Images by Derek Kouyoumjian
To a certain demographic, 72-year-old Bob Lobel needs no introduction. Before his retirement, as an anchor for WBZ, Lobel was for many years the face of local sports. He has called games for the Celtics and Bruins, and led broadcasts of the New England Patriots pre-season, the Boston Marathon, and home games for Boston College. Lobel also dispatched from the sidelines of NCAA men’s tournament basketball in the ’90s.
But until now, few would have considered him to be the unlikely new face of the growing marijuana movement in the Bay State. As time and research increasingly side with cannabis supporters, what once seemed out of place or even taboo is becoming the norm in Massachusetts—and in Alaska, Washington DC, Colorado, and any number of other frontiers. Lobel then is a representative of a larger construct, and so I wanted to learn about how somebody in his shoes experiments and finds medical cannabis, if for no other reason than to sometime in the future reminisce about the dark ages when a lack of education kept medical weed sidelined.
In time, we may see public figures like Lobel as harbingers of the tipping point. If large swaths of the older generation, now retiring in record number, begin to come around to the boon of medicinal marijuana, then they will need leaders like Lobel to set the stage.
I meet up with Lobel at the Northeastern Institute of Cannabis (NIC), a Natick-based learning and treatment institution that opened last September with the mission “to advance knowledge and educate students in cannabis as a plant, the cannabis industry, and other areas of learning that are of importance to cannabis culture and business.” The sports broadcaster is here for a consultation with Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, an NIC instructor who also runs a medical consulting business out of an adjoining office, where she’s the certified physician trained in Family Medicine and Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Dhanabalan, or Dr. Uma as she’s better known, is also certified by the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, one of the major professional organizations promoting cannabinoid benefits for the sick or injured.
While anxious to seek a Massachusetts medical marijuana card—he wants to “keep everything on the up and up”—Lobel is new to the state process, which is still a work-in-progress, and in some ways a mystery (though there aren’t dispensaries yet, patients can obtain medicine, with several restrictions, from personal caregivers). To that end, he has visited the institute on two recent occasions to seek information on the movement; watching Lobel maneuver around the classroom, it’s clear that he’s a perfect a candidate for alternative treatments. Once a spry professional broadcaster, he now relies on two forearm crutches. Lobel smiles through his hobbling, but his positive attitude is occasionally interrupted, his smile turning to a slight grimace from constant pain. He’s exhausted. And he should be.
Since 2007, Lobel has endured around 10 major surgeries spanning nearly his entire body. He’s had both knees and his rotator cuff replaced, repaired broken femur bones on each leg, and had most of his back fused and thoracic spinal work done, all of which was accomplished in a considerably short time, and all of which has run him through the ringer. Excessive pain and long recoveries brought prescriptions for serious medications, and like so many people suffering in Mass and other places where cannabis relief is hard to come by, Lobel’s options were either to hop on the pain pill train, or to venture out and find less addictive ways to manage.
“I was taking a lot of OxyContin for one of my first knee replacements,” he says, adding that within just weeks of beginning his first regimen he felt the fangs of addiction gripping his system. After taking Oxy for a couple of months, he remembers finishing in short time a prescription that in theory should have lasted through a longer time frame, and going in for one refill after another. “That’s how hooked I was, [and] in such a short period of time,” he says. “I think it ended up being a lot worse than people thought it was going to be over the long haul. It’s bad stuff.”
On his initial visit to the institute, Lobel was more curious than he was expecting results. Picturing stereotypical “weed” environs and a troupe of stoner brethren out of Central Casting, he was pleasantly surprised to discover a professional atmosphere—couches, sterile work and teaching areas, offices and desks! “I was like ‘Woah, how’d this get here?’” he says. “Everything is very well packaged.” He jokes, “There wasn’t smoke around or [I] couldn’t smell marijuana.” (Ed note: Members of the Dig staff teach at NIC, and there is in fact no cannabis allowed on campus).
Lobel is now under the care of Dr. Dhanabalan, whom he has come to trust. She’s encouraging and even enthusiastic to newcomers, and is in the process of teaching the retired journalist about the science behind cannabis. “She understands totally the power that this stuff has for pain,” Lobel says. “I’m not talking about get high power; I’m talking about keep out the pain power. I am a believer of [what’s] in there—I just have to figure out how to separate the pain part [and] the high part. The pain power definitely works. Not that it wouldn’t work with the high stuff, but I think sometimes you don’t want to deal with the high stuff, you want to deal with the pain and not much of anything else.”
Lobel’s phrasing of “get high” power can be explained in the difference between THC, the long-ago identified and best known psychoactive component in most strains of marijuana, and the non-psychoactive CBD, which is often used for pain relief and has minimal “high” effects. To make matters more complicated, researchers have also identified that our own bodies produce natural endocannabinoids, which kind of makes the political bickering over legalization and “testing” all the more nonsensical. It’s this school of thought that Lobel is now studying, and it’s vastly different from traditional laboratories where clinical trials are often high-stakes medical endeavors.
“We [have] learned that nobody dies on this medicine. Nobody,” says Dr. Dhanabalan. “Why, I wondered. We die from aspirin, we die from over-the-counter meds, [so] why not this medicine?” The answer? She continues: “We found out there are no receptors in the part of the brain that controls our breathing and our heart rate. That’s why nobody dies from [cannabis use]. Respiratory depression does not occur.”
The demonstrable fact that nobody has died from cannabis—not one person, ever—should in theory be a driving force behind the ongoing national discussion of pain relief as well as the debate over legalization. More often than not, however, opponents to the growing marijuana movement cite junk science and sensationalism, often in the name of saving people in the same communities who are suffering hardships. But while Mass remains a prohibition state by most means, for people like Lobel, who haven’t had the easiest time securing the medicine they need, information and research on cannabis are available in increasing abundance.
AND THEN THERE WAS SCIENCE
The fight for the first medical dispensaries to open in Mass has raged for more than two years, and in spite of innumerable setbacks, the dream is inching closer to reality for patients like Lobel and scores of others suffering from ailments that cannabis can help to treat. At present, there are two medical marijuana dispensaries on track to open in the Bay State through the summer and fall of 2015, with the state Department of Public Health (DPH) giving one firm the greenlight to start growing plants at its Franklin facility for a Northampton dispensary (the same company has a facility pending approval for Brookline as well).
For now though, there’s also popular momentum in another direction, toward full-out legalization (with terms to be mapped out by petitioners or lawmakers) especially given that Colorado, a state with a population slightly smaller than that of Massachusetts, legalized cannabis for medicinal and recreational use in 2014. With roughly $44 million in first-year tax revenue from recreational sales, legalization advocates are quick to use the Rocky Mountain State’s example to help pave the way for similar results here, making for a preview of sorts for proponents eyeing Mass.
For Lobel and others, it’s reassuring to see progress, even if it’s all the way across the country. Take the Medical Marijuana Registry Program Update, published earlier this year by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and based on data from more than 100,000 participants. Among the findings: Of those administered to by the state’s medical pot program since 2001, a majority of applicants cited “severe pain” as their reason for joining the registry. As for the ratio of young folks to retirees and other patient groups; nearly 40,000 people from that research group were over the age of 50, and comprised 34 percent of the total research registry.
Proper cannabinoid dosing and intake are becoming the chosen route for many people in Lobel’s state, who are reluctant to subscribe to the smorgasbord of available modern pharmaceuticals or whose prescribed regimens leave them prone to serious chemical dependence. Dr. Uma’s thoughts on these matters, all drawn from experience, are clear: “When I did family medicine, the average patient had five pills, a blood pressure pill, a diabetes pill, a cholesterol pill, something for reflex, and something for anxiety or depression. That’s just to mention perscription, never mind the over-the-counter crap like Benadryl, Nyquil, Advil (which gives people gut rot), Tylenol … the list goes on.” She continues: “I believe cannabis is not an entrance drug; it’s an exit drug from pharmaceuticals and narcotics, and I truly believe this. I’ve seen this. I’ve had patients get off their narcotics or reduce them; they’re able to improve their quality of life and give hope. That’s what the medicine is about: quality of life and giving hope.”
Since he’s on the cover of our annual marijuana pride issue, it should be noted that Lobel isn’t a seasoned cannabis veteran, recreational or otherwise. He only recently began experimenting with different strains and varieties of medical cannabis, the first of which came in some moderately dosed brownies his daughter gifted him last year. “I took one bite [before] getting in the car to drive somewhere, and before I got out on my road, I knew I was in trouble,” Lobel says with a chuckle. “I think I was aware [of it], so I had to turn around and go home. [It’s] the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
A veteran of the modern sports world, Lobel’s not a fan of smoking. Still, he’s used a vaporizer with success, and is open to alternative ingestion methods. So far, properly dosed edibles work best. “My wife was complaining about the residual [vapor],” he says, “so I said I’ll [stick to] the edibles.”
For many, turning to experts like Dr. Uma—to oversee dosages, to monitor intake methods, to help make marijuana more palatable—removes a lot of the confusion from the cannabis equation. Lobel is now officially among those in his age group who just needed an entry point to this relatively new realm; for him, it came when he attended and heeded requests to appear on stage to speak at the Dig-sponsored New England Cannabis Convention in Boston last month. Since telling his story of hardship there, he has found the culture and rules around medicinal weed much easier to grapple with. As for the treatment itself; “It takes the edge off,” Lobel says, “whether it’s the bottom of my feet or my shoulder or whatever … [cannabis] is the absolute better alternative.”
In saying these things and becoming in some regards an advocate, Lobel has found that he isn’t alone in his enthusiastic but responsibly cautious support for medical and recreational cannabis. When it comes to actual dispensaries coming online, he finds that while many in his generation still to cling to old stigmas and corrupted social perspectives, they’re also discovering the benefits of medical grass through peers, friends, and family members like him. In other words, the kind of people whom you wouldn’t have expected to be sounding these alarms, and who probably wouldn’t have spoken out under other circumstances.
“People of my generation, which is two or three years ahead of the Baby Boomers, might as well have blinders on when it comes to marijuana,” Lobel says. “Just after us by two or three years was the ‘Woodstock’ group … I think, usually people in my generation have not touched it.”
He adds: “It’s a little tough to sell, but I don’t think it’s impossible … There’s a lot of sick people my age, a lot worse than I am. People that could really use the pain [relief].” Lobel grins: “And the high for that matter.”