By Angela Romanos
upper photo (c) Nataliya Arditi
Better than anyone, Mara Gordon understands the complexity of cannabis in healthcare.
Mara herself, co-founder of the pioneering cannabis-based medicine manufacturer Aunt Zelda’s™ (AKA The Oil Plant) and a globally-renowned advocate, had suffered from chronic back pain before she began using the plant to medicate. Her previous prescription was composed of twenty-six different pharmaceuticals to get her through the day, and even then she could not drive a car and was experiencing depression. After hearing about another individual who was alleviating his neck pain with cannabis, Gordon sought out a “prescription” from a doctor. I use the word prescription lightly because, as Mara points out, there is currently no strict standard for dosing patients when it comes to cannabis.
Upon receiving the prescription from her doctor, she thought that she’d know exactly what to take, how much to take, and when to take cannabis to relieve her pain. Instead, she was given an address to a dispensary and found herself feeling lost when she got inside. “This is not science, this is not medicine, and I need to go and find out more information…” Mara said after leaving the dispensary. Mara had not been a fan of the recreational use of marijuana previously; her advocacy in the plant started in her firm belief that cannabis is a legitimate medicine that cures ailments of the body.
Before moving into the cannabis space, Mara Gordon worked as a process engineer where she developed software for some of the largest companies in the United States. She has utilized her meticulous manner, analytical and scientific skills, and her personal experience to become co-founder collectively of Aunt Zelda’s™, The Oil Plant, Calla Spring Wellness, and Zelda Therapeutics.
She has also been featured in a variety of films on cannabis, starring as one of the main subjects in Weed the People, a documentary featured on Netflix following the lives and practices of children with cancer using medicinal cannabis. Produced by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, Weed the People has received rave reviews from Good Morning America to Time Magazine to Leafly, and is credited with helping pass progressive medical legislation in Oklahoma. “The film is a really great opportunity for people to see other people exercising their basic human right to treat their disease,” says Mara.
Mara Gordon’s work in healthcare, and cannabis has had a large part in reshaping perspectives and destigmatizing medicinal cannabis for adults and children. She strives to bring cannabis into healthcare as a serious medicine that will one day have the clinical trials and studies necessary to legitimize it. She discussed her methodologies and thought processes with the Honey Pot team over an enlightening conversation about medicinal cannabis for the ill.
We first asked Mara about the differences between medicinal and recreational uses of cannabis. She emphasized that cannabis is a medicine and it is used to remove a problem in the body, similar to how one would take an aspirin to relieve a headache. She doesn’t believe that it defines the user in any way – it’s just a drug used to feel better.
Mara says, “When medicine is then used beyond the point of what is required to eliminate the health condition, you are not choosing to recreate with it. If someone uses an opioid to deal with a bad back and it gets them out of pain, but then they think, ‘I’ll take three times that amount so that I can be high while watching this movie,’ then that’s not medical anymore, and that’s where I define it. One is to enhance and create an experience, where the other one is to remove a malady from the body.”
Although Gordon asserts that using cannabis should be as normal as using any other medicine, she differentiates cannabis because of its unique entourage effect, where the plant’s various compounds act synergystically to mitigate the psychoactive effects of THC. According to Gordon, the commonplace thinking on medicine is that it is a pure compound or a single molecule, simply because that’s the way the pharmaceutical world has taken it. Through Silver Therapeutics, she funded research in Spain in collaboration with Dr. Christina Sánchez and Manuel Guzmán and their team. The study compares the whole plant entourage effect and the process of killing the three major subtypes of breast cancer. Thus far, Mara reports that, “hands down, the whole plant and the full spectrum works far better [in killing breast cancer] than a single pure compound.” Endless discoveries still exist for those studying cannabis; in the few years Mara has been working in the industry, researchers have gone from knowing 80 cannabinoids to 144 cannabinoids and 200 terpenes to 400 terpenes.
With the classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 Drug, there has been limited research on the plant’s good aspects. However, Gordon often highlights that testing the effects of cannabis has shown limited harm and no fatal risks to those involved. She explains there are no cannabinoid receptors in the brainstem, and it cannot target certain areas in the body. If someone ingests too much THC for their tolerance and they feel extremely uncomfortable, there are simple solutions such as taking a shower, having some warm lemon water, and waiting for it to leave their system. From society’s standpoint, an overdose commonly means a danger of losing a life due to excessive amounts of a drug in the body. Cannabis presents no such dangers.
How does Gordon propose turning a plant into medicine? It’s all in the data. We asked what particular patterns she has found in working with cannabis that people do not talk about enough. She immediately pointed to one of the biggest issues she’s found within the data: there is no correlation between each milligram of medicine per kilogram of the weight of the patient.
“In traditional pharmaceuticals,” Gordon explains, “they tend to match milligrams per kilogram. With cannabis, we’ve found zero correlation. I might have a 110-pound woman taking twice the amount as a 200-pound man for the same ailment. Or I may have a child that weighs 50 pounds or less, taking way higher doses to treat the same thing. Another thing I’ve seen in patterns is that we believe there’s more of a correlation between the age of a patient and milligrams, where younger patients require higher doses. This theory may be based on metabolization rates and potentially the activity in the endocannabinoid system with receptors. We don’t know enough yet. To have fewer barriers to the acceptance of cannabis, it is important that w figure out a way to dose appropriately and pick profiles that are going to help the patient without them feeling uncomfortable from the high dose. However, until it is something that is prescribed by a doctor that you pick up at CVS or Rite Aid, there’s going to be this perception that it’s a ‘nice to have’ drug unless you don’t feel good from it. And that’s too bad because it can be replacing many pharmaceuticals.”
Mara also briefly touches on public misunderstandings and misinformation about CBD. Initially, she said, “there was this misnomer that CBD has no psychoactivity.” In reality, CBD can have an anxious or uncomfortable effect on people, like Mara herself. She believes it is dangerous to let corporate interests drive medicine at this level.
On CBD’s legality, Mara comments: “CBD is not federally legal. CBD is a Schedule 5 drug, as long as you have an FDA approved drug. There’s only one drug in the world right now and that’s epidiolex. People are going out there and making CBD products and the problem with that is there’s no regulatory oversight for safety, efficacy, and truth in packaging. So many people come to me and say they found a CBD product on Amazon or at a hair salon and there are no labeling instructions. There’s nothing on there to tell you how many milligrams per kilogram and you have no idea if it has been lab-tested. And hemp is an accumulator plant, which means it cleans the soil and uptakes of the contaminants within the soil. So do you really want to take a CBD product that hasn’t been tested for heavy metals, arsenic in the soil or water, or other unknown substances? This is what you’re going to put in your body. We need to do a lot more oversight and regulation around the CBD before it should be out of the mainstream.”
At the end of the day, Mara’s goal is to get Aunt Zelda’s products to sick people all over the world. She is confident in her medicine and processes and hopes for the day when cannabis is accessible to all patients. She continues to educate people, doctors, and institutions on how to use cannabis effectively. Aunt Zelda’s had previously been more of a research and development company, its crew becoming trailblazers and experts in understanding how to treat disease with cannabis. Since the data has been accumulating, Aunt Zelda’s is ramping up their manufacturing and ready to enter the marketplace in a larger way. In the coming year, Mara hopes to get Aunt Zelda’s available to everybody in California and start working on their licensing agreements in other states and countries, instead of people becoming medical refugees and traveling to California for other options.
Where there’s a fight for cannabis, Mara Gordon will be right there on the front lines. A perfect mixture of passionate and informed, she makes it her mission to combat the social stigma of cannabis because it affects lives that could be saved or improved by this medicine. As a woman entrepreneur and researcher, Mara continues to earn credibility and accolades in her fight for medicinal cannabis for all patients. In parting, she shared this insight:
“I really hope that if there is cannabis available and somebody who is ill, that they believe that it is worth trying. Just because you tried cannabis and it didn’t work for you, doesn’t mean it’s over – there are over 14,000 different varieties and there are differences in how the medicine is processed. It may not be the answer and it may not work, but it is definitely worth trying.”