FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) – The Southeast Cannabis Conference is being held in Fort Lauderdale this weekend – and there are some big names behind the cause.
"It's really public opinion, and like I said, the reason I'm speaking here, is the more people start to share their truth, and their experiences with cannabis, I think the stigma will lift pretty quickly," said former Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams. "Because I think there's a lot of people out there that are consuming cannabis, but are too afraid to be honest about it."
Much of Ricky Williams' career was overshadowed by his marijuana use. Today, he advocates publicly for medicinal cannabis.
He says he hopes events like these will lessen the stigma of a plant that has been used for centuries as medicine around the world.
"It's been interesting for me. Personally, as a football player, when I played, no one was having positive conversations about cannabis," he explained. "So before the public has really caught up, it's been difficult dealing with the stigma and people stereotyping me and making assumptions about me because I use cannabis."
Once he was out of the game, he said things turned around.
"But now it's been great, now I get to come to conferences and conventions and people stand up and applaud me for my story, so it's been a complete 180," Ricky Williams said.
Talk show host Montel Williams, who lives with multiple sclerosis, was also at the event. He's been advocating for cannabis as medicine since 2000, and now has his own company.
Montel Williams has been involved in the legislation that passed in 17 of the 29 states that have legalized the plant, including Florida.
He says he is also here fighting for the rights of athletes.
"Several different cannabinoids have an effect in the brain that are more protective than damaging. Why would we not allow an athlete who is being pummeled to death and being beaten up and being physically ravaged, to not use as much as he can to be as protected as he can?" Montel Williams said. "What we will do though is just load them up with as much opioid as we can to make sure that they can't even think when they're on the field. But we won't give them something that we know works, and works well, and is natural."
And this isn't hype, it's science, says Dr. Debra Kimless.
Kimless "guides" medical cannabis patients around the country, free of charge, while she continues to research the benefits of medical marijuana.
"Sadly, the sports folks, who are at the biggest risk for traumatic brain injury, who could have the hugest benefit, because what we've found is that medical cannabis, even in teeny tiny doses, is a neuro-protectant and can actually help regenerate damaged brain cells and make connections," said Dr. Kimless, the director of ForwardGro. "Unfortunately, they are under contracts, and they get urine tested, and they can't advocate for this until they have left the NFL, or the professional soccer arena, unfortunately. But I've met many of them, and many of them I do guide, and they have realized tremendous success because these players are beaten up in their jobs."
That's very different than the conventional wisdom, which is that you smoke weed and it kills your brain cells.
"What does Carl Sagan, Maya Angelo and Queen Victoria all have in common? They've all used medical cannabis. None of those were deadbeats," she said.
Kimless was a skeptic herself. That was until four years ago, when her own mother own mother died from a side effect of prescribed narcotics.
It's an epidemic South Florida is struggling with.
"In fact, studies have shown that in states where there are legal medical marijuana programs, that the incidents of opiate abuse and overdose has decreased up to 25 percent, which is huge," she said.
Kimless, who spoke with CBS4's Rudabeh Shahbazi for this report, believes it stems from how medical students are taught to register pain and dole out opioids accordingly.
KIMLESS: I'm horrified by it. And sadly, we were systematically as a medical program, to almost create this epidemic. We were taught that pain was the fifth vital sign, along with blood pressure and heart rate and temperature, we had a measure of pain. We gave out pain medicine freely, thinking that if you were truly in pain you won't get addicted. And now we've created this horrible epidemic, and it's terrible. So I think medical cannabis can actually be an answer, because people's pain doesn't go away. People aren't going to stop being in pain because we're no longer writing prescription for narcotics, and this is a safer, less risky option.
SHAHBAZI: Were you of that school? I mean, you kind of had to be at some point. You kind of had to give them something for their pain at some point.
KIMLESS: So, I grew up and was trained and was tested on, and was mandated to ask people what their pain scale was, even if they came for an evaluation for not a pain reason. They were coming into the operating room to get their wisdom teeth extracted – what's your pain scale? If you ask enough people, most people are in pain, for one reason or another, so we were mandated by hospital systems to come up with a pain plan. And the sad part is that we would have that plan in place, we would write the prescriptions, but we never had a plan to get these patients off.
SHAHBAZI: And did you see a lot of them get addicted?
KIMLESS: We saw a lot of people get addicted, and it's terrible.
SHAHBAZI: And now you've seen a lot for people reverse that with medical marijuana?
KIMLESS: So I've helped a tremendous amount of people, again in legal markets, who were tired of being addicted to opiates. And I consulted with them and I presented a paper at CanMed at Harvard, and I showed a really great neuropathic pain patient who transitioned from high doses of narcotics, to only using sublingual, low dosage cannabis oil.
The Southeast Cannabis Conference is the first large scale cannabis event since it became legal, featuring professional athletes, entertainers, activists and entrepreneurs.
The event comes as legislation to enact Florida's medical marijuana constitutional amendment heads to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott.
for more features.