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Vice: Season 4, Episode 4 - "Beating Blindness and White Collar Weed"

Matthew Fay

Vice explores two sides of healthcare: one promising, and one troubling.


Airtime: Fridays, 11 PM
Cast: Isobel Yeung, Hamilton Morris
Subtitle: Season 4, Episode 4 - "Beating Blindness and White Collar Weed"
Network: HBO
Air date: 2016-02-26

In its fourth episode, Vice looks at two stories of medical progress: the technology and methods being developed to cure blindness, and the exploding business of legalized marijuana, now the fastest-growing industry in the United States. While the former story is an optimistic look at the miraculous possibilities of accessible and low-cost healthcare, the latter is an age-old cautionary tale of the privatization of a new market.

In the first segment, "Beating Blindness", Vice correspondent Isobel Yeung covers revolutionary eye treatments in Africa and the United States. In a hospital in Ethiopia, Yeung watches as ophthalmologist Matt Oliver operates on a patient with cataracts: a condition that blinds roughly 19 million people worldwide, especially in developing countries. Oliver removes the cataract in the eye, than replaces it with a clear lens. Yeung is shocked at the procedure’s efficiency: the surgery taking as little as five minutes. It’s an amazing speed for curing a condition that normally cripples victims for life, including children.

"In Ethiopia, blindness is a death sentence," says Oliver.

Without social security, explains another doctor, the blind become dependent on their families, thus becoming another burden on already economically and socially desperate people.

The most astonishing aspect of the procedure is its cost-effectiveness: Oliver explains that in total each procedure costs around $120, and he’s able to do as many as 70 such procedures a day, due to a revolution in low-cost materials and equipment.

Yeung describes watching the procedure as like viewing "a factory conveyor belt". The scene's a kind of healthcare dream: cheap, fast treatment with no obstacles or bureaucracy, save for a wait in line at the hospital.

The episode’s most emotional moment, and definitely the most heartwarming scene Vice has shown so far this season, is the removal of bandages from the patients’ eyes, fewer than 24 hours after the surgery. People blind for as long as ten or 15 years are suddenly able to see again, and jump and sing in celebration.

Back in the United States, in Boston, addiction counselor Anthony Andreottola, who has been blind since age 35, is one of the first people undergoing a treatment called the Argus-2, a small device that replaces dead photoreceptors in the back of the eye. The treatment is less curative, in that it only permits the patient to see very rough black and white outlines, instead of restoring sight completely. For a blind patient, however, it’s assuredly a positive step.

"It’s better than not having it all," he says, agreeably.

Even given the seeming miracle of restoring sight, Vice also covers the flip side of these treatments: the implications of treating blindness for someone blind since birth. Psychologically, the process can be overwhelming, even distressing. Yeung interviews a 42-year-old woman named Marti who has undergone surgeries to repair a lens of one of her eyes, leaving her just above legally blind. For Marti, however, the procedure may not have been worth it.

"I wanted to die," says Marti, "so what does that say?"

For Marti, the change from blindness to sight after so many years seems just as much an upheaval and struggle as becoming blind for a normal-sighted person, in adjusting to a whole new way of "seeing" and navigating the world. This includes something as simple as the concept of "black", which Marti didn’t understand while blind, but now sees when she closes her eyes. For someone whose senses have had a lifetime of alternative adjustment, changing them on a dime can be devastating.

"When you live a certain way for so many years, and you're adjusted to the world around you, and you undergo a change like this, it can make you feel crazy." For someone like Marti, it raises the question of whether making the world more navigable for the blind, such as via specialized equipment, is preferable to actual treatment. What treatments such as the one Anthony underwent seem to represent most is a step forward.

In showing viewers the miraculous discovery of cheap eye treatment, Vice provides a cheerful, utopian picture of a future of accessible healthcare with transformative results, while at the same time thoughtfully considering the medicinal question of when such a transformative treatment might be too much to bear. If the first segment shows us a healthcare dream, however, the second segment is a sobering reminder of a recurrent nightmare.

Entitled "White Collar Weed", the second segment's hosted by Vice correspondent Hamilton Morris, who explores the booming marijuana market since the drug's legalization in Colorado, including business such as tourism with "Weed Bus Tours" and massages using THC-laced lotions, as well as hospital treatments to increase appetite and manage pain. Yet, the corporate demand for the new product has also exploded, leaving the long-time local farmers who started and progressed the movement to its legalization, at risk.

"Five years ago in the cannabis industry, there were no leaders, there were no standards," says Brendan Kennedy, CEO of a cannabis-based private equity firm. "What was lacking was professional, mainstream companies that could alter the stigma normally associated with the industry."

It begs the typical question that follows any such economic sequestration with a newly legal product: monopoly and mass consolidation. Morris explains how when marijuana was legalized in New York in 2014, only five companies were allowed to sell it, raising worries of monopolization. Whereas in New York there exists an application process to obtain a marijuana business license, in states such as Ohio, the owners have been chosen ahead of time, giving ten investors exclusive rights.

"This has no place in the state constitution," says an Ohio representative, Mike Curtin. "It has no place in any state constitution. The constitution is supposed to protect all the people. This will protect ten guys."

Morris interviews one of these ten people: Alan Mooney, a founding member of ResponsibleOhio, a company seeking the legalization of marijuana for business purposes. When Morris brings up the fear of marijuana monopolization, Mooney scoffs.

“Would you rather have politicians make that decision, or private capitalists?” says Rooney, not seeming to realize his own ominous statement, and giving an unsettling grin that seems to put even Morris on edge.

"I am a capitalist," he says, "I'm blue-blooded, I love America, but I am a capitalist, and I’m not ashamed of it."

This leaves local farmers being treated like bootleggers, in violation of state regulation, even farmers who have been advocating marijuana legalization and growing the plant for years. The episode ends with footage of a raid on one such farm, in which one farmer’s entire product is taken by authorities, leaving him in financial ruin.

In contrast with the episode’s opening scene of medicinal hope, the second segment leaves off with one more reflective of a corporate dystopia. In an era with corporate villains like Martin Shkreli seizing valuable, new market medicinal products, Vice leaves the viewer with insight into the next potential corporate takeover, and a lesson in a familiar pattern in the American healthcare market. By showing us a more hopeful side of medicine, however, Vice also gives us a glimpse of somewhere humanity might aspire to.


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