Providence – This past weekend, more than 200 people from around the world gathered in Warwick to talk and learn about medical marijuana. It was the sixth National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics, co-sponsored by the Rhode Island State Nurses Association and group called Patients Out of Time.
Phillipe Lucas, with the Center for Addictions Research of British Columbia, imagines what many outsider might think is going on here at the Clinical conference on cannabis therapeutics.
"Something about free samples I'm sure, right?" he says.
Although there is a guy selling tie dyed shirts in the lobby, there are also medical displays with illustrations of the human body, explaining how marijuana affects patients in pain. Most of the people here are dressed in suits. They're doctors, researchers, and advocates.
Indeed, this is a medical conference, with the backing of institutions like the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. And the people here have serious business to talk about: the health benefits of marijuana.
"What we found is in patients taking strong narcotic pain killer is if they vaporize and inhale cannabis for five days, that the level of the pain killers in their body goes down, but their pain relief goes up," says Dr. Donald Abrams, the chief of oncology and hematology at San Francisco General Hospital, and one of the pioneers in this kind of research. He's also a Brown University graduate, class of 72.
"It means that people on these more dangerous pain killer substances can maybe get away with lower doses for longer periods of time with less side affects if they're combined with cannabis," Abrams says.
He says it's difficult to do this kind of research because of the stigma surrounding marijuana, and because it's still illegal in many states. Finding legal sources of cannabis for research is complicated, and he's had a hard time getting his work published in peer reviewed journals.
"I don't currently have a study," he says.
That's why people here say academic conferences like this are important -- to compare notes on the latest research that treats marijuana more like a medicine and less like a recreational drug. Jesse Stout, the former executive director of Rhode Island's Patient Advocacy Coalition, says it's an honor to bring them all here to the Ocean State.
Stout says Rhode island is now a medical marijuana leader- the first state with a law to establish government sanctioned retail stores to sell cannabis. He's hearing a lot of praise from people here at the conference.
"Everything form excitement, to jealousy," he says. "You got states like New Jersey and Maine who've already passed laws allowing for retail to distribute medical marijuana to patients, but not as soon as us. Got people from California who are astounded we can get our state government so productively engaged in helping patients."
"I must say, Rhode Island has one of the best medical marijuana programs in all of the world, not just in North America," says Phillipe Lucas from Victoria, British Columbia. "And you guys should be very proud of that. The policies and processes you're putting in place are really second to none in terms of community based access and community centered programs."
That's good news for people like Ellen Lennox Smith from North Scituate, Rhode Island. She says she has two incurable conditions- one of which makes her connective tissues act like over-stretched rubber bands. It causes tremendous pain and has required her to use a wheel chair for the past three-and-a-half years.
"Yeah, kind of stinks," she says. "It's not what you plan in your life. I was a master swimmer, a swim coach, I walked miles, so yeah. Here I am."
Smith says she can't tolerate traditional drugs to ease her pain, but she says marijuana has provided her dramatic relief.
She can't smoke marijuana because of her condition, so she swallows oil infused with cannabis every night before she goes to bed. She says it often relieves her pain well into the morning. She can get the marijuana she needs here in Rhode Island legally, but not when she has to travel.
"I've six times now gone to Wisconsin to see a specialist for my surgeries and that's hard, because then I enter a state where it's illegal," she says. "So all of a sudden, I'm back to that person who can't tolerate drugs and is having major surgery and what am I supposed to do? And that's really frustrating."
Lennox Smith says she makes due with synthetic drugs derived from marijuana. But it's not ideal. She says it would be better if medical marijuana were legal in all states.
That's what most people at the conference are hoping for. They say they'd like to spend less time on proving cannabis is a legitimate drug and more on making it as effective as possible.