Executives and Activists Mingle for the First Legal Cannabis Trade Show in Boston

Legally grown marijuana in Colorado. Photo by Brett Levin / Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Vincent D. Gabrielle
BU News Service

The fourth annual Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition (CWCB Expo) was surprisingly sober. At the Hynes Convention Center, legal cannabis startups mingled with investment groups and established companies trying to get into what they see as a burgeoning market.

“It’s like the dot-com boom,” a spokesman for Epson Printers said.

He waved enthusiastically over a display of prescription-bottle style labels that Epson is promoting to medical dispensaries.

“It’s going to be a huge market,” he said.

Colorado and California experiments with legalization suggest he’s right. Legal cannabis sales in Colorado cleared 1 billion dollars last year. A recent study from UC Davis projects that California has a market five times this size.

The CWCB Expo wasn’t all business. Hidden among the venture capitalists, water-retaining soil displays and high-tech, cannabis oil extraction systems was a passionate community of activists for both medical and recreational marijuana. They said they see legalization as an economic opportunity, a path to medical treatment and research and as liberation for their communities.

“I see it as a civil right,” said Leo Bridgewater, president of the New Jersey Chapter of Minorities for Medical Marijuana.

He, and the other members of MFMM were among the few black people at the largely-white conference. Bridgewater, a 3-tour veteran of Iraq returned to the United States with post-traumatic stress disorder and knee pain and became a medical marijuana patient-activist.

“Most of us got into this because something happened to somebody,” he said, referring to both the high rate of suicide among veterans and the mass incarceration of people of color for drug-related offenses.

Marijuana advocacy draws from an unusually broad range of groups and people, according to Bridgewater.

“It makes for strange bedfellows,” he said.

Athletes For Care (AFC), a patient advocacy group held an educational workshop on medical cannabis, cosponsored by C3 Global Biosciences, The AFC is headed by a board of directors that includes former NFL linebacker Derrick Morgan and Dr. Sue Sisley, (the first scientist permitted by the FDA) to study cannabinoid effects on post-traumatic stress disorder. The group is a not-for-profit that advocate for cannabis as an alternative to opiates.

At their workshop, Eben Britton, a retired offensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars and founding member of the organization was quoted in Boston Magazine saying, “Pills, and opiates in particular, made me feel insane.” He went on to describe the grogginess and pain of opiate withdrawal.

Cannabis also provides pain relief for athletes, said Jeanine Martin, Chief Growth Officer for C3 Global Biosciences.

“Athletes have tried everything from opioids to physical therapy,” Martin said, adding that cannabis helped with her own old tennis injuries.

“This is just anecdotal but it really helped my pain,” Martin said.

Many advocates sit at the intersection of diversity and patient activism. Bear Michael of Cannashare, a consulting firm spoke personally. “It’s difficult for queer people to be involved,” in the legal cannabis industry.

“I’m lucky to work for a company that values me personally,” said Michael.

As for access, Michael referenced that LGBTQ people turn to cannabis to treat physical and psychological pain when they lack other options. “I know people who use topical cannabis for their surgery scars.”

Science has yet to catch up to the advocacy and investment. Most of the health claims remain unsubstantiated (but not all). Cannabis may be legal before the effects are known.

The FDA has only approved a single test the medicinal effects of marijuana. Advocates said policy is likely to blame. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug, something with no medical use, a high potential for abuse that is unsafe to use.

H.J. Raza, Chief Medical Officer of C3 Global Biosciences was blunt, “It doesn’t belong in Schedule 1.”

Legal cannabis is becoming more mainstream. Twenty-nine states have legalized some form of use. The normalization of cannabis has attracted high profile advocates. Rev. Al Sharpton gave the keynote address at the CWCB Expo this year.

“Blacks cannot be the ones that go to jail and others to the bank,” said Sharpton.

The tone has been set for next year’s CWCB Expo. The activists are here to stay.

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