Thirteen years ago, Dr. Michele Ross never imagined she would become one of the leading voices of cannabinoid medicine. She was a neuroscientist studying drug addiction at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Once Dr. Ross discovered cannabis, it was a game changer – not only for her career but her life. In 2006, Dr. Ross published her first paper, reviewing whether cannabinoids could grow brain cells. Her findings revealed cannabis stimulates new brain cell growth, which is the opposite of most abused drugs. This sparked Dr. Ross's interest to learn more about the endocannabinoid system. The more she found out, the more she wanted to dig deeper. Today, Dr. Ross is a cannabinoid researcher and patient. After being diagnosed with fibromyalgia and neuropathy, cannabis was the only thing that reduced her symptoms and allowed her to return to work. As a neuroscientist, though, she was frustrated by the lack of education on the endocannabinoid system both doctors and scientists received, despite medical cannabis being used by millions of patients nationwide. So in 2013, she founded the “Endocannabinoid Deficiency Foundation,” now known as IMPACT Network. Her mission is to make medical cannabis treatment a first-line therapy for patients by educating patients, healthcare professionals, and policy makers while driving clinical cannabis research.
What was the journey leading up to launching IMPACT Network?
If you had asked me 13 years ago whether I would be one of the leading voices of cannabinoid medicine, I would have laughed at you. I was a neuroscientist studying drug addiction at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. In 2006 I published my first paper, reviewing whether cannabinoids might grow brain cells. Cannabis stimulates new brain cell growth, which is the opposite of most abused drugs. This lit a fire in me to learn more about the endocannabinoid system, and the more I found out, the more I wanted to dive in deeper.
After working as a Chief Scientist formulating and marketing nutraceuticals sold around the globe, I began my own consulting company. I met my future husband Todd, who had worked in the cannabis industry for over 25 years, he convinced me to go all in on cannabis, and publically start supporting it. This was risky as an academic because once you’re out of the closet it’s really hard to go back in. But how could I not? Cannabis had changed my life, as I suffered from nerve issues starting in my late 20s, and could barely use my arms, legs, and hands without cannabis. Between my research and patient consulting experience and his industry experience, we had a unique opportunity to really make an impact on medical marijuana patients and the cannabis industry. The Endocannabinoid Deficiency Foundation was formed in 2013, and we changed the name to IMPACT Network in 2015 after moving from Los Angeles, CA to Denver, CO.
How has cannabis influenced your life?
Cannabis is the reason why I am alive. I’ve had a history of odd health problems my entire life, but never started using cannabis until my late 20s. Once morning I woke up and my right hand and wrist was completely limp but in pain. This lasted for 2 months. A doctor informed me my right ulnar and radial nerves weren’t sending messages through my arm and I needed an expensive surgery that might not work. After trying every alternative healthcare trick in the book, it was a combination of cannabis & massage of a “cold spot” in my arm that released the inflammation & slowly got my nerves to wake up. The doctor was furious he didn’t get to do that surgery that would have paid for the vacation he was scheduled to go on right after!
Later in life, I had the horrible luck of living in a home that had in some part 500x legal levels of lead as well as extensive black mold. I got sick and bedridden for months with doctors not being able to figure out what was wrong with me, and I could not use cannabis at the time due to legal issues. I went from a healthy woman running mini-marathons to a woman slumped over in a wheelchair. Finally, these health issues resulted in me having hundreds of blood clots in my lungs, which led to my lung collapsing and a minor heart attack. It is truly a miracle I’m alive, as the doctors told me I likely wouldn’t make it through treatment.
Where does cannabis come into this story? The doctors warned me not to use cannabis, and to take pain pills and see a psychologist to get used to being “disabled.” I believed cannabis could, like before, do what conventional medicine couldn’t. I started vaping cannabis (not smoking it, as that would irritate my lungs). My lungs healed faster than expected, and I was able to permanently get off my oxygen tank. I began to heal and regain my strength after dosing myself with “Rick Simpson Oil” every day for 2 months.
Over the span of 8 months, I went from wheelchair and oxygen tank to walker to cane to walking with no assistance. I have residual health issues like fibromyalgia, neuropathy, and constant chest pain (pleurisy), but for the most part, cannabis prevents flares and reduces their severity when they do happen. Cannabis also keeps my mood elevated from the constant downer of having to deal with chronic pain. I’m so grateful that cannabis has given me my life back, and I’m so happy to help patients return to being happy and healthy through cannabis.
As a neuroscientist, what is your perspective on cannabis in terms of women's' health?
Cannabis is a female plant made for women. Our endocannabinoid levels and estrogen levels are linked, and our uterus has the highest levels of anandamide at times in our cycle that anywhere in our body. I think most women are actually endocannabinoid deficient, and boost the endocannabinoid system in women could increase energy and mood, and reduce pain and other symptoms of chronic illness. Cannabis is the perfect medicine for women, as we normally have more than one health problem, and cannabis can treat all of our issues!
Most OTC and prescription medicines were researched on male mice and men, but are prescribed for women. Antidepressants are a great example of that, and it’s not surprising these drugs aren’t effective for women and have a broad range of undesirable side effects including sexual dysfunction. Cannabis, on the other hand, actually treats the root of the problem instead of just masking symptoms, and doesn’t create a laundry list of side effects.
Name 3 ways women can support cannabis research
1.) Women can sign up to be contacted for participation in cannabis research, whether it’s an online survey, a marketing research study with free product, or an actual IRB-approved clinical study going to be published in a peer-review scientific journal.
It’s important for women, and specifically women of color, to be represented in clinical research. Too often products come to market or papers are published on how treatments work in just white men. Prequalify for clinical cannabis research through a from that take 2 minutes to fill out through IMPACT Network here: http://www.impactcannabis.org/mmj-research/
2.) Women can donate to IMPACT Network, whether through a one-time or monthly gift online, sending a check, or untraditional methods like donating stock or registering to give your bonus cash via Charity Charge Credit Card to IMPACT Network.
Because we are a 501c3 nonprofit, donations are tax-deductible.
3.) Women can share research articles and the correct information about cannabis. Too often, the internet is full of fake news or articles written by a well-meaning person who doesn’t have the education to properly write about the topic. You can trust the information we put out at IMPACT Network, as it’s always written or reviewed by someone with a healthcare related or graduate level degree including MD, DO, ND, PhD, RN, or MS.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Helping patients have a better quality of life is what I live for. That email when someone says “thank you, that cannabis cream changed my life, I’m back working again,” or that phone call stating “I’m so glad I tried cannabis and didn’t go for the mastectomy, I still have my breasts!” is everything.
Any tips for maintaining a work/life balance?
It’s really easy to get burned out as an Executive Director of a nonprofit. It’s actually more challenging that being a CEO, it’s like being 3 CEOs at once with little salary. When I can’t manage my stress levels (it’s scary when grants or donors don’t come in and people are waiting on paychecks), I have to keep my mind and body healthy in other ways. I try to eat healthily, making sure I eat fish 3-5 times a week, lots of greens and fruit, and avoid sugar. I make sure I take a 10-minute walk at some point in my day, and a 10-minute bath with a cup of 2.5mg THC green tea to relax at night.
Always visualize why you are doing what you do when things get hard, your purpose. For me it’s patients. No matter how hard a day can be for me, I remember how hard it is for someone with stage 4 cancer that has run out of options and just needs someone to point them in the right direction about cannabis. If your purpose is just making dollars, you will burn out.
Why is education so important for the cannabis movement?
I live in Denver, Colorado, one of the cannabis capitols of the world, and I meet people daily with family members suffering from epilepsy who have never heard of cannabidiol (CBD). People may approve of medical marijuana legalization, but their cannabis “literacy” is really, really low. This expands to the doctors as well. Many patients with chronic illnesses have never had marijuana come up in the doctor’s office, and if they ask their doctor, their doctor often knows nothing.
We have to remember only 1% of Americans currently use cannabis, and not all are medical users. It’s going to take a long time for Americans to acknowledge “that cannabinoids are vitamins are bodies need to replace the endocannabinoid deficiency caused by our modern lifestyle. It’s worth it because I truly believe a return to plant-based medicine will make our planet healthier.
What do you see in the future between cannabis and our current healthcare system?
The future of how cannabis fits into the current healthcare system depends on what Schedule cannabis will finally fit under. Currently, cannabis is Schedule 1, which is the Schedule for dangerous, addictive drugs with no known medical benefits, and thus health insurance can’t cover it, and it can’t be recommended by doctors receiving Federal funds in the form of Medicaid or Medicare.
Cannabis medicine is functional medicine and personalized medicine. I don’t see tradition MDs embracing it because cannabis doesn’t fit into the one pill for one symptom system that is at the root of our broken healthcare system. I hope cannabis is embraced by DOs, NDs, RNs, and alternative practitioners like massage therapists, chiropractors, herbalists, health coaches, and acupuncturists. There are programs like the Holistic Cannabis Academy, where I teach 2 classes, including one on Cannabis & Women’s Health.
How can we bridge the gap between health care professional and the cannabis community?
There are three types of doctors. First, there are the doctors who won’t learn anything new, no matter what. They are old dogs set in their ways. Then you have doctors that will adopt a new treatment if it financially benefits them, a la product sales or other incentives. The third type of doctor is one who will recommend any new treatment if it truly helps their patients.
The cannabis community, unfortunately, spends too much time focused on the first two type of doctors, and lacks the money to influence the second type of doctor the same way pharmaceutical reps do. We need to focus on the third type of doctor, which would likely be younger and interested in personalized medicine like genetic testing, and digital health.
It takes cannabis healthcare professionals and researchers presenting at mainstream medical and scientific conferences to make an impact on these healthcare professionals. Cannabinoid medicine is an emerging new field of research, just like neuroscience was 50 years ago. It’s high risk but potentially high reward. Not all will adopt it, but few doctors adopt any new way of treatment. We need to focus on providing condition-specific data and treatment protocols for specialists to make any progress.
If you could offer an aspiring cannabis entrepreneur one piece of advice, what would it be?
Have no fear. I've been writing "No Fear" every day on the inside of my left wrist.
It reminds me not to be scared of failure, the worst-case scenario, or what people think of me or my nonprofit. It reminds me to not be scared to ask questions or clarify misunderstandings. Making assumptions kills relationships.
"No fear" reminds me to take chances, speak up, negotiate a better contract or fee (really speak up for my worth), go for the hug instead of the handshake, and be myself (I'm not afraid this month to say I like being a blonde scientist).
Try it for yourself. Let this be the month of "No Fear."