviewed patients to produce the first marijuana documentary to air during prime time on local television.
About NBC Dateline’s Medical Marijuana Documentary
The documentary follows the journey of three Virginia families fighting not for legalization in their state, but the right to possess cannabis oil without fear of criminal prosecution or becoming a “medical marijuana refugee”.
“I don’t feel like a monster anymore.” – Jennifer Colins, 15 (suffering from intractable epilepsy)
Similar to the story of Charlotte Figi (for whom the infamous high-CBD strain Charlotte’s Web™ was created), we see the impact that intractable epilepsy (uncontrollable seizures) has on these children. One of which, Jennifer Colins, 15, proclaims “I don’t feel like a monster anymore” as she describes what it is like to be off of prescription drugs.
Not only does the special cover the political fight in Virginia, but it also provides some insight into the organization most known for kickstarting the high-CBD movement in Colorado and producer of the Charlotte’s Web™ strain, Realm of Caring.
“I see beauty, I see wonderment, I see incredible opportunity.” – Bear Reel, lead botanist in the Stanley Brother’s lab
While we agree with the sentiments of Dr. Amy Brooks-Kayal and Dr. Allen Bowling (two doctors interviewed in the special) that there is not enough scientific evidence to support the stories like those found in the documentary, hopefully the continued activism of patient families and the media will push us closer to federally supported clinical trials.
Behind The Scenes: Q&A With NBC’s Harry Smith
Q: What was your college experience in Iowa like in relation to cannabis?
A: I grew up just outside of Chicago and went to college in Iowa then I lived in Denver for a dozen years. Back in the day when I was in Iowa, hemp grew in the ditch. I will never forget freshmen year, kids in the dorm coming back with pillow cases full of hemp that they thought was marijuana. It never quite worked the way people thought it was going to.
Q: Did you notice any shift in cannabis culture while in Colorado or just in recent years?
A: There was always a significant recreational drug atmosphere in Denver, but having not spent tons of time there until a year and a half ago, I’ve never really seen it. People ask me about it all the time and I say, this is a culture that has existed a long time and now it is out of the closet. Every time I go out there (colorado), I feel like I am watching a genie come out of the bottle. People who live in California or Colorado have watched this unfold before their eyes, but for those of us visiting from some place like New York, it is still a very eye popping cultural shift.
Q: How familiar were you with cannabis before this documentary, either recreational or medically?
A: Ancient familiarity from my college days (or early twenties) and zero after that. I’ve been on a crash course for the last year and a half. We’ve done two 1-hour documentaries for CNBC, this being the first for NBC news. When I first got out to Colorado to cover the legalization of recreational marijuana, it was kind of mind boggling to me. Anecdotally, people were talking about “well you know my friend’s dad takes it because it helps him sleep at night” and the guy who drives the limo says “yeah, I take it because I have a bad back”. You start to hear it and being skeptical having not been around it all. As we went back for our second documentary for CNBC, I said “we’ve got to do something”. These people were traveling across the country, especially to get cannabidiol (CBD). That really opened that whole world to me and when the opportunity came up to do this special for Dateline, we said this is what we really want to focus on.
Q: Were the anecdotes what motivated your team to put this documentary together?
A: When shooting the second documentary late last year, we went to Colorado Springs and met some of the families that literally picked up everything to move to the Colorado, to help kids with epilepsy. Part of what impressed me the most was one the families we spoke to, the dad was a rocket scientist and the mom worked for NASA. These aren’t crazy people but they are very intent on getting what ever help they can for their kids. Under any circumstances that is a good story.
Q: What are your thoughts on this being the first prime time cannabis documentary aired on local television nationwide?
A: It is interesting, we’re in the midst of giant social change. Governor Hickenlooper (of Colorado) told me two years ago, “This is a giant social experiment, this change is happening really really rapidly.” I used to live in Colorado and people that I know who have lived there for years, who are very much against the legalization and not thrilled about how their state is being stigmatized, have changed their views over the last year or so, as the flow of information becomes faster in terms of “what is this plant about.” It is also changing people’s minds and as you will see in our piece, the legislature in Virginia was saying, “You don’t have a chance at getting this done.”
Q: What were your feelings towards cannabis prior to the documentary and how have they changed since filming?
A: It’s an evolving thing, and I think more than anything else (especially on the medical side), I am wildly curious. We talked with medical experts in Colorado… you know… clinicians and serious researchers. They want to see for sure what medical marijuana is all about. Does it do all the things they think it might? After all, there is so much anecdotal information about it, indicating its positive effects. I believe this is the time to throw the doors open and do the double blind research to find out if there is something in an organic substance like this that really could be beneficial to people.
Q: The documentary took six months to put together, is that typical of the specials you do?
A: This one took so much time because a lot of it is the journey of these families getting together in the first place, saying we’re trying to change this law.
“These families are trying to keep their kids alive and they don’t have a lot of choices.”
I can’t tell you how many trips Mario Garcia (the producing muscle behind the documentary) took to Virginia alone to see this through. Six months is probably a little longer than usual, but a lot of it was the time it took to see the changing of the law unfold.
Q: What were some challenges shooting this documentary?
A: Really, it was a commitment. If you are going to do something like this, you really have to commit to it. It is being inside the hearing rooms and being with families outside of the hearing rooms. For me, it was a really profound experience to see families with kids whose health is so awfully impacted. If you know about severe forms of epilepsy, there is a standard drug regime (around a dozen pharmaceuticals), and if the first fails and the second fails, the chances the rest will work goes down to nearly zero. Here are these families trying to keep their kids alive and they don’t have a lot of choices. I was profoundly moved to see to what ends these families would go to find help for these kids. It was a really dramatic and powerfully emotional experience for me.
Q: We understand a large part of the special covers the role Realm of Caring plays. How did that come to be?
A: It goes back to the origins of the story with Paige Figi. I suppose they are probably the most well known of whoever might be providing CBD oil. Most of the families that we know about are trying to obtain it through the Realm of Caring. Everyone who we were involved with, that is who they were in contact with.
Q: What were your thoughts when medical professionals said there is not enough evidence suggesting cannabis is a solution after spending time with the families?
A: I think it [cannabis] is a pretty responsible thing to do. There have been drugs over the years that people thought were effective and until you put these substances through double blind tests, placebo tests, that’s the way you find out if something really works or not.
“I am not a scientist, but medical marijuana sure looks pretty damn effective to me.”
Emotionally, I am seeing kids who used to have dozens of seizures every day, and now they don’t have any. I am not a scientist, but that sure looks pretty damn effective to me. In the real world that has to be put up against higher scrutiny. Your website (Medical Jane) says “The Science of Medical Marijuana”. If it’s really to move forward, it’s that kind of rigorous testing, that will have to come under scrutiny. At the same time, they (medical professionals) are looking for more research because I think they acknowledge from what they are seeing anecdotally, this needs to be looked at.
Q: Do you think this documentary will change the network’s approach to covering cannabis?
A: I think it is evolving already. I’ve done a lot of interviews with local television stations in preparation for this. There are two different things happening at once, you have the spread of recreational and the spread of medical marijuana. Those go together hand in hand but the picture of recreational versus the picture of medical marijuana are different. The notion of “coming out of the closet” and the bright shiny thing that seemed so amazing a year and a half ago, maybe is a little less amazing now. If people are really trying to figure out how to use this as real medicine, that becomes a more interesting and even fascinating story sometimes.
Q: Do you see any additional specials in the future?
A: I couldn’t even begin to guess. I never would have guessed that Stephen Colbert’s one episode would refer to me as the “Stoner Icon”. That was not a moniker I expected someone to think of me as. Suddenly, I am now the marijuana correspondent for NBC. I am really interested in the question, “if there is a plant out there that can really provide significant benefits as an alternative to really harsh medicines, wouldn’t that be something?” I’m sitting on the fence with my eyes wide-open. I really want to see what happens.
Watch Dateline’s Growing Hope Documentary This Weekend
If you are still unsure about the efficacy of medical marijuana, we hope you tune into NBC Dateline this Sunday, June 7 at 7p/6c for the 1-hour special. You can also watch a sneak peak of Growing Hope here.