Carly Barton was 23 years old when she suffered a stroke. Anatomically, a stroke is caused by a temporary loss of blood flow to the brain. A simple explanation for an event that can alter the course of thinking, sensation, and perception for the duration of a patient’s life. For some, the aftermath of a stroke can lead to visual hallucinations, the loss of speech, or paralysis. Barton’s stroke, however, left its mark in the form of near continuous pain.
Several years later, it was this pain that landed Barton in a peculiar predicament — what does it take to get the National Health Service (NHS) to cover medical cannabis? Medical cannabis was legalized in the United Kingdom in November of 2018. Although a bit behind the times by North American standards, Home Secretary Sajid Javid called for “swift action” after hearing testimonies from patients and caregivers of those with debilitating and life-threatening illnesses.
True to his word, senior doctor’s were able to write prescriptions for cannabis as of November 01, 2018. And yet, only a few dozen patients have received official prescriptions for the herb. One of these patients is Barton, who has been forking over nearly 400 quid ($527 USD) per month. While politicians were moved to action by stories of epileptic children, it was Barton who received the first medical cannabis prescription in the UK.
And getting one was no easy task.
Gone to the Weeds
Pain is not uncommon after a stroke. While the body itself may not have experienced substantial harm, the brain can continue to send pain messages over and over again, like a noxious memory of an assault that cannot be erased. In Barton’s case, nerve damage garnered her the diagnoses of fibromyalgia and post-stroke neuropathy, which are most commonly treated with opiate pain killers.
“I was prescribed opiates in increasing doses for many years,” Barton explains, “and that leads to quite high doses of fentanyl and morphine.” A doped-induced delirium that lasted for six long years — housebound, imprisoned by one loud and omnipresent sensation, pain.
“Despite the fact that I was on opiates I was still experiencing a huge amount of pain, to the point where I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep,” says Barton. “I was in my twenties and I needed help to dress and to cut my dinner up and just do really basic life stuff, and that was pretty horrible.”
Before her stroke, Barton was happily entangled in the spring of her life. A twenty-something art lecturer, she spent most of her time buzzing from welding projects to social affairs, a regular “pocket rocket” by her own terms. Still, even given the longstanding stereotypes about artists and cannabis, Barton was far from a stoner-girl hoping that the plant would unlock some hidden creative talent. “I didn’t think it was really me,” she says.
After the stroke, however, life came to a stand-still. In the years after the incident, Barton found herself stuck in a loop. “I was willing to literally try anything to get out of the cycle of just drinking excessive amounts of oral morphine and being on fentanyl all the time,” she says. It was at this point that a friend suggested that Barton try cannabis, a little homegrown which is illegal to cultivate in the UK.
“I had a lot of ideas, those notions, those preconceived notions about cannabis,” Barton explains. For one, she was worried about how the plant might affect her mental health, given that the herb has a reputation for worsening psychiatric ailments like depression and psychosis. And yet, after trying cannabis, Barton found her world turned right-side round within the span of 10 minutes.
Barton took a few puffs. “I went upstairs and my partner said to me, ‘are you alright?’ and I was saying, ‘something’s missing, something’s odd, something’s off.’ I couldn’t put any words to it,” she says. “And then I realized that the feeling that I had was just no pain.”
“It was so alien to me, not being able to feel any pain in my body, that I was confused as to what was happening. As soon as I realized that I couldn’t feel any pain head-to-toe, that was just like the moment when everything changed.”
“I haven’t touched a drop of morphine since that day.”
Becoming the First Medical Cannabis Patient in the UK
For six years, Barton had been stuck in a haze. Unable to perform simple everyday tasks, she spent most of her time lying in bed or lounging about the house. Cannabis, however, gave Barton her life back. It was time to spread the word. Impassioned by the extent of her recovery, Barton teamed up with other patients involved with United Patient’s Alliance, an advocacy group that services around 50,000 patients that currently rely on the black market to supply their medicine.
Founded in 2014, United Patient’s Alliance acts as a microphone for those who lack access to potentially life-saving cannabis medicines. The group lobbies government officials, provides a platform for patients to share their stories and organizes protests and other events across the United Kingdom. In the years leading up to medical cannabis legalization, advocates at the UPA worked tirelessly to connect patients with the policymakers that make decisions regarding their health.
In October of 2018, United Patient’s Alliance got its first major break — the Home Secretary committed to legalization. Barton, who had been consuming cannabis illegally to self-treat her pain condition, jumped at the opportunity to get a legitimate, legal prescription.
There was one major problem, however. Her doctors aligned with the National Health Service wouldn’t break out their prescription pads. Barton was the first medical cannabis patient in the UK to receive a prescription for the natural medicine. And yet, Barton had to fork over some serious cash for a private doctor in order to access medical cannabis. Even with the money, it certainly wasn’t easy.
“I spent months doing a kind of one-woman clinical trial and marking strains out of ten of the different symptoms and keeping a really thorough pain diary and really almost doing an observational trial on myself to determine what works and what didn’t,” she says. She turned these diligent records over to a private doctor, and it was only then that she received her prescription.
And yet, not all medical cannabis patients have the time, money, and where-with-all to keep such diligent records. “For a lot of patients in the UK who have been to doctors, we’ve had massive issues,” says Barton. “Since legalization, there are posts going up in pain clinics across the UK saying ‘don’t even ask about medical cannabis, we won’t be it to you’.”
UK Medical Cannabis Patients Pay an Arm and a Leg
The state of California first legalized medical cannabis in 1996 with Proposition 215. It took another two decades before cannabis reforms were introduced in the United Kingdom. In what some may see as a cruel bit of irony, the United Kingdom is currently the largest producer of medical cannabis in the entire world. In fact, a report from the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board declares that in 2016, over 95 tonnes of medical grade cannabis was produced in the UK, over 44 percent of the market share.
Unfortunately, none of this cannabis is going toward medical patients throughout the country. Instead, this high-quality medicine is used for research and scientific purposes by pharmaceutical companies. Meanwhile, patients like Barton are required to pay out-of-pocket for newly legalized cannabis medicines imported from Bedrocan, a medical cannabis company based in the Netherlands. Between import fees, the cost of the medicine, and the work with the private doctor, Barton raked up a £2,500 (3300 USD) fee in a three-month time period.
“The cost of it is ridiculous,” says Barton. “The cost of my prescription, just for the cannabis bit, was 400 quid for a month. But, once you’ve added on the import company’s cash that they want to import it here from Holland, that’s an extra £1,000. So, it works out at around £700 an ounce.”
Many patients with serious illnesses already face limited incomes and other medical fees, so the cost for private prescriptions creates a huge barrier for patients all over Brittin. For other medical treatments, the British government absorbs most of the cost via the National Health Service. Unfortunately, however, the NHS is not covering newly legalized cannabis medicines. This is something Barton and United Patients Alliance hope to change.
The biggest hurdle? Financial trusts.
“In the UK, each area has an individual trust and they deal with the funding that happens within that geographical area,” Barton explains. “They put limits on what drugs are going to be allowed to be prescribed within that geographical area.”
The goal of these trusts is to manage costs for government-funded health clinics. The money in these trusts comes from taxation, and each trust faces policy restrictions on the amount of money that can be spent on specific types of medicines and treatments.
“The trusts at the moment are refusing to allow doctors under their area to write medical cannabis prescriptions,” says Barton. “They’re literally terrified of opening the floodgates and there being massive ques and not being able to fund them all.”
Should the NHS begin to cover medical cannabis, patients would be able to access their medicine through government-funded sources. For the time being, however, patients are stuck between sticking with the black market or coughing up thousands for regular access to medical-quality products.
For the time being, the black market still seems like the better option.
5 Tips for Owning and Operating Successful Cannabis Dispensaries
The cannabis retail landscape has changed. Once regarded as somewhat of a novelty, legalization has allowed cannabis dispensaries to evolve into modern and innovative retail storefronts more akin to an Apple Store than the dark, secretive spaces they used to be. Some, like Shiny Bud, are proving to be leaders in the space, setting an exemplary standard of a contemporary cannabis retail experience.
Shiny Bud is one of Canada’s most successful dispensary chains. They pride themselves on offering customers a premium experience from the moment they enter, from a contemporary and inviting store design to highly trained staff, and of course, premium products.
Co-founder Alex Ledesma joined the cannabis industry when the Canadian government passed the Cannabis Act in 2018. She comes from a forward-thinking family of entrepreneurs, so the move to cannabis was an obvious next step.
“I saw an opportunity to be part of something big in Canada’s history, so we started following the industry, and applied for an application,” said Ledesma.
Shiny Bud opened its first dispensary in Toronto on February 14. Fast forward only a few months, and the company has opened the doors to its fifth location in a small town called Orleans, just outside of Ottawa.
“We have a pretty aggressive rollout,” said Ledesma. “Coming from a quick-service industry, we’re quite comfortable with builds and finding locations. We took our expertise from that and put it into cannabis. And it’s all completely within the family.”
Shiny Bud was awarded 75 dispensary licenses by the Canadian government. The company’s expansion plans include two more Ontario store openings this year, bringing the total number of store openings to seven. And they have no plans to slow down.
“We should be hitting 30 stores by the end of 2021. And we’re planning on maxing out to 75 stores allocated. When we stop to think about it, it can take our breath away.”
The constant march forward of legalization has created an ever-growing interest in dispensary ownership. Below, Ledesma offers up five pieces of advice for those looking to enter the cannabis game.
1. Have a Well-Trained Team That’s Focused on Customer Experience
As the industry is still so young, formal education in cannabis is still relatively scarce amongst prospective employees. For Shiny Bud, this presents an opportunity to reinforce one of their most important business objectives: provide cannabis education and training for their budtenders to pass on to their customers.
“Education is everything because the industry’s so new,” Ledesma said. “We truly believe that we’re an industry where we need to listen to our guests. This is one of the first things we teach our budtenders, along with providing a safe and educational experience for our customers in-store.”
For many customers, the biggest value in going to a dispensary is learning which products are best suited for a specific condition or effect, whether they’re seasoned cannabis consumers or newly curious.
“The goal for budtenders at Shiny Bud is to ensure customers are choosing the right product for them to provide a safe experience both in-store and at home,” Ledesma said.
2. Create a Guest Centric Environment
This goes without saying, but customer service is critical to the success of any retail operation. Ledesma attributes Shiny Bud’s success to the brand’s core vision of providing a “fast and friendly cannabis retail destination.”
“We strive to offer our customers a unique and memorable experience — this has stayed with us since day one,” Ledesma said. “When you walk into any of our Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries, they’re bright, they’re big, and there’s a lot of education. The budtenders are dressed uniformly, and there’s personality — it’s not what people expect.”
Watching the change in customer demographic has been encouraging to Ledesma, who notes the increase in the 60+ demographic looking to add cannabis to their health and wellness, whether it be recreational, or to aid with a specific ailment.
“As a disclaimer, we always have to tell them that we’re not doctors and we can’t give them medical advice, so to start low and go slow,” Ledesma said. “It’s nice to see people like my mom, my dad, and grandparents come through the door, because you also know you’re helping break down the stigma.”
3. Stock the Best Inventory
With so many quality products now available, choosing which ones to bring to Shiny Bud is quite a lengthy process.
“We carry out a lot of research in terms of what’s new or trending, and what our customers are looking for in each location,” Ledesma said. “I wish I knew consumers’ buying preferences before our initial order was placed. We ended up buying too much!”
“We also use recommendations from our team members, our budtenders, and our customers. A lot of times we bring in representatives of the licensed producers to educate our budtenders about the products we’re selling.”
The three most popular purchases across three Shiny Bud locations are dried flower, vapes, and pre-rolls. “Our most frequently asked question is, ‘what is your highest THC or CBD?’” Ledesma said.
4. Have a Great Location
The age-old proverb of “location, location, location” rings true in the cannabis industry, too. Finding the right real estate is arguably the most important part of retail success. Plus, because of the industry’s prohibition history and the nature of the products being sold, it’s important to find understanding landlords.
“Initially, landlords have said to us, ‘absolutely not, we will not entertain the idea of having a cannabis retailer here,’ so I invite them to take a look at one of our dispensaries so they can see the vision of what and who we are as a company and as an industry.”
5. Ensure Your Cannabis Dispensaries Connect with the Community
Dispensaries are already major focal points in their communities. For Ledesma, giving back and helping break down old stigmas related to cannabis is a top priority.
Shiny Bud is in the process of launching a collaboration with Tsaichedelic to create a line of tie-dyed tees and other merchandise. The proceeds will go towards supporting Cannabis Amnesty projects, like providing legal counsel to get those with criminal records over minor cannabis charges expunged.
“Being a woman and a person of color in the cannabis space, I really believe in the fact that it needs to be the same playing fields for everybody,” Ledesma said. “Teaming up with Cannabis Amnesty just felt right.”
With the regulated cannabis market still so new, it’s important that business owners are able to adapt to changes and weather the ever-changing landscape of cannabis and the regulations.
“It’s ever-changing, so we’re constantly learning and growing from it,” Ledesma said. “Regulations are always changing, so being fluid helps a lot.”
Look for Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries in Canada and keep an eye out for their expansion into America in 2021.
Gwyneth Paltrow and a Slew of Celebs Invest in ‘Social Tonic’ Brand, Cann
Gwyneth Paltrow is one of several high-profile celebrities investing in cannabis-infused beverage company, Cann.
Rebel Wilson, Ruby Rose, Darren Criss, Tove Lo, Casey Neistat, former NBA star Baron Davis and Bre-Z have also invested in the company.
The actress and Goop CEO and founder calls cannabis a “hero ingredient of the future” for wellness and says she was drawn to Cann’s drinks, which are infused with small doses of THC and CBD, as an appealing alternative to alcohol.
“There’s a whole sober-curious movement that’s going on and the cannabis-curious movement that’s going on, this is kind of at the intersection of those things in a way,” said Paltrow.
Cann is not the health and wellness moguls’ first cannabis investment. Paltrow admitted that while she’s not a big cannabis user personally, she acknowledges its “amazing medicinal qualities.”
“There’s no reason why alcohol should be so much easier to purchase than Cann, and I’m confident the founders will lead the charge in finding ways to integrate it into the same purchasing channels and drinking environments,” she said via a news release.
Cann founder Luke Anderson called the comments made by Gwyneth Paltrow “a sign that Cann (and microdose beverages more broadly) are a viable answer to that very common consumer pain point.”
He added that when people think of Paltrow, “they don’t think of ‘weed’ – they think of cutting-edge solutions for today’s health and wellness needs.”
Cann has positioned itself as a “healthy” and hangover-free alternative to alcohol. Most of Cann’s “social tonics” contain roughly 30 calories and are “microdosed” with 2 milligrams of THC and 4 milligrams of CBD. A recently introduced Pineapple Jalapeño flavor contains 50 calories and 5 milligrams of THC.
Earlier this year, Cann secured $5 million in funding as part of the company’s 2020 production and distribution expansion plans for 2020.
According to TechCrunch, the beverage startup has sold 150,000 cans, which retail for $4 each, since last May. Cann products are available at just 60 dispensaries in California, and online via the Eaze cannabis marketplace, making the $600,000 in revenue the company generated in less than a year even more impressive.
Miss Marijuana: Canadian Beauty Queen Alyssa Boston Is on a Mission to End Stigmas
Alyssa Boston is a woman on a mission. The 24-year-old Canadian beauty queen is using her platform to start a conversation on ending stigmas around mental illness, competing in pageants — and cannabis.
While she doesn’t actually smoke weed, Canada’s crowned Miss Universe caused a media uproar when she wore a sparkling cannabis-inspired look during the 2019 Miss Universe competition in Atlanta, Georgia.
Cannabis Aficionado spoke to her about breaking stigmas, social media and of course, that costume.
CA: How was your Miss Universe experience?