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.”
When the California Gold Rush broke out in 1848, the first millionaire didn’t get rich by mining or prospecting.
San Francisco businessman Samuel Brannan made the first million dollars selling equipment to the frenzied hordes who descended on California with gold in their dreams and money bursting out of their pockets. He went on to become one of the world’s richest men.
A different sort of rush is happening now in California and the other 10 states that have legalized cannabis. It’s been called the “Green Rush,” and like Brannan, one California company is proving you don’t need to grow, sell, extract or even touch the plant to be successful.
“We have a small part of more legal cannabis transactions than any other company in the world,” says Nick Kovacevich, 33, chairman and CEO of KushCo Holdings. “Maybe we provided them with the vaping pen. Maybe we provided them with the packaging. Maybe we provided them with branding services.”
In just five years the company has grown from practically nothing to $145 million in annual sales providing packaging, branding, vaping products and myriad other services to the burgeoning legal cannabis industry.
“One way or another, if you’re picking up a product, there’s a high likelihood we had something to do with it. Because we’re working with 6,000 cannabis businesses throughout the world, we’re getting our fingers and hands on a lot of these transactions. By being an ancillary company, we don’t actually touch the plant.”
A born entrepreneur, Kovacevich launched his first company in 2007 with a college friend. PackMyDorm provided college students at four California campuses with packing materials, scheduled movers, arranged storage between semesters and scheduled movers for the return to school.
He wasn’t lifting heavy boxes, though. The actual moving was contracted out. He sold the company in 2010.
Around that time, Kovacevich grew interested in the cannabis industry. He’d been raised by his district-attorney father to see it in a negative light and as an athlete in college he rarely partook.
It was while recovering from knee surgery he decided to try it again and “quickly realized a lot of the information I believed was false.” Ever the entrepreneur, he decided after selling PackMyDorm he would launch his own company in 2010.
“One way or another, if you’re picking up a product, there’s a high likelihood we had something to do with it.”
Medical cannabis was booming in places like California and Colorado, but he didn’t want to join with the rest of the herd and run a farm or store.
“When people were looking at growing and opening dispensaries, we were looking at how do we build a set of products to support those endeavors? What are they going to need on a daily basis that we can provide?” he recalled. So Kush Bottles was born, designing and selling packaging for cannabis products and helping to make childproof packages the industry standard.
He took over as CEO in 2014 and has since renamed the company KushCo Holdings, because these days, the company is about way more than just bottles.
Today, Kovacevich’s company is actually several smaller companies: Kush Supply Co. provides vaporizer products, packaging, supplies and accessories. Kush Energy sells ultra-pure hydrocarbon gases and solvents. The Hybrid Creative is a design agency for cannabis and non-cannabis brands. Koleto Innovations focuses on research and development.
From his humble beginnings, his companies have sold more than 1 billion units, with 220 employees spread across five facilities in five states with legal cannabis.
Never heard of these companies? Not surprising. They don’t sell a single product containing THC. That’s up to their customers.
He credits his success to foresight and customer service. KushCo Holdings had a warehouse in Colorado within a few months of legalization there. It had one in Washington years before legalization. It had one in Massachusetts three months before legal cannabis sales began there.
And having customers who are also growing exponentially helps too.
“All our customers, for the most part, have been growing. So, when our customers grow, they buy more from us, which means we grow.”
Taking on the Black Market
There are still threats to the industry, but Kovacevich sees none greater than the black market.
“The black market, especially in California, is very rampant. People in this industry are used to buying through informal sources like dealers, but they’re also used to going to pop-up medical shops, which are now servicing rec,” he says.
This year, the United Cannabis Business Association released an analysis that found there were 2,835 illegal stores and delivery services in California, more than three times the 873 legal sellers.
Kovacevich says these illicit operations often sell vaporizers and other products that are untested and potentially unsafe, contributing to the wave of vaping-related illnesses sweeping the nation.
He blames the fact that California doesn’t have enough retail cannabis stores to meet the needs of the state, and many cities have none at all, since the state left it up to municipalities to determine if they would have dispensaries.
“There are not enough stores from the convenience standpoint and because of the testing requirements and all the onerous red tapes, pricing is significantly higher, so the black market is winning on convenience and price,” he said. “The key to taking back the market is to make it more convenient, by allowing more retail stores, and driving the cost down by lowering taxes.”
He sees the need for the federal government to begin regulating the industry to ensure what’s in cannabis and vaping products is safe. Of course, that would involve removing it from the list of Schedule I drugs.
He pointed out that research has shown teen use decreases in states that establish legal, adults-only stores.
“Everyone is looking for a reason to say legalizing cannabis is a bad idea, but I think if we can create fair, strong regulation, we can make sure the integrity of these products is kept,” he said. “The question is, ‘Why would you not legalize?’ You’re reducing the likelihood that kids will get involved. You’re reducing the crime aspects and you’re making safer, more effective products available for adults who choose to use it.”
Drive around rural Colorado these days and you’re apt to see hemp—fields and fields of it, growing legally in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.
Industrial hemp is booming, fueled by nationwide demand for CBD products, legitimized by the federal government in the 2018 Farm Bill. But how can consumers be sure that a CBD tincture is really free of THC, the psychoactive ingredient of the cannabis plant?
Ask a chemical engineer.
At Kazmira LLC, there are several of them on staff, working out of a massive, 200,000-square-foot plant outside of Denver. It just might be the largest extracts company you’ve never heard of, though if you’re a CBD consumer, you’ve probably enjoyed its products.
“We’re still finding out about all of the uses for CBD oil, and there’s so much runway for industrial hemp, in terms of the fiber and all the ancillary uses of the plant,” says Co-founder Dr. Priyanka Sharma, a chemical engineer. “I think there’s so much that can be done with just the plant, there’s only more growth that we’re seeing.”
The name Kazmira comes from the Kashmir region of India, where hemp has been used for thousands of years. Dr. Sharma’s parents are from India, though she grew up in the Chicago, Illinois area. Her father is a chemical engineer, and she always saw herself following in his footsteps. She even married another chemical engineer.
After obtaining her doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dr. Sharma went on to work in highly technical areas, such as “molecular modeling of functionalized gold nanoparticles with various ligands and their behavior in biological systems” and “developing a predictive model to understand chiral separations of orphan drugs.”
But she had been hearing about the growth of industrial hemp, and nowhere had more growing than Colorado. So, in 2017 she and her husband moved there and launched Kazmira. The goal was to use their scientific backgrounds in oil, gas and pharmaceuticals to build a company for extracting CBD from the plant using strict standards.
“The reason we decided to start Kazmira is there was a gap in technology companies in this space. We wanted to lend our expertise to making quality and safe extracts for industrial hemp. We wanted to continue our passion for engineering and apply it to the hemp space,” she said.
Other companies, she explained, were operating in “pretty unsafe environments,” using outmoded equipment, without the kind of quality control or manufacturing standards she was used to, without processes for keeping pesticides and other contaminants out of the finished product.
“We realized there were a lot safer and more efficient processes that we could apply to this industry to make these hemp extracts.”
“The reason we decided to start Kazmira is there was a gap in technology companies in this space. We wanted to lend our expertise to making quality and safe extracts for industrial hemp. We wanted to continue our passion for engineering and apply it to the hemp space.”
Kazmira’s “TruSpeKtrum technology platform” allows the company to produce hemp oil that is guaranteed to be free of THC. While many companies claim to do likewise, federal standards allow a CBD product to legally contain up to three parts of THC for every thousand parts of oil by weight.
The oil that comes out of Kazmira has no detectable level of THC, the company boasts. Among its 30 employees are eight scientists with PhDs, two with master’s degrees and two medical doctors.
The team works with farmers, mostly in Colorado, to get hemp plants that are free of pesticides and other contaminants, and Kazmira has the capacity to process thousands of pounds a day.
So, why have you never seen a Kazmira oil or tincture on a store shelf? The company only produces the oil, selling it to other companies, which sell the finished product.
Dr. Sharma explained, “We’re able to provide them with a product that meets specifications retailers care about—free of pesticides, toxins and microbials. We are able to guarantee their CBD source is safe.”
And given the booming popularity of CBD as treatment for a whole variety of ailments, from anxiety to inflammation, and given that these products can legally be sold anywhere in the U.S., Dr. Sharma expects Kazmira to continue growing and expanding what can be extracted from the hemp plant.
“The runway is a lot longer right now for hemp because anybody from a child to an adult can take a hemp extract and they can access it as well,” she said. “I think there’s so much that can be done with the plant that there’s only going to be more growth.”
For most people who enjoy cannabis edibles, taste is secondary to the buzz it packs. It’s on your lips for a few seconds, while the THC inside will hopefully keep you going for the whole Phish concert.
But trained pastry chef Rachel King asks why edibles can’t be delicious and THC-infused?
“If you’re going to eat an edible, you might as well make it enjoyable,” says King, co-founder and culinary director of Kaneh Co., a San Diego, California-based gourmet cannabis company.
Launched in 2016, the company has grown from three to 65 employees, with edibles sold in more than 200 stores across California, an explosive growth King attributes to meticulous dosing and the belief that edibles customers are looking for a wide variety of sweets that taste just as good as what you’d get in a fine restaurant or candy store.
“As our clientele widens and cannabis becomes more and more accepted by people in different walks of life, they will be looking for a product that is not just a vessel for medication.”
“I wanted to make sure people were getting a delicious, good product that would get them high, not just something they’re trying to choke down to get high.”
A Pastry Chef
King, 36, came into the cannabis industry in a roundabout way.
Her first experiences with cannabis—smoking whatever flower her friends had out of an aluminum can—were not positive.
“I would usually get way too high, so it was not that pleasant for me,” she said.
King was trained at the San Diego Culinary Institute and went on to work at some of the city’s finest restaurants. Pastries were always her specialty and focus; Food & Wine magazine named her one of the best new pastry chefs in 2013.
“Pastries hold a special place in peoples’ hearts. You’ll always remember that birthday cake or extra-extravagant dessert you’ve had,” King said.
But restaurant work can be demanding, so when her brother and some friends came to her with a proposition for an infused edibles company, she listened. So, in January of 2016, Kaneh was born.
From the beginning, King explained she would not sacrifice the quality of her desserts simply because they would be cannabis-infused.
“Considering my background was in pastries and not cannabis, it was really about the food product itself,” she said. “I wanted to make sure people were getting a delicious, good product that would get them high, not just something they’re trying to choke down to get high.”
“I didn’t compromise the quality that I was already used to working with in my cooking background.”
A New Ingredient
Still, adding a major new ingredient to the type of cooking she had long done presented a challenge. There were some hits and plenty of misses.
“Working with the product itself, figuring out when to add the medication, how it affects the overall product, was a bit of a learning curve,” she said.
Kaneh hit the market with a large array of products—cookies, brownies, snack bars, nuts, dates and cocoa powder. She was one of two kitchen employees.
“Now we have a huge professional kitchen staff with people who used to work in bakeries and restaurants,” she said. As of this writing, the company has 22 different products available, from cookies to jellies to caramels to that staple of stoner cooking for decades, brownies. Each is a 100mg product, divided into 5mg or 10mg doses.
Kaneh sells as many as 50,000 products a month, according to King. For now, they’re just in California, though the company is exploring licensing in other states. She attributes her company’s success to “the quality of the taste, and obviously the consistency of the medication.” Ingredients are the same she would use to make desserts in a fine restaurant.
When people get an edible, they expect the potency to be exact, and so does King. She’s found a way to finally enjoy cannabis—five milligrams at a time.
She believes the future of edibles is in diversity, offering consumers a wide variety of options.
“People are getting super creative. The consumer base is widening. People are going to want more things rather than just the same old things. Nothing to disparage the classics, a good chocolate chip cookie or brownie will never get old, but the more people that try edibles, more they will want something different.”
That said, she noted that a brownie is Kaneh’s best-seller.
“It’s the Best of Both Worlds, a classic fudgy brownie. We press in a piece of chocolate-chip cookie.”
“It’s so good.”
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