Super Bowl High – Did the Bronco’s unwittingly boost the marijuana industry?

Over 110 Million Americans watched Super Bowl 50, saw Cam Newton hop away from his own fumble, and witnessed Beyoncé and Lady Gaga fight for the title of biggest pop star (it is clearly “Bae” “Bey”, but Gaga sure did crush the National Anthem!).  But what if the biggest news from the Sunday game was how Denver’s marijuana experiment has successfully gone mainstream – and Peyton Manning was the unwitting promoter of the marijuana industry?

I admit it is a stretch – not a single marijuana commercial aired during the game, the Broncos have not endorsed any local dispensary, and the “Mile High” Broncos stadium is referring to the altitude, not the reefer.  But hear me out…

A colleague of mine first broached this idea, and the more I’ve considered it the more I think he is on to something.

A pivotal moment in the recent evolution of cannabis policy came on August 8, 2013.  On this day, one of the country’s most well known and respected physicians, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta, stepped forward to admit that he had been wrong to doubt the medical health benefits of marijuana.  Not only was he wrong, he was now a true believer of its clinical properties to help ailing adults – even children.

“[The DEA] didn’t have the science to support that [marijuana had no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse], and I now know that when it comes to marijuana neither of those things are true. It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse, and there are very legitimate medical applications. In fact, sometimes marijuana is the only thing that works. Take the case of Charlotte Figi, who I met in Colorado. She started having seizures soon after birth. By age 3, she was having 300 a week, despite being on seven different medications. Medical marijuana has calmed her brain, limiting her seizures to 2 or 3 per month.

We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.”

That episode, and subsequent follow-up episodes, sent the country’s support for medical marijuana through the roof.

At the time Gupta’s first episode aired, I did not foresee a dramatic impact.  After all, medical marijuana already had strong American support (polls showed 77% support already in 2011).  As a topic that I am passionately involved in, I’ve lost some perspective of how much the general public will absorb pot news. But this reached the hearts and minds of millions of viewers.  Gupta’s admission had significance – it provided the general public (and politicians) with the science to support their emotional ideology.  This was what Joe Biden would call, a “Big F***ing Deal!”

Three years later we have almost 40 states that have recreational use, medical cannabis, or “CBD-only” laws.

That brings us to the Broncos.Broncos - .sanden.

The impact of Denver bringing home a “W” is obviously less blatant or direct than Gupta’s TV specials.  Yet the Bowl has a significantly larger audience.

The most stark impact of Denver winning the Super Bowl is that absolutely no one covered the game by describing Denver as a “pot town,” or ravaged by “criminals,” or endless jokes about the town having collective munchies.  There were a few local media stories about dispensaries near Denver’s football stadium and local venues for Colorado fans to smoke weed and watch the game – but they were barely a blip on the radar.

Colorado has performed admirably under the world’s microscope, and proven the there is far more upside (medically, economically, non-violent imprisonment, etc) than risk associated with cannabis. The Broncos benefit from the media attention (I suppose their talent has something to do with it too), and have shown the country that recreational marijuana use is a non-factor for a pro football team town.

The significance of Super Bowl 50 is how Denver’s widespread and well-known cannabis culture had absolutely no significance for the 110 million viewers of the game.  And that, my friends, is progress.

Photo courtesy Flickr user .sanden. under this Creative Commons license.

How many medical cannabis patients will there be?  

How many medical cannabis patients will there be?  This question has been asked since the dawn of the Illinois program.  In fact, all medical cannabis programs around the country have played the numbers expectations game.  As with any high-profile program, one strategy is to set expectations that you can meet and hopefully exceed.  This can mean the difference between a headline of “Wave of patients exceed state’s expectations,” versus “Desperation as state fails to explain lagging patient enrollments.”

Every new medical cannabis program is framed by discussions of patient participation numbers.  Colorado had over 110,000 at its peak before recreational cannabis was introduced (roughly 2% of its population), while New York’s kickoff was abysmal at 71 patients (out of nearly 20 million residents).

Bob photo - press interviews

I was asked for my projections the very first time I was interviewed about cannabis, and it has been raised regularly ever since.  In that first interview I guessed that there would be “tens of thousands of patients over time.”

“State officials expect a flood of applications, perhaps “tens of thousands of patients over time,” Morgan said. The state’s medical marijuana program website has received more than 12,000 unique visitors and more than 2,000 people have signed up for email notifications about the program.”

It was my first of many future interviews with the Associated Press in my role as coordinator for the medical cannabis program.  I vividly remember the interview because I was quite nervous, and because it took place over a weekend while I happened to be on vacation in Utah, attending the Sundance Film Festival for the first time.

The interview started well, with anticipated questions and corresponding straightforward answers.  I was walking down Main Street in Park City, the home base of activity for the Festival, and it was fairly chilly outside.  Holding my cell phone with gloves on, I was feeling good about the interview until it happened.

I turned to see three adult men walking down the street in their underwear…and nothing else.  It was at this exact time that the AP reported asked me how many patients I expected for the 4-year pilot program.  I was frozen both literally and figuratively.  I asked the reporter to repeat the question to buy myself some time to get a grip.  I blurted out – “thousands of patients in the first year, and hopefully tens of thousands of patients over time.”

And there it was.

The projection stuck as a basis for many future press stories, and what many applicants used on their financial estimates when applying for state licenses later that year.

The numbers game played out in other instances too.  There was the time Illinois sought a contract to print I.D. for patients.  In the procurement documents we needed to indicate the maximum number of patients that we expected in the next few years – and we projected up to 100,000.  This, too, became a headline and added to the folklore of the pilot program.

As of this blog there are about 4,000 people registered with the Illinois medical cannabis program.  There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands that are eligible with conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis, and severe fibromyalgia (there is no exact count of eligible patients since there is no accurate statewide tracking of all relevant medical conditions).  So my answer several years ago is still my answer today – I expect tens of thousands of participants in the medical cannabis program over time.  There are variables that will impact the numbers – whether the Illinois Department of Public Health adds new medical conditions, whether physicians become more comfortable with the program and start recommending participation in greater numbers, etc.

But I believe the best answer to the numbers game would be – total numbers don’t matter if even one person is denied access who would benefit from medical cannabis.  If even one person is denied, then our job isn’t done.  The Pilot Program will only be a legitimate success when we are no longer arbitrarily blocking Illinois residents from relief.