10/06/2010 02:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Changing the Face of Medical Marijuana

The Plant Medicine Expo and Healthcare Provider Conference didn't just bring Law and Order star Richard Belzer to town, it also brought a frank, honest, and educational voice to the medical marijuana debate taking place in Colorado. The expo didn't cater to the "stoner" crowd or seek to promote the full legalization of marijuana, the expo was clearly about advocating for the rights of medical marijuana patients.

The PME/HPC held educational conferences throughout the weekend covering a range of issues, from running a medical marijuana dispensary, to what physicians should know about medical marijuana, and also held a debate over medical marijuana moderated by Belzer.

Prior to the debate we were given the opportunity to interview Mr. Belzer as well as Seth Ginsberg, the co-founder and president of TGI Healthworks, the company that produced the expo.

Huffington Post: What's your personal opinion and connection to medical marijuana and has it changed over time?

Richard Belzer:
I'm a cancer survivor and when I was being treated with radiation my doctor recommended that I take marijuana, of course he couldn't prescribe it or give it to me, it was kind of clandestine, so the fact that the doctors were covertly telling people to use it then was interesting and it was incredibly helpful and just seeing over time the list of diseases that marijuana so alleviates and helps, it's astounding. Just the humanity of it that's what attracted me to it.

HP: If it were up to you to write the laws regulating marijuana, what would you write?

RB: Well, the reality is marijuana's been around for thousands of years, it's been used in many forms. Not just smoking the flowering tops but all aspects of the plant have been used medicinally and for various things. I think that it's sanely being used now by millions of people and there are certain states that have very mild laws, it's not even an arrestable offense or it's less than a traffic ticket and I think that over time it will evolve and become more widespread in use. We know for a fact now scientifically, anecdotally and every other way with controlled studies that marijuana helps any number of diseases so it should be easier to start to pass laws.

HP: Do you feel like the people that advocate for the legalization of marijuana, take away from the credibility of those who advocate just for the medical use, those that are jumping through hoops so to speak to use the drug recreationally but are taking advantage of the medicinal laws?

I think the fact that there's so many vast numbers of people involved in this issue, users, non-users, recreational users, people who use it for medical reasons, you're gonna get people who will exploit the issue one way or another -you can't control that. So of course some people are gonna say, "They just wanna get high," well in this case we can say, "Yeah, so what." The evidence in my experience is that there are no crimes committed specifically because somebody's high on a joint. So the arguments are becoming more bogus and shallow because millions of lawyers and legislators have smoked pot or knows somebody who smokes pot, or their kids smoke pot, so I think we're evolving but there are always those extreme elements who for political or so-called religious reasons will stand in the way of what the majority wants.

Any last thoughts you want to share with us?

Yes, mine would be to have people who have family members or they themselves are suffering to talk to their doctors about it. I think the bottom line is educating doctors and caregivers and other members of your family. You don't have to be a user or be crazy about marijuana but you can see what your doctor has to say about it.

Huffington Post: What's your personal connection to medical marijuana?

Seth Ginsberg: As someone who lives with a chronic disease, not a marijuana patient per say but a person who has compassion for other people living in pain, I think that we need to understand more about as many methods of treatment as possible. So our commitment is really to the healthcare industry, to understand the best way to treat chronic diseases and the ways we can live healthier with these conditions. So for us the conversation about marijuana really needs to begin with the physicians, as well as the patients and help both parties have a more meaningful dialogue.

HP: Are you in support of the full legalization of marijuana?

SG: I am personally not until we know more about it. There's a lot we still need to understand, including ways to dose it and measure it. Currently it falls outside the authorization of the FDA which is a body of government established to protect patients and the public and keep a specific level of safety and efficacy and measurement in play. So I feel like before we legalize something we need to truly understand it.

HP: A lot of the recommendations in Colorado come from the same few doctors, "pot-docs" that essentially work out of dispensaries, do you feel like this delegitimizes the practice of writing those recommendations, that they're coming from what some might say are advocate doctors?

Yeah, but at the same time I think we have to consider that shortly after Colorado legalized medical marijuana the attorney general and the governor sent threatening letters saying that they'd revoke licenses of any doctor that recommended it. So what that did initially is not only stopped physicians from writing recommendations but it also stopped physicians from understanding more about it, asking questions and educating themselves and each other about what it means to treat with marijuana. So while there are a handful of "pot-docs," as you called them, who are not as intimidated as others, there's still a tremendous liability for most physicians who have too much to risk. There's still a lot of hurdles to overcome but events like this are deliberately engineered to provide the opportunity for these doctors, for the healthcare providers to begin the conversation in the proper way.

HP: Most dispensaries charge essentially street prices and sometimes more for medication, making it prohibitively expensive for patients that fall on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, what do you think could be done to address this either through cooperative patient action or legislation or a different method?

SG: I think unfortunately without a better accepted infrastructure within the system, those people will not benefit, those people will be left behind. Currently we have a system in place for the needy to get access to medications free or at a reduced price, Medicaid is, while not perfect a very good infrastructure for the poor and we have a long way to go. It's sad, it speaks to a number of flaws in our system when the needy are left behind but I think it ultimately speaks to our need to reform.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about medical marijuana and what do you feel like is the best thing that could be done to address it?

I think that the biggest problem facing the medical marijuana community right now is the stigma that it comes with among the general population, you know it's still viewed as a hippie culture it carries with it and I would not feel good associating myself with that culture and understand why patients in need of relief wouldn't want to either. There are people right now who are scared to talk to their doctor about it, they're scared to talk to their family about it. And they're legitimate fears whether it's from an employer who might terminate them, or a life insurance policy that might drop them, being arrested or going to a shady place in town to purchase their medicine, so society ultimately needs to be a little more compassionate and listen to these people's needs so that this conversation can occur and legitimization can occur.

HP: Would that be achieved through more regulation or less?

SG: I think at the end of the day it would need more regulation that comes on the heels of understanding. More research and more knowledge about what it's all about. Ten years ago in Colorado the attorney general put the fear of God in these doctors eyes and said, "Don't even think about it, and I'll take your license away if you do." So until they get back up to speed and have the intellectual capacity to have the conversation with their patients I think unfortunately very little will change and regulation won't help alone, it needs to come along with education.

After the interviews, Belzer then led an informative and thoughtful discussion representing some differing points of view.

Belzer opened the discussion reading some of Dr. Andrew Weil's September 12th, 2010 Huffington Post article, Cannabis Rx: Cutting Through the Misinformation
From this point the panel, made up of; Stan Garnett, District Attorney for Boulder County, Tom Gallagher, Colorado Springs Councilmember At-Large, Charlie Brown, Denver City Council member, and Joshua Kappel, Outreach Director for Sensible Colorado, went on to discuss the topic at hand.

"I'm not a fan of the law because it didn't consider the patients," said Gallagher of H.B. 1284, the recent legislation passed in Colorado dictating how the medical marijuana industry will operate, "It severed the relationship between caregiver and patient," he said.

In response to the federal government's handling of state medical marijuana laws, Charlie Brown had two simple words, "Grow up."

Regarding general marijuana laws Stan Garnett spoke from his experience as Boulder County D.A., "We have plenty of real crime to focus on in Colorado."

As for the current debate in Colorado over medical marijuana the panel seemed to be in agreement that it has become a zoning issue more than anything, where dispensaries and grow operations will be located, what the fees to operate them will be etc.

Gallagher also pointed out the ancillary benefits of the medical marijuana industry, sales taxes, fees, and new business opportunities for those directly involved in the industry as well as those indirectly involved.

The irrational fear some people have about marijuana was discussed as well, "In Colorado Springs some people believe the plant will jump out and kill kids, seriously," Gallagher said.
The audience asked questions and shared stories about their personal experiences with medical marijuana until finally the dialogue was forced to an end by outside time constraints, there certainly was no lack of conversation.

The message sent from the PME/HPC was clear and one that is important to legitimizing the medical marijuana industry -the patients should come first, and until the industry changes its image from that of a bunch of stoners or hippies progress will continue to be slowed. The PME/HPC is the change that it seeks and supporters of the medical marijuana industry could learn a lot by taking a page from its book.

The PME/HPC was held September 25th-26th, 2010 at the Downtown Sheraton Hotel in Denver, Colo.