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Andrew Weil
Andrew Weil
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Andrew Weil Interview (page: 2 / 6)

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  Andrew Weil

How do you hatch your theories, or get your ideas?

Andrew Weil Interview Photo
Andrew Weil: I cast a very wide net, using all my senses. I listen, and I look and I read and when I come across things that are interesting I follow them up and see what I can find out about them. If I come across something that doesn't fit with accepted conceptions, it really catches my interest, it's something that I want to know about.

Is that how the marijuana study came about?

Andrew Weil: Yes. In the '60s, before I left the field of botany, marijuana was beginning to cross the line into the middle class in this culture, especially among students and young people, and there was an astonishing absence of scientific information about it. People were giving all sorts of opinions about what marijuana did, and there was almost no human research on it. In fact, there had only been two times in history that people have given marijuana to human subjects to see what it did. The last time had been in 1944, before the double-blind method was used. So there was almost a complete absence of scientific information about marijuana, but that didn't stop lots of people from giving expert opinions on it.

What was the reaction of the school to that request?

Andrew Weil: This was in my senior year at Harvard Medical School. I devoted my whole senior elective time to research. I found another faculty advisor, Norman Zinberg, a psychoanalyst who was another mentor of mine who was very interested in addictions. I proposed doing a basic human study, using a double-blind method to find out the most basic questions about marijuana. First of all, I wanted to find out whether you could study it in the laboratory, how it affected basic vital functions and basic psychomotor functions. This was a big step to take.

There was no legal mechanism for getting marijuana for research. There were many different federal and state agencies that were involved. A lawyer who was very interested in marijuana legal issues bet me that I would never be able to obtain permission to get marijuana to do human research. The attitude of the school was, they were very upset, the Human Subjects Committee. Because one of our experimental designs was that we wanted to give marijuana to people who never had it before, because we felt that expectation played an enormous role in determining the effects of marijuana. And people who had previously used it had expectations of what it would do. The Human Subjects Committee of the school took the position it would be unethical to expose people to marijuana who had never been exposed to it. We ended up doing the research at Boston University School of Medicine, because Harvard wouldn't let it be done on their premises. And there was a lot of contention here, I mean, there were a lot of negotiations with many agencies and bureaucracies.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Did you feel that some of these ethical questions were valid?

Andrew Weil: I think they were valid, but they were surmountable. I think we had answers to them. The fear of the Human Subjects Committee was that one exposure to marijuana in a scientific experiment would lead people to become heroin addicts and then they would sue the university. I think that was a very unrealistic fear. There's very little research to show that people who experiment with marijuana go on to use opiates.

Andrew Weil Interview Photo
It was a very interesting time. We did the experiments and got away with it, and got some very good publishable papers out of it. The main results were published as a lead article in Science in 1968. I think this was the first time it had been shown that you could study marijuana in a laboratory and deal with the various physical, social, ethical and medical problems that came up around that.

You got some pretty amazing results.

Andrew Weil: This was front page news in the New York Times. Some people were upset by our conclusions, because we said that marijuana in these experiments seemed to be a relatively mild intoxicant. The effects were very heavily conditioned by people's expectations. People who had no expectation often couldn't tell whether they had smoked a placebo, or smoked real marijuana. I think the results of those experiments have been validated over time. The paper has actually been reprinted a number of times as a model of clinical research.

That must be a source of immense pleasure to you, but at the time of the criticism you were a young man, and it could have had a negative impact on your career.

Andrew Weil: I was in my internship when this came out, but I've always been willing to take risks and chances. The most common word that I've heard used about the work I do is "controversial." These days it's less controversial.

Often I'm on talk shows and hosts will ask, "How do you feel about it, when people say, you're controversial?" And I say that, "I think if I stop being controversial I wouldn't be doing my job." I mean, this is just the kind of things that I hone in on. I'm interested, as I said, in what doesn't fit established conceptions, in looking at things that don't fit accepted models. And in trying to determine what's true and useful.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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This page last revised on Feb 27, 2013 11:30 EDT
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