TV review: “NOVA: The Cannabis Question”

PBS’ long-running science series “NOVA” is a staple of public television. It has been in regular production for almost a half a century, is seen in more than 100 countries, and it is rapidly approaching 1,000 episodes. It is surely one of the most respected scientific infotainment brands, and if “NOVA” decides to cover a topic you can be certain that it will make a solid presentation rooted in facts and figures. It is a program that can be trusted to get the topic at hand as right as the current science will allow. Last September, “NOVA” tackled “The Cannabis Question” and by coincidence the episode reran last week as I sat down to write this article.

“Cannabis is genuinely one of the most fascinating discussion topics I’ve ever seen, because of how emotionally polarizing it is amongst people…what we have in society is groups of people that very frequently believe it is this panacea that can cure any disease that exists or it’s the Devil’s grass that’s gonna cause the downfall of society…not recognizing that the reality of cannabis is somewhere in the middle.”

This paradoxical statement is made early on in “The Cannabis Question” and seems to essentially be the blueprint for the 50 some-odd minutes that follow. It is mildly disconcerting to see a viewer discretion content warning at the top of the episode, but perhaps that shows how square PBS still is, even in the year 2021. Must not let any children watch a show about the pot!

The hour is a sort of “greatest hits” of the pros and cons of pot, with the pros weighing considerably more heavily, though the cons – which include detrimental effects cannabis may have on a young, developing brain – are well laid out and food for thought. Certainly, any cannabinthusiast worth their weed will find the majority of this special redundant. But this isn’t for “us.” It’s a PBS program designed to appeal to and inform the unenlightened, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a dually less offensive and more informative hour to share with the not-we(ed).

We see patients suffering from PTSD, epilepsy, cancer and autism all given new, manageable lives thanks to cannabis. Any one of these testimonials would to any sane person be reason enough for federal legalization, but group them all together into one place, one after another, and “NOVA” makes a powerful case.

Yet the story of Sean Worsley gets the most play in this hour, perhaps because it so effectively demonstrates the pros and cons (well, sort of) of weed all in one gripping tale. Sean’s story in fact sort of encapsulates that “cure any disease/downfall of society” divide all at once, without ever taking anything away from cannabis itself.

Worsley faithfully served his country in the United States Army during the Iraq war, where he was wounded after an IED explosion, which left him with not only brain trauma but also PTSD – in his own words, “paranoia, insomnia, seeing things that aren’t necessarily there.” The medications he was prescribed to deal with these terrors resulted in side effects, so he turned to cannabis, legally, in his state of Arizona. So far, so good.

But Sean’s life as well as his wife Eboni’s took disastrous turns on a cross-country trip that took them through Alabama, a state that legally has very different views on medical marijuana than their state of Arizona. A stop to get gas led to a police officer questioning the couple and soon enough his medical stash was discovered. Sean played by the rules, even allowing the officer to look through his car, and for his honesty Sean was given five years in Alabama prison.

This man who served his country faithfully – and was awarded a Purple Heart for doing so – had to do time for addressing medical needs brought on by that service. Miscarriage of justice is about the politest thing one can say about this. Everything else is rage.

So, if we talk about cannabis leading to the downfall of society, part of that conversation needs to be about the incarceration of Americans for using a plant. A bigger part of that conversation needs to specifically be about how the disproportionate majority of such incarcerated folks are Black. And Sean Worsley is one of the best examples of a Black man done wrong by the United States of America on so many counts that we should collectively be embarrassed to ever refer to this as a “free country.”

You can watch “NOVA: The Cannabis Question” in its entirety here on YouTube. See for yourself Sean’s story as well as those of numerous others whose lives and afflictions have been aided by cannabis.

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