By Sophia Bruun
Dr. Jan Roberts, also affectionately known as “@drweedlady” across her social media platforms, wears a lot of hats. As a licensed clinical social worker, she has helped thousands of patients with their mental health through the therapeutic use of cannabis. As a researcher and instructor at New York University, she has taught and mentored future generations of clinicians on the therapeutic use of cannabis. And as an entrepreneur and activist, she has founded and led both nonprofit and for-profit health organizations such as the International Research Center on Cannabis and Health, all of which champion the scientifically-driven incorporation of cannabis into accessible and holistic health and wellness practices. If you thought she wasn’t busy enough, she is also a co-host of the podcast, New Hemp Times, and recently started a private equity fund, Madison Square Partners, that focuses on innovative novel treatments for health and wellbeing.
Hailing from the small town of Saraland, Alabama, Dr. Roberts was the first in her family to attend college. She continued to earn two Masters degrees, raise three children as a single parent, and found one of the largest mental health private practices on the East coast, Partners in Health and Wellbeing. She then moved to Manhattan to pursue a doctorate at NYU Silver School of Social Work, where she now teaches graduate students. While earning her doctorate, Dr. Roberts found her heart’s calling at the intersection of cannabis and wellness. The “ah-ha” moment she attributes as her turning point was a shingles-induced discovery of the medical efficacy of edibles. “Using cannabis medicinally changed the way I saw everything,” Dr. Roberts recalls in an exclusive interview with Honey Pot Senior Editor, Keyanah Nurse.
Traditionally, mental health clinicians are trained to look at cannabis pathologically. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institutes of Health Research, for example, have largely funded research that details the problematic use of cannabis. The sole goal of these studies is to examine pathological use rather than therapeutic use. As Dr. Roberts dug deeper into her personal research on and experimentation with the plant while earning her doctorate, she could no longer accept the stigma around cannabis in the mental health field. “We were robbed of a medicine because of racism.” Her bottom line: “We need to change the way we think about cannabis.”
Dr. Roberts combats misinformation around cannabis through consulting, education, and science-based research and development. In 2017, she co-founded the International Research Center of Cannabinoids and Health (IRCCH) with Jahan Marcu, PhD. Through the IRCCH, Dr. Roberts conducted a pilot study to evaluate clinicians’ attitudes and knowledge of cannabis. Findings illuminated the inconsistent standards of qualifying abuse. “In the clinical realm we need to be better at knowing what abuse is and what abuse isn’t,” she explains, citing the approach she takes with her patients in therapy, “If I have a client who wants to smoke weed all day and do nothing, that worries me.” However, when used properly, Dr. Roberts views cannabis as “a gateway to wellness and wellbeing.” She encourages patients to take the legal route to secure a safe, regulated product. Holding her own medical cannabis card, Dr. Roberts experiences the plant as a spiritual tool that breaks down barriers while deepening awareness and insight. Understanding the multitude of health benefits and the profound mind-body connection that cannabis can bring, Dr. Roberts is highly motivated to develop this industry responsibly to reach its full potential.
From her latest initiative to grow cannabis in the health field sprouted Madison Square Partners (MSP), a global private equity corporation poised to tackle multiple industry pain-points with a focus on social entrepreneurship and social equity. The MSP team is mobilizing to disseminate a comprehensive diagnostics training program for medical professionals through The Cannabinoid Institute while advancing women’s health with the launch of a novel product line, Dr. Virago.
Given that the uterus contains more cannabinoid receptors than any other organ in the body, women’s health and cannabis research go hand-in-hand. Through affiliation with Northeastern University’s Center for Drug Discovery, Dr. Virago’s research team will explore the relationship between hormonal regulation and cannabinoids. It is expected that two cannabis-based medicinal products, treating vulvodynia and vaginismus, are set to launch in 2021. The longterm goal behind Dr. Virago is to provide gynecological treatments for every woman at all stages of her life cycle. As Dr. Roberts passionately explained, “We want to create products that can even work through post-menopause. Our products are not just for sexual pleasure. They’re actually for sexual healing, physiological healing. They’re really about harnessing the endocannabinoid system to make your body work more in commune with nature.” But, it’s not just about the products. “Dr. Virago is a statement about women taking control of their lives, including their bodies and their roles as women; it’s time to bring to light the issues that face women so we can be treated equally in the marketplace and in the healthcare space. Being a women-owned and led business is critical right now more than anything. We need diversity of perspective on what it’s like to be a woman, and my goal is to develop a brand that is consistent with female wellness and empowerment across the lifetime locally and globally.”
Reflecting on what this brand means to her, Dr. Roberts struggles to find words: “As a feminist, I grew up in a time when…” she pauses, “I almost lost my scholarship, stipend and health insurance when I was in graduate school because I was pregnant and had to go on bed rest due to preterm labor.” While conditions have improved, women continue to be excluded from research. “As a woman, I didn’t know anything about my body and how it worked,” she continues, but with the research surrounding Dr. Virago she aims to change that, concluding: “If you can make a difference, there’s nothing better than that.”
Virago means “female warrior” and “nasty woman.” This double-play on words highlights the multidimensional nature of the feminine spirit. “We are both sides of that. . . why do I have to play the good girl? You need your shadow side and your light side.” As the boss of her own company, Dr. Roberts continues to fight uphill battles: “I’ve been in conversations where it’s hard for me to get a word in.” In such instances, she boldly asserts the nasty woman in her; “that’s how I protect myself.”
Alongside obstacles faced in business, aging poses unique physiological and psychological challenges for women. While the female body and hormonal makeup undergo major changes with time, the commercial narrative of what’s sexy — encompassing the ephemeral window of youth — remains stable. Often there is a sense of becoming invisible with time, and, as Dr. Roberts states, “[there’s] this belief that as we become older we become less sexual, and that’s totally a myth.” Sexuality remains a fundamental aspect of the human experience, standing as a pillar of wellbeing, irrespective of age. In fact, many women report improved sex lives well past the idealized stage of emerging adulthood. From her personal experience Dr. Roberts shares, “It was so strange for me, at 40 years old, to connect to that sexual power — [I was] more confident in my body, stretch marks from kids, but I didn’t care.”
In a capitalist market, young women’s bodies are all too easily exploited as fuel for consumption. Yet embracing female sexual agency remains taboo. This new age of body positivity invites women from all walks of life to rewrite the narrative around what’s sexy. Dr. Roberts defines sexy as power. She explains, “I’m not talking about political or economic power. I’m talking about power from within. To me, that’s what’s sexy. To me it’s about connecting with who you truly are as an individual and being that person and trusting that person is good enough. . . I don’t want to sell sex. I want to sell confidence.”
Women, whether in business or in bed, have faced challenges not dissimilar to cannabis—they have been ignored for their virtues, written off, understudied and misunderstood. In the year 2020, outdated myths around women and cannabis will no longer stand. Circling back to her latest business venture, Dr. Roberts connects her present goal to her past: “Virago means female empowerment. I’ve been a single mom. I’ve been on Medicaid. I’ve had to have food-stamps. I’ve made a lot of money. I’ve lost a lot of money. I’ve been there… [but] whatever act you’re in, be the best at that act.” The trajectory of her life is a testament to the vast internal power one can build by embracing challenges, persevering in the face of failure, and following one’s heart. Dr. Roberts says it best: “We are all viragos. We are all female warriors.”
Thumbnail Photo Credits to Sam C. Long