Meet the highly committed female ganja-preneurs behind America’s steadily growing cannabis-infused body-care industry.
By Elise McDonough
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of High Times
Eighteen years ago, Ah Warner was a young mother searching for an all-natural body-care product to treat her baby daughter’s diaper rash. After discovering the moisturizing properties of fertile hempseed oil, she joined the movement to legalize industrial hemp-growing in the United States and even developed her own line of hemp-based lotions. Then, after medical marijuana legalization passed in her home state of Washington in 1998, she created a whole new line by adding pure cannabis to her topical formulas, offering even greater healing benefits.
Working out of her garage, Ah concocted various potions and has since branded, bottled and sold thousands of units with only the help of her family and friends. Now, as the CEO of Cannabis Basics, she sells handcrafted, sinsemilla-infused lotions, balms and salves at more than 75 access points in Washington State.
Sitting at the kitchen island in her spacious Seattle home, Ah prepares a few appetizers as we discuss her history as a cannabusiness woman.
“We’re really pioneering a brand-new industry,” she says while plucking a rice-paper wrapper from hot water, deftly handling the slippery sheet and filling it with tofu, fresh veggies and noodles before twisting up a spring roll. “This is completely different than the hemp business. I have people telling me, ‘I’m walking today because of your pain cream.’”
With the advent of fully state-legal marijuana sales in Washington rapidly approaching, Cannabis Basics is poised to make it big in this new, expanding market, and Ah is “confident in my plan of attack” to get around the constricting nature of cannabis regulation as practiced by the State Liquor Control Board, which currently treats topicals like any other cannabis-infused product, even though these items are non-psychoactive. “I don’t really want to play in that world,” Ah says, explaining how her business could be hit with a 48 percent so-called sin tax. “There’s no sin here; these products will not intoxicate you.”
Ah must also overcome the cautious nature of investors: “They still don’t want to touch my company, because we handle the female plant.” So, aiming high, this enterprising ganja girl is working to make her cannabis creams available anywhere health-conscious consumers shop, including lobbying her elected representatives to amend the current law. One day, she’d like to see her products in Whole Foods.
Since the topicals contain less than 0.3 percent THC, Ah is emboldened to get her products into mainstream stores, sidestepping the 1-502 retail market entirely. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t go mainstream,” she says, explaining that products need to contain more than 0.3 percent THC to be stocked in the new state-legal cannabis retail stores. “We want to be regulated like an herbal supplement, not like medicine.”
Idealistic but practical, Ah wants to help as many patients as possible and further the movement toward legalized cannabis in her state, but she also wants to put her kids through college before retiring to Central America. “We have to be capitalists to survive—but don’t be greedy with this plant,” she warns. “It is a gift.”
Cannabis-infused lotions work because of the body’s own endogenous cannabinoid system, which forms the biological basis for marijuana’s healing magic. When you apply an infused lotion or salve to help relieve neuropathic pain, itchiness and other ailments, the cannabinoids in the topical bind to CB2 receptors in your skin, which absorb them in a way that helps cells regenerate, allowing wounds to heal faster and easing painful chronic conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Cannabis-infused topicals cover a “pretty wide myriad of conditions,” Ah says. “People want natural solutions for their aches and pains, and we’ve got it for them.”
Depending on the carrier oil used in formulating the body-care product, the cannabinoids penetrate deeply enough into the skin to relieve muscle pain and arthritis inflammation, but not so deep that THC enters the bloodstream or central nervous system. For this reason, it’s pretty tough to get seriously high off a lotion.
Megan Schwarting, the smiley, outgoing proprietor of Kush Creams in Gig Harbor, uses emu oil, which she sources from large flightless birds raised on a nearby ranch in the Deep Creek Valley. Emu oil is said to penetrate into the epidermal layer, delivering the medicine deeply for added benefit without clogging pores. “It’s also a hair-growth stimulant,” Megan says. “We use it in a special shampoo that helps patients avoid hair loss during chemotherapy.”
Perhaps the most popular topical product in Washington, Schwarting’s Kush Creams can be found in over 200 collectives. The lotions are infused with signature strains and carry the telltale aroma of Chocolope, Hindu Kush and Permafrost.
“We saw a need in the market for a professional product,” Megan explains, “and there’s less risk in this business” than selling raw cannabis.
Like Cannabis Basics, Kush Creams is a family affair, with Megan’s husband Ben cultivating the ganja used in their body-care products. Starting with a booth at several different marijuana farmers’ markets in the area, the Schwartings grew their operation quickly, using techniques honed by more traditional businesses like Mary Kay.
“I have a huge following from Zumba classes,” Megan laughs. “The women come from everywhere. Patients request Kush Creams by name.” The sweetly scented lotions also captured a Best Product award at the Seattle Cannabis Cup in 2013. Meanwhile, the Schwartings remain committed to educating the community. “For every 10 ounces we sell, we give back four ounces in the form of free samples,” Megan says. “People really need to use it; it’s changing their lives.”
With so many possible applications for non-psychoactive cannabis-infused topicals, the market segment’s broad appeal has helped legitimize marijuana as medicine even among demographic groups traditionally resistant to using pot. Schwarting explains that at the beginning of every school year, she hands out Kush Creams gift baskets to her children’s teachers, principal and school-bus drivers.
“I believe in being transparent about what we’re doing,” she says. “I love being the product that bridges that gap.”
Trista Okel, the brain behind Portland’s Empower Oil, also believes in building bridges. Using a roll-on applicator, Empower Oil blends cannabis with other essential oils for maximum medicinal benefits. Starting in May 2013, Trista began selling her product in several Oregon dispensaries and recommends it for “everything from arthritis to blisters.” She too has seen her Empower Oil transform the lives of her clients and increase their general well-being—including a woman with fibromyalgia and neuropathy. After rubbing the oil on her feet, Trista says, the woman cried with happiness at the relief it brought. “Later, she got the first five continuous hours of sleep that she’s had in a year.”
Okel’s Empower Oil is also winning hearts and minds by relieving the aches and pains felt by seniors in Oregon’s traditionally conservative farming communities. “These people are cattle ranchers; they’re all Republicans, and some of them are very religious …. Years ago, they didn’t want anything to do with it, and now they’re calling me and referring to cannabis as medicine.” Trista even has a 77-year-old woman working as a local distributor.
Moms for Marijuana
The ability to start a home-based cannabusiness has empowered many women to enter the traditionally male-dominated world of retail marijuana, allowing them to work for a cause they believe in while still being deeply involved with their families. “I’m able to be flexible and volunteer at my daughter’s school,” explains Melanie Ladage, who started Tree Lotions in 2012 after years of working for dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Originally, she made kief-infused creams for her own tendonitis and sensitive skin, then went into business as a way of letting people know that marijuana has “so many more uses. I want to educate people that there’s more to cannabis than just smoking it or making dabs.”
Using kief to create a base glycerin tincture, Melanie blends the medicine with essential oils to create distinct scents. Like Ah, she also uses hempseed oil as a moisturizing ingredient and recommends her lotions for rosacea, stretch marks, sports injuries, and the usual aches and pains. Using glycerin helps replace the elasticity that skin loses as people grow older; Melanie calls it “a facelift in a bottle.”
As the public increasingly accepts medical marijuana, the market for cannabis-infused body-care products is only going to grow, since this versatile plant makes everyone feel beautiful, inside and out.