Twenty years ago, the notion that hundreds of doctors, nurses, patients, lawyers, and curious citizens would gather in a drab conference room to see scientists present research papers and hear physicians discuss the therapeutic benefits of marijuana was little more than a stoner’s fantasy. But in 2006, 10 years after Californians started a national trend by voting to allow sick people to smoke, eat, or otherwise imbibe marijuana to ease their pains, this notion is a reality — and it’s happening this April here in Santa Barbara. Starting with a reception on Thursday, April 6 and continuing for two full days, the Fourth National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics — a series of lectures, discussions, and social soirées — will be taking over S.B. City College. The conference, staged every other year since 2000, is a chance for doctors, nurses, and everyone else to find out about the latest clinical studies on medicinal cannabis from around the world and listen to experiential reports on marijuana’s triumphs and tribulations as a treatment. All the while, the healthcare professionals who attend will gain official credits for their continuing educations, exactly as they get credits for attending professional conferences on lung cancer or heart disease. The simple fact that an accredited conference exists and is endorsed by UC San Francisco and recognized by the American Medical Association is hard-and-fast evidence that medical marijuana is no longer a med school joke, but a worthy, valuable, scientifically proven treatment. And for some, as conference-goers will learn, marijuana is the only thing that works. Co-organizer Dr. David Bearman, a longtime physician in S.B. County whose background is in drug-abuse treatment and prevention, said that the conference is intended “to put a human face on the fact that this is actually beneficial for people.” He hopes to combat the oft-reported notion, repeated continually by the mass media, that the medical marijuana “is a bunch of old hippies sitting around and saying, ‘Wow dude, this is good stuff.’ The point in fact is that there are a lot of people for whom this issue is very serious.” But strides for medical marijuana aside, the landmark event is even more, according to Bearman. He’s been to plenty of conferences in his three-plus decades of being a doctor, and he explained, “What’s unique about this conference is the combination of researchers, patients, patient advocates, and clinicians. That is a rarity, and it provides for an exciting mix of ideas.” Who’s Behind It The conference’s dynamic nature shouldn’t be surprising considering the multi-pronged organization behind it, Patients Out of Time (POT). Run by registered nurse/author Mary Lynn Mathre and Al Byrne — a former Naval officer who’s been an expert on the medicine and politics of cannabis ever since one of his parents smoked the drug for relief in the 1960s — POT primarily advocates for medical marijuana among healthcare professionals. But the group also works to inform the public on the topic, a task fitting for Byrne, who worked in the upper echelon of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML, the primary force for full marijuana legalization in the U.S.) in the ’80s and early ’90s. Thirdly — and perhaps most significantly — Patients Out of Time represent five of the seven patients (two remain anonymous) who currently receive medical marijuana grown and legally provided by the United States government. One such patient, Elvy Mussika, is the organization’s national spokesperson, while the other four — Corrine Millet, Barbara Douglass, George McMahon, and Irv Rosenfeld — serve on POT’s board of directors (all but Millet will attend the conference). One of Patients Out of Time’s advisors is Alice O’Leary, whose late partner Robert Randall unwittingly instigated the modern medical marijuana movement when he successfully persuaded the government to provide for him legal marijuana to battle his glaucoma in 1976. Randall’s success briefly opened the floodgates for more legally marijuana-smoking patients, but more importantly, it put medicinal cannabis — which had been the number-two prescribed drug at the turn of the century before its politically and economically motivated prohibition in 1937 — back on the radar screen. Randall died in 2001, but his memory lives large and will be celebrated on Friday, April 7, at a tribute/benefit dinner — complete with auction and band — for Patients Out of Time. What to Expect? In addition to the tribute, the conference welcomes presenters from Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, and three California medical schools. “That should bring us national attention,” promised Bearman. After Thursday night’s kickoff, Friday begins with opening remarks by Bearman and Mayor Marty Blum, whose local celebrity status will be outshined by guests Montel Williams, the talk-show host who uses marijuana to fight his multiple sclerosis, and Joan Dangerfield, the wife of comedian Rodney, who used marijuana as well. Subsequent talks include Cannabis: Synthetic vs. Natural, Efficacy of Smoked Cannabis on Human Experimental Pain, and Federal Patients: Are They Healthy?, among others. Saturday moves forward at much the same scientific pace and will feature talks on Cannabis Use and Pregnancy, AIDS and Cannabis, and Cannabis and Mental Health. “There will be researchers talking about both animal and clinical research that clearly documents with double-blind studies that this is effective,” explained Bearman. “And there will be patients who have found that nothing else works but cannabis.” As you can tell, the topics range from heavy duty science to more approachable topics that everyday people are curious about, which is the main point. At the end of these three days, Bearman hopes that they will have confronted the “Hitlerian notion that if you tell a big enough lie often enough, people will believe it. Our position is that if you tell the truth in clear, plain English, people will get it. And frankly, they already have.” Surely, this conference will only help more.
4·1·1 To sign up for the conference, call Patients Out of Time at (434) 263-4484 or visit medicalcannabis.com. $155 general; $255 nurses and healthcare professionals; $335 physicians; benefit dinner $80. (UCSF is designating 15.75 AMA PRA category 1 credits, which include 6.5 credits toward pain management.)