How was I going to have this conversation with my teenagers? I’d been putting it off for months. The day was looming when I would begin work for my new employer, a cannabis start-up for alternative delivery modes of infused products. I needed to tell my two kids about the job before they caught wind of it from someone else. How do you tactfully tell your children you are leaving a solid career in the pharmaceutical industry for a start-up in a legal marijuana business? I wasn’t exactly sure, but, like a parent would, I found a bit of creative language to be the desirable approach. Over dinner I casually mentioned that I was leaving my current job that I had been at for 7+ years for a new opportunity. As they chewed their food, they didn’t seem too concerned by this information. Between grunts and bites they just asked where it was located and what would I be doing. “Same sort of thing as before, only in Denver”, I responded. End of the conversation.
Well that might have been the end of it, but, I had a nagging suspicion that our 17-year old daughter would find out more details through the grapevine of friends. I didn’t want her thinking I was like Mary-Louise Parker’s character in Weed. I headed to her bedroom after dinner. After sitting on her bed with her for a few minutes, I casually mentioned that I would actually be working in the cannabis industry at the new job. There was a pause. Then she asked, “You are leaving research in cystic fibrosis for weed?”. Well there it was, on the table and a very good question.
I had worked in the biotech world for 22 years with notable companies including Amgen and Gilead Sciences. My career in research and development had spanned antibiotic discovery, oncology products, inflammation research and, most recently, drugs for improving the lives of cystic fibrosis patients. I had risen to Senior Director of Toxicology and was very satisfied with my chosen profession. However, there were several aspects to biotech that had made me disillusioned with the direction the industry was headed. These included the influence of hedge funds and corporate money driving decisions on research focuses rather than the science driving the research.
In the cannabis industry, I would be entering a grey market of legal and illegal activities with inherent risks from any start-up venture. Recreational cannabis had been legalized in my home state of Colorado in 2014. Shortly after the passage of Amendment 64, there was a flurry of activity to create the first legal retail cannabis marketplace. There was still much to sort out with the regulations in a burgeoning industry with numerous opportunities for entrepreneurs, scientists and patients. I was intrigued by the industry as a whole as my disillusionment with biotech grew. Could cannabis be the mechanism to get medicines to patients more quickly than via the biotech path? Reading scientific articles and seeing the industry support from Dr. Sanjay Gupta lead to me believe it was possible.
There was and there continues to be significant stigma for scientists looking at the cannabis industry as a career path. Not exactly the safest route for a parent of teens heading to college in the near future. Some of the questions I asked myself were: Was it legitimate? How would the black market impact the legal market? What types of people work in this industry? And most importantly, would there be backlash from my previous colleagues now viewing me as supportive of cannabis? When I was approached by a biotech colleague to form a company dedicated to developing cannabis products that would be more medicinal than recreational, I began to seriously contemplate these questions.
In 2014 most of the products on the market were simply flower, oils and baked goods. There were no truly medicinal products in the way medicine is viewed: exact and consistent. We would seek to create products infused with cannabis oils and distillates that could be administered under the tongue (sublingual), on the skin or via the nose. Our years in the biotech world had trained our team with the knowledge to do this but it would be with a different natural product. Now I just needed to convince my daughter that this was the right thing for me to do.
I responded to my daughter’s question by answering, that while research in cystic fibrosis was noble and worthy of my efforts, I would be researching and developing new medicines for patients with conditions such as anxiety and chronic pain using cannabis as a medicine. I was not planning on developing the next dab rig or vape pen but rather more “medicine-like” products. The goal of our work would be to better patients’ lives by reducing their pain and providing comfort with cannabis. It seemed to be a very worthy goal and it drives our business today.
I knew this was the right answer and my daughter would eventually understand why I was making this leap, even if she couldn’t understand in the moment. After I left her bedroom, I wondered how quickly she jumped on Snapchat to let her friends know her mom was soon to be working in the world of weed. It was a difficult discussion but the first of many with family and friends as I try to help normalize cannabis use in America.