Does Sanjay Gupta’s support of medical marijuana really signify a turning point in the debate?

CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD’s very public transformation into a proponent of medical marijuana has done more than just inspire late-night talk show hosts to joke that his employer should change its name to the “Cannabis News Network.”

It has at least one pundit speculating that the U.S. has arrived at a “tipping point” in which the American is open to legalizing some drugs that had generally been thought of as illicit.

But despite Gupta’s fame, influence and seemingly heartfelt apology for previously being “dismissive” of medical marijuana, that’s giving him a little too much credit.

That tipping point indeed may have come in 2013, but it came before Gupta’s change of heart. In April, a Pew research poll of 1,500 adults revealed that for the first time in more than four decades of polling on the issue, a majority of Americans (52%) said they favor legalizing the use of marijuana.

Support for legalization rose 11 percentage points in just three years, and has come a long way since 1969, when just 12% were in favor of it, according to Pew.

The Washington Post appears to have been right on when it labeled marijuana as “the new gay marriage,” another issue in which support amongst the American public has risen sharply in recent years.

With marijuana, what’s less clear is exactly why Americans’ acceptance of it is growing. Ballot measures in Colorado and Washington last year, in which voters supported decriminalization and legalization, no doubt have made a difference in making marijuana seem more acceptable to the mainstream. In April, Illinois became the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana.

Still, the answer may be a little more simple. Perhaps more people are supportive of loosening legal restrictions on marijuana because they’ve used the drug themselves. In 2001, Pew found that 38% of adults said they’ve tried pot, and that number had risen to just 40% by 2010. But in the three years since, the number has jumped to 48%, Pew found. Of those who’ve tried it, 47% said they used it “just for fun.”

If the trend holds, the percentage of Americans who’ve tried pot will continue to rise and the number who support legalization is likely to grow right along with it in the coming years.

A reader poll that recenty appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that clinican attitudes on medical marijuana may be moving in the same direction as those of the American public. The poll received nearly 1,500 votes, and 76% of the votes cast were in favor of the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It should be noted that this was hardly a scientifically rigorous poll, but it does serve as a general gauge of sorts for medical providers’ perceptions of medical marijuana.

As for Gupta, he’s predictably faced a little backlash over his rapid about-face on medical marijuana, such as a Boston Globe health reporter who pronounced herself “disappointed” in Gupta for “swinging too hard from one pendulum to the other.”

But at least give Gupta credit for clearly explaining the “why” behind his seemingly abrupt turnaround. Business Insider cites nine reasons that Gupta offered, including that marijuana laws are not based on science, the drug doesn’t have a “high potential for abuse” and that pot is much safer than lots of prescription drugs.

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