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Tinctures. Joints. Vaporizers. Edibles. Dabbing. Blunts. Bongs.
It’s been nearly eight years since Colorado legalized marijuana, but the world of weed—and now CBD and hemp, too—can still be confusing. With so many products and strains on the market, and so many unknowns because cannabis remains federally illegal and thus difficult to study, it’s not surprising that consumers have plenty of questions. While there are cannabis clinicians, many doctors are not educated in the plants and others are reluctant to have conversations with patients (see: marijuana remains illegal at the federal level). Budtenders—aka, dispensary staffers—are not medical professionals and therefore cannot dispense medical advice, nor should they be providing recommendations on dosing.
That leaves consumers in a bind: Who can they ask about what product to use for a specific ailment? Or how marijuana might interact with other medications?
Enter Leaf411. The free Colorado hotline, which launched in October, is staffed by six cannabis-trained nurses who are available to answer your questions about marijuana and hemp, including making specific product recommendations. Individuals can call in or use the website’s chat feature.
The nonprofit’s team of professionals are all registered nurses and members of the American Cannabis Nurses Association. They’re required to complete Radicle Health’s “Cannabis Therapeutics for Nurses/Medical Professionals” training and the Medical Cannabis Institute‘s “Medical Cannabis Curriculum for Nurses.” They’re available to answers questions on just about any cannabis–related topic, except growing and cultivating marijuana. And, if they feel a caller needs to connect with a doctor, Leaf411 will share recommendations from its vetted list of cannabis clinicians around the country.
“We aren’t just a resource for the patient or the general consumer,” says COO and co-founder Jennifer Axcell. “We’re also a resource for clinicians to get the information themselves or to direct their patients to us.”
Callers range from marijuana neophytes (the “canna-curious,” as Axcell calls them) to regular users, and their inquiries span basic know-how to legal questions. Some of the the most common queries include: What is the difference between CBD and THC? My friend recommended a product and it’s not working for me; why not? Do I have to get high to get relief? Do I have to get a medical marijuana card if I’m using marijuana as medicine?
“I’m not surprised that a lot of the questions we’re getting are the very basics,” Axcell says. “So many questions need to be answered long before that [first] trip to the store happens. It’s a big piece of the puzzle that changes somebody who’s just curious into somebody who says, ‘I’m ready to see if this is beneficial to me’…. Cannabis is a journey, and they need that ongoing support. We’re filling that need there wasn’t a solution for before.”
Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Axcell says the hotline’s call numbers have actually increased, with people phoning in from all over the country and even abroad. (She hopes to eventually expand Leaf411 beyond the Centennial State.) People who used to inhale marijuana, for example, are looking to switch to non-inhalation options and need advice. “It reiterates how important it is that there’s a service like this that people can call either in crisis [or not]. We’re the 411 to prevent the 911,” she says.
A lot of the recent inquiries, though, are connected to stress; individuals are finding that the products or doses they previously used for stress reduction are no longer working, or their stress levels have worsened and they don’t know what might help.
Axcell can relate. The idea for Leaf411 came, in part, from her own experiences with cannabis. A car accident left her with debilitating PTSD and chronic pain; she spent the “better part of five years in bed” and suffered from agoraphobia—too scared to leave the house. When she decided to wean off the 13 different medications she had been prescribed and try marijuana, she couldn’t find the medical advice she needed, in person or online. “I was a pharmacy, and my quality of life never got better,” she says. “I needed somebody to tell me what to do and at the time that didn’t really exist.” Between COVID-19-related stress and dealing with a sick dog, even Axcell has called Leaf411 recently for advice.
Leaf411’s goal is to help people use marijuana safely and effectively. Seniors are the fastest-growing demographic of marijuana users, and the hotline receives the most calls from those 65 and older. That’s good news, Axcell says, because marijuana can have interactions with other pharmaceuticals, and polypharmacy (the concurrent use of multiple medications) is more common among that demographic.
Axcell says a large volume of callers are struggling financially, particularly in the current economic climate. In response, Leaf411 is launching an affordability program later this month in partnership with American Medical Refugees. (“Medical refugees” refers to people who relocate to a state that has legalized marijuana in order to access medicinal cannabis treatment and avoid prosecution for doing so.) Individuals will be able to apply through the website to access free hemp goods or discounted marijuana products. Leaf411 is also accepting donations from its members that will be used to start scholarships for parents of cannabis patients who are minors. “In the state of Colorado, you need two physicians to sign off on a medical marijuana card; that’s double the cost,” Axcell says. “Being able to support families through these scholarships and donated products from our members—it’s so rewarding to meet that need, and that need is only growing because of COVID-19.”
Denver medical and recreational dispensary Seed & Smith is a founding member of Leaf411. (Members pay a fee and, in return, receive a direct line to nurses when they have questions as well as brand awareness through Leaf411’s website. Axcell is quick to note that the nursing team is focused on recommending the best products for each customer, and members don’t get preferential treatment during conversations with callers.)
“We want people to understand there are a lot of unknowns,” says Mike Lempert, director of logistics for Seed & Smith. “When you walk into any store, you expect the people who are selling to be product experts, but product experts hold a totally different title when you’re talking about something that’s considered medicine…. [It’s great to have] the outlet and be able to tell [customers], ‘I understand you have these questions, you have these problems that you’re trying to fix with cannabis… Leaf411 is your resource for that.’ Once you tell them it’s free and anonymous, it’s a no-brainer…Everyone should use it.”
Budtenders at member stores wear Leaf411 pins that read, “I’m not a doctor—ask a cannabis nurse instead.”