Richard Belzer, a TV mainstay thanks to the Law & Order franchise (he's currently a regular on Special Victims Unit), got his start as a standup comic.
But don't expect lotsa chuckles at the debate he'll moderate at this weekend's Plant Medicine Expo & Healthcare Provider Conference. Because he's very serious about the subject of medical marijuana.
Belzer learned about the medical efficacy of marijuana back in 1984, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
"When I had cancer and was radiated, my doctor recommended marijuana," he says. "He couldn't prescribe it -- this was 25 years ago. But it just makes so much sense. The science is there, and many doctors are on board -- and because I'm a celebrity, hopefully it will call more attention to it, particularly in the medical community.
Richard Belzer and Mariska Hargitay on "Law & Order Special Victims Unit."
"People need to get educated, whether they're suffering or if they know someone is suffering. To me, it's all about relieving suffering and nausea. The thing that disturbs me most is the idea of people getting high -- because if you're radiated or in pain or starving, it's not about getting high. It's about restoring balance to your body and replenishing yourself. For God's sake, it's a plant. It's been around for thousands of years and been used in many forms. And I think this demonization of it has got to end."
He's hopeful for progress in this area in part because "they just keep adding to the list of conditions that can be helped or treated by marijuana." But that's not the case in Colorado. When told that the state health department recently rejected a petition to add Tourette Syndrome to the roster of ailments approved for MMJ treatment following a hearing, and also nixed approval of medical marijuana for post-traumatic-stress disorder patients without even holding such an assembly, he reacts with dismay.
"That's beyond common sense," he maintains. "It's heartbreaking that anyone would deny someone the use of such a harmless substance."
He suggests doubters read "Medical Marijuana's Tremendous Potential for Curing Ailments," a September 15 article by Dr. Andrew Weil.
"It's a very eloquent and moving piece on the various illnesses that can be treated by marijuana, and about ending the ignorance and showing to what degree and what lengths marijuana can help so many different people," he says.
"To me, this is a moral issue in addition to a medical issue. How can you deny someone relief from suffering, especially when doctors are the ones recommending it?"
Critics of MMJ have long argued that proponents are mainly motivated by a desire to legalize cannabis for all adult use, and they see its medical deployment as a way to advance that cause. But Belzer says the Plant Medicine Expo will focus "on the medical end of it. I think there are enough intelligent, impassioned people to argue about a lot of aspects of marijuana. But the conference is about getting the medical community and the families of people who are ill educated and up and running on the issue."
Not that Belzer opposes marijuana's decriminalization.
"Hundreds of millions of people use marijuana every day, and in some places, the punishment is less than a parking ticket -- and in other places, it's virtually legal. That's slowly happening over time because of society. But I think the medical aspect is a totally different issue. There's enough people cheerleading for it to be used responsibly by adults, and not enough people distinguishing between its recreational use -- and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as it's done responsibly -- and the more serious treatment of cancer and epilepsy and a multitude of other illnesses."
For Belzer, medical marijuana is no laughing matter, and that should reassure MMJ patients who get upset when the subject becomes the target of old-school weed humor.
"I understand the sensitivity about it," Belzer acknowledges. "I wouldn't get too worked up about it, because that's an obvious thing people will do -- say, 'Oh, pot!' But that's a kind of boring, sweeping generalization. I don't do jokes about it myself, not because it's a serious medical issue, but because they're stupid, easy jokes. It's just vapid stuff, like making fun of drunks."
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Besides, he sees his role as moderator of the Plant Medicine Expo debate, entitled "Medical Marijuana and the Colorado Amendment: What's Right For You?," as facilitating the conversation, not stealing the spotlight.
"Medical professionals and families of suffering people need to be brought along gently and intelligently," he believes. "And I think this conference will talk about it in a very passionate, intelligent and sober way."
The Plant Medicine Expo takes place on Saturday and Sunday, September 25 and 26, at the Denver Downtown Sheraton. Registration ranges from $49 for consumers to $250 for health-care providers, with a $10 charge for those who only want to attend the Belzer-moderated debate, scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Saturday. For more details, click here.