The U.S. government has said for decades that cannabis has “no accepted medical use,” lumping it with drugs like heroin and LSD in terms of its medical potential and legality.
But Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the nation’s most powerful cannabis foe, would only have to travel 10 blocks from his office in the nation’s capital to see otherwise. That’s where Dr. Chanda Macias provides medicine for 2,400 patients at her medical cannabis dispensary, violating federal law like every other cannabis seller in America.
Her National Holistic Healing Center is one of five dispensaries in Washington, D.C., a small market that is symbolically large by virtue of its location. Dr. Macias expects sales to rise from $5 million to $8 million this year. As a result, she has emerged as one of the industry’s most prominent faces, a clean-cut scientist and mother of four with an impressive educational background, who doesn’t consume cannabis herself.
Along with running the dispensary and studying the plant as a scientist, she was also recently selected to serve as chairwoman of Women Grow, a nationwide organization with dozens of chapters and hundreds of business members.
“Being operational for almost three years, I see what a tremendous difference in health care benefits it provides my patients,” said Dr. Macias, 43. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve seen recovery from certain ailments. I’ve seen improved quality of life for a lot of different patients. It’s miraculous what I’ve seen this plant can do for patients in the D.C. market.”
Health Care Disparity
It was on a trip to Ethiopia that Dr. Macias began to draw parallels between the health crisis in that impoverished nation and the situation facing millions of Americans at home.
A cell biologist with a PhD from Howard University, she received a grant to bring students there to study diseases like malaria, which were often fatal because of a lack of medicine and available doctors. She had studied cannabis’ medical benefits and its potential to fight a number of diseases, from glaucoma to cancer, and decided to do something to help Americans gain access to it.
“What I needed was to bring awareness to this health disparity that everyone experiences due to the deficiency of cannabinoids in our systems, understanding that those cannabinoids are putting us back in balance and giving us an improved quality of life, because that balance is something we need in order to not see these different progressive disease states,” she said.
“It’s having access to the right medicine, and the medicine I feel can have the biggest impact on a patient is medical marijuana.”
Around this time, in 2013, Washington, D.C. was in the process of approving its first dispensaries. Dr. Macias applied, and two years later, was approved as the fifth and final one. She quit her job at a large pharmaceutical company to sell cannabis.
“ . . . Overall if I ever question my decision of going into this industry, I look at my 2,400 patients, and I say, ‘I did the right thing. No question.'”
“I can’t change who I am, which is a scientist. So I still have to indulge in that,” said Dr. Macias, who takes that approach to dispensing cannabis.
When a new strain is ready, she and other scientists on her team examine the cannabinoid properties to determine what specific ailments it may be best used to treat, a concept known as “strain alignment.” Laboratory research is a major focus of the dispensary, along, of course, with its eight warehouse grow operations in the city.
And it’s not just Washington, D.C. residents who can reap the benefits. The city allows medical cannabis patients from 16 other states to gain access to dispensaries, a big deal in a city that receives plenty of visitors, from tourists to government employees, who don’t need to go in search of the black market.
Expanding access and knowledge about cannabis was why, in February of this year, Dr. Macias accepted the job of chairwoman of Women Grow. It’s an opportunity to not only help women prosper in the industry, but to raise awareness of women’s issues, such as using cannabis to treat endometriosis, a painful swelling of uterus tissue, and allowing children who use cannabis to treat epilepsy to medicate at school instead of having to be taken home.
A Polarizing Issue
Dr. Macias’ eight-year-old son isn’t allowed to say “marijuana” or “cannabis.” He can only call the plant “medicine.” It’s to protect him from getting in trouble if someone asks what his mother does. It’s also to avoid a misunderstanding that could result in social services being called.
Such are the risks of running a dispensary in a region that is years behind the West in terms of the legality of cannabis. It’s the same attitude she has come up against during her entire academic career.
“When I went to school, it was still the ‘War on Drugs’ and the thought of marijuana was that there was nothing medical about it. It was just a pipeline to prison,” she said. When she studied cannabis, it was by reviewing the laboratory research of others, because of the legal hurdles in America to studying a Schedule I drug.
Some of her scientific colleagues have applauded Dr. Macias for getting involved in medical cannabis, while others warned her that it would be detrimental to her career.
“I get both responses, but overall if I ever question my decision of going into this industry, I look at my 2,400 patients, and I say, ‘I did the right thing. No question,'” she said.
“I’m very happy to be in this space,” she concluded. “I’m happy to create awareness and meet some pretty dynamic people who really are changing the face of health care.”