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Filmmaker Sarah Holt’s New Doc for PBS Explores the Science of Cannabis

Filmmaker Sarah Holt's New Doc for PBS Explores the Science of Cannabis

A Q&A with the veteran director on her latest film for the acclaimed PBS NOVA series, focused on what we know (and what we don’t) when it comes to cannabis.

Despite the increasing popularity of cannabis around the world, there’s still so much we’ve yet to learn when it comes to exactly how it interacts with the human body. In what can be described as a classic “cart before the horse” scenario, the legalization of the plant in large swathes of the U.S. has arrived ahead of the type of comprehensive research consumers often rely on when making decisions about what to put in their bodies.

Fortunately, a new entry in the acclaimed PBS NOVA film series is tackling this subject head-on. Set to air nation-wide on September 29, “The Cannabis Question” is the latest documentary from veteran filmmaker Sarah Holt. Covering topics ranging from the medicinal value of CBD in treating epilepsy and autism to the profoundly cruel impacts of the war on drugs, Holt’s documentary offers a comprehensive, contemporary survey of what we know — as well as what we’re still in the dark on — when it comes to cannabis.

Speaking with Bloom & Oil, Holt shared that the impetus for making a film about cannabis came during production on a previous documentary for NOVA: 2018’s “Addiction.”

“When I was doing that documentary,” Holt detailed, “it was just so clear to me that the war on drugs was a colossal failure. I was stunned to discover how drug arrests are the leading cause for being arrested in the U.S. and I could see that a huge number of those arrests were for cannabis.”

Given NOVA’s emphasis on science, Holt says she began to look into ongoing clinical trials related to cannabis. Initially, the trials she focused on where slated to be completed in time for the resulting data to be included in “The Cannabis Question” — and then the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

“Covid kind of destroyed all of my plans,” she said. “All of the trials got put on hold, so none of them had data, which was frustrating.”

(Photo: Dr. Yasmin Hurd / Courtesy WGBH)

Regardless, Holt’s film does a masterful job of assembling a diverse array of expert subjects eager to discuss the role of cannabis and its various medicinal applications. Among them are clinicians with UC San Diego’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Dr. Yasmin Hurd, Director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai.

In “The Cannabis Question,” Dr. Hurd expresses her concern over what she sees as an unbalanced flow of information: one which overwhelming favors the potential positive attributes of cannabis but does not adequately consider the risks.

Responding to an email prompt from Bloom & Oil, she elaborated on her position.

“I do not think that balanced attention is being given regarding the benefits and risks of cannabis use,” she wrote. “All medications have side effects that are important to guide clinical care and to determine which individuals might benefit more, or less, from a particular treatment. While I do think that there are medicinal properties of cannabis, without clinical trials to fully examine dose, formulations and relevance of effects in different groups (e.g., sex, age, race), they will not meet the standard of ‘medicine.’ Even recreational use is important to investigate since we know of the long-term impact on the developing brain and such risk needs to be better understood and information provided to the public.”

In many ways, Dr. Hurd’s reasoning is a recurring theme throughout “The Cannabis Question.” As viewers are treated to success stories involving the plant — like the pioneering work of Stanford neuroscientist Catherine Jacobson, who saw that CBD might be a possible aid in treating her son’s epilepsy — they are also shown the fallout of use in subjects suffering from cannabis withdrawal symptoms. It all serves as a reminder of just how little hard data we have when it comes to role smoking pot may have on our body chemistry, especially long-term.

For Holt, one of the key things she took away from making the film was a better understanding of the endocannabinoid system.

“Making this film,” Holt said, “I was just fascinated to learn that we make our own cannabis-like molecules called endocannabinoids. Cannabis kind of opened up this whole new chapter in neuroscience because we now know that there is an endocannabinoid system in our bodies and that cannabis can target the receptors in this system. I remember sitting with Dr. Hurd and learning about how we have more cannabinoid receptors than any other type of receptor in our brains. I think science is just beginning to scratch the surface of this whole complex regulatory system. It’s like one of the most important regulatory systems that people have never heard of.”

By releasing a film about cannabis under the prestigious auspices of PBS NOVA, Holt’s hope is that a wide new demographic of viewers will be provided with a thoroughly fact-checked crash course on the subject.

Title: Filmmaker Sarah Holt's New Doc for PBS Explores the Science of Cannabis (Andrea Coria)

(Photo: Andrea Coria examines a cannabis bud in “The Cannabis Question” / Courtesy WGBH)

At the same time, no film focused on cannabis would be complete without acknowledging the context of the war on drugs that’s been waged by the U.S. against its own citizens for the past 50 years. In the case of “The Cannabis Question,” the larger scope of the issue is addressed through the story of Iraq war veteran Sean Worsley.

Over the course of Holt’s film, we learn that Worsley suffers from PTSD as the result of multiple IED explosions he experienced during his service. After obtaining a medical marijuana card in Arizona, Worsley and his wife, Eboni, are arrested for having (valid, medicinal) cannabis in their car while driving through Alabama. As a result, the two face felony charges which ultimately leads to Sean being incarcerated within the Alabama prison system just as the Covid-19 pandemic begins to emerge.

During this unfathomably difficult time, Sean suffers a stress-related stroke while Eboni endures a heart attack. The pair also lose their home and face steep fines and fees related to their arrest. This harrowing ordeal also occurs as other, more-cannabis friendly states declare operations related to the plant as an “essential” service. The plight of the Worsleys is a pivotal facet of Holt’s film, overlapping both the medicinal value of cannabis (which Sean notes was very helpful in treating his PTSD) and the stark reality that the war on drugs is far from over.

Responding to an email prompt from Bloom & Oil, Sean (who now lives with Eboni in California), explained why he allowed Holt to chronicle this exceptionally difficult period in his life.

“My hope is for us, as humanity, to recognize social injustice, systemic inequalities, racism and obsolete laws that erode society,” he wrote. “How it creates disparity and disenfranchisement of generations long after the legal issues. What we don’t know does harm us and subjects others to its ramifications. Empowering others today removes the need for charity tomorrow.”

Added Eboni: “We’re working on establishing programs to empower others who’ve been incarcerated to reduce recidivism and change the trajectory of their families. Once we’re settled in our place (this month hopefully), we’d like to start campaigning and fundraising to help provide supportive services in re-entry.”

Those interested in providing support to the Worsleys are encouraged to donate to a GoFundMe campaign the pair has created.

Discussing the importance of having the Worsleys’ participation in her film, Holt emphasized that many have failed to connect the war on drugs to the larger concept of public health.

“I hate to say this, because Sean’s story is so tragic,” Holt said, “but I felt so lucky to find him and I was so appreciative that he was willing to help. To me, his story illustrated — which I think people fail to realize — why the war on drugs is such a disaster from a public health point-of-view.”

While unquestionably awful, the story of the Worsleys is nonetheless illuminating. Overall, that’s the great achievement of Holt’s new film: shining an informed light on a subject that has, for so long, been relegated to the dark.

“I think that people are hungry for information, even though there’s still so much we don’t know,” Holt reasoned. “One of my goals with the film was to try to provide people with useful information to think about, because people are going ahead and using cannabis now, before these trials are finished and before we have the real data. I just hope this film can help them think about those choices.”

“The Cannabis Question” premieres Wednesday, September 29, at 9 p.m. ET/8C on PBS and will also be available for streaming online at pbs.org/nova and via the PBS video app.

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