Bob Lobel is still no stranger to the media. Of course, the 74-year-old was a sportscasting icon for WBZ-TV for three decades, but, in the last few years, journalists have been pointing the mic back at him to hear his commentary on a completely different beat — marijuana.
Lobel has become an unexpected supporter of medical marijuana in Massachusetts since 2015, when he quit prescription opioids in favor of cannabis to ease his chronic pain. He’ll be appearing at “The Doc and Jocks,” a panel at the New England Cannabis Convention Saturday, where he and former pro athletes, like Jim McMahon of the NFL, will discuss pot’s role in managing pain. Lobel is also starting work on a marijuana-themed podcast—appropriately called “Bob Lobel’s New England POTcast”—and he’ll record the first episode in front of an audience at the convention.
Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, Lobel’s physician, is leading the panel. Known to her patients as simply “Dr. Uma,” she runs a practice in Natick specializing in medical cannabis, and she’s also starting a nonprofit called Dr. Uma CARE (Choice, Alternative, Research, and Education).
Retail pot shops are set to open in Massachusetts as early as July, and recreational license applications start in just a few weeks. Ahead of the convention this weekend, we talked with Lobel and Dr. Uma about the state of cannabis in the Commonwealth.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Boston.com: Bob, you’ve said that marijuana is more of an “exit drug” than a “gateway drug.” Why did you choose pot over traditional prescription painkillers?
Bob Lobel: First of all, any information I have about this subject comes from [Dr. Uma Dhanabalan]. It really revolves around addiction and the realities of the effects of alcohol and opioids. It’s an “exit drug” from the problems that those other substances cause. Once you enter with those other drugs, you’re pretty much married to them forever, as long as that addiction lasts.
Dr. Uma Dhanabalan: We don’t give people the education they need early on to tell them there are other options. Even now, it’s still not taught to all doctors, and this leads to stigma. Stigma then leads to misinformation.
Right now, we are facing an opioid epidemic, and it is killing people. After I learned about cannabis as a science and as a medicine, I do believe it’s an “exit” drug. But it should be a first line option and not a last resort. Right now, by the time patients get to me, they’re already hooked on so many things. The stigma is changing, though.
BL: Most physicians have really not been willing to take the time or put in the effort to learn about cannabis.
What led you to check out the first New England Cannabis Convention in 2015, where you met Dr. Uma?
BL: It was seriously just an act of curiosity. I was with a couple of friends, and we said, “Let’s go check it out.” It was pretty eye-opening, and I think it is for anybody who wanders into this world. It is a tremendous learning experience if you haven’t been to one of those events.
UD: You know, it’s funny, Bob — I still remember when I met you, I had no clue who you were. I had just come back from Washington state and I had been traveling, and I knew nothing about Bob Lobel, and they were like, “Do you have any idea who that man is?” And I’m like, “No, but he’s going to see me at the office!”
I know that you’re not much of a smoker, Bob. What’s your preferred method these days?
BL: I try to be careful on the edibles because you don’t really know what the strength is. The key for me is to try to get what I have available into my system as fast as possible, and it would be either the tincture or the oil. I prefer to just put it under my tongue, because that’s a very fast way. I’m not into smoking, whether its vaping or rolling a joint. It’s a very conservative choice, but it’s the way I roll.
UD: I like how you say that’s the way you roll.
BL: Oh, yeah. No pun intended.
UD: With my patients, my senior population is actually my growing population. They are the sassiest ones, I really love them.
It’s interesting that many users of medical marijuana are those who are a little older. I think that’s not necessarily what a lot of people perceive.
BL: That’s exactly right, it’s so much about perception. But people are realizing that the ones who could benefit the most are the seniors, because they’re the ones who are most likely dealing with pain.
UD: My oldest patient right now is 98.
Bob, did you ever picture yourself as being an advocate for marijuana?
BL: No, of course not. You know, with Baby Boomers, Gen X, the Millennials, they’re all much further advanced in the knowledge and availability of cannabis. My group, which is just above the Baby Boomers — not so much. It’s a matter of a two year difference, and the whole culture changes. I’m in a position of education here of finding out as much as I can. I have three kids, and they can all roll a joint far better than I could!
UD: I would’ve never imagined doing this, either. I was living a wonderful cushy life, making lots of money, and now I don’t work for any hospital or university. I work for patients and I love it. I truly believe doctors right now are very miserable, because they don’t get to practice medicine. In family medicine, we had seven or eight minutes allotted to spend with patients.
How has the discussion around pot changed in the state since recreational use was legalized at the end of 2016? Do either of you have concerns about the state pot laws and how they’re being implemented?
BL: I have one observation when it comes to [towns] that have turned down the opportunity to have dispensaries. Every community, apparently, has the power and right to determine its own position on dispensaries. The reality is, there’s a 17 percent [state] tax on cannabis sales, and I’m not sure it’s all that fair for communities who have rejected dispensaries to share on that 17 percent. If you don’t want regulated dispensaries operating according to law, that’s all well and good, but don’t expect the revenue from other towns to support you.
UD: As a physician, we’re bombarded with [the phrase] “evidence-based medicine.” I’ve asked this question: “What part of zero [deaths] is not evident?” [Cannabis] was prescribed in this country from 1850 to 1942. It’s because of politics and racism that cannabis is stigmatized today, not because of evidence-based medicine. I’m very upset with my colleagues at the Massachusetts Medical Society. It’s no longer ignorance — it’s arrogance. If you choose not to be a part of it, that’s fine! But you cannot alienate the patients that want to learn about this and want to use this.
BL: If you look at this past century, it’s remarkable how pot became the “bad guy” and alcohol became the “good guy.” I went to one town with a group interested in starting a dispensary, and there were four new restaurants, all with alcohol licenses that were approved — “yes, yes, yes, yes,” without any questions being asked. Yet they turned down the dispensary. It gives you an idea where people are in their belief.
It sounds like even though the state has come far in how it approaches marijuana, there’s still a lot of resistance, whether it’s in government or in medicine.
UD: It’s getting better because the patients are speaking out. I always say, “reach one, teach ten,” and doggone it, my patients are doing their job. They’re slowly starting to feel more comfortable — it is getting destigmatized.
Bob, can you tell us more about your upcoming podcast?
BL: Well, we’re not going to take phone calls, I can tell you that right now. It’s going to start at the basics. I have to assume that the audience are people who are curious, who are going to be fascinated about the stuff we talked about here today. Dr. Uma will be part of it, and there will be a few other guests. [We’ll discuss] dispensaries, and health, and how it’s being handled by the politicians in Massachusetts. We’ll talk about how how to grow it, cultivate it, trim it, to make it work for as many people as possible. In general, it’s going to be an information session. Because I don’t know anything about it, I can ask any question I want. The less I know, the better questions I can ask. We’re going to do 20 shows, and by then I might know something.
One last question: Do you still have your famous panic button?
No, I don’t, I’m looking for it actually! I moved three or four years ago, and I think it got lost somewhere in the move. Somebody’s got it, I don’t have it. I have pictures of it but I’m looking for it. So help me out, will ya?