Mar 4 8:00 PM

The chemical brothers: Colorado family makes good in medical pot business

Editor’s Note: Jesse and Joel Stanley, along with three of their brothers, began growing marijuana as a family business in 2008, when Colorado passed its medical-marijuana law. With a focus on cancer treatment and pain management, the Stanley brothers now own greenhouses, dispensaries and labs across the state. They also started Realm of Caring, a nonprofit aimed at educating the public about medicinal marijuana and increasing access for patients across the country.

Realm of Caring’s most high-profile work is making Charlotte’s Web, a cannabis-based oil named after a girl with severe epilepsy whose seizures stopped after she began taking it. On this week’s “TechKnow,” contributor and molecular neurologist Crystal Dilworth talks to parents whose children have similarly responded to medical marijuana, goes inside the Stanley brothers’ labs and hears from scientists conducting the first clinical trials of a similar compound in the U.S.

The following was adapted from an interview with “TechKnow.” It has been edited for length and clarity.


JOEL STANLEY: About five years ago I was living in Texas, working in the oil field. My older brother Josh called and said that he (had) started a dispensary in Denver. To be honest, I laughed. I thought it was a joke.

JESSE STANLEY: I laughed. And then (Josh) said, “No, I'm serious.” There's 11 children in my family. Coming from where we come from — I went to a Christian school my whole life — the first thing you gotta do is talk to your mom about it. She says, oh, “Well, let me get a little more research on it,” and then once she had done that, it was kind of approved with everybody. (They) trusted what we were doing.

Jesse Stanley shows “TechKnow” contributor Crystal Dilworth one of the family's greenhouses.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

JOEL: We're actually a relatively conservative family. People wouldn't have guessed that we would be in this. I graduated from a Christian school just a few miles away. But the truth is, we grow plants for sick people. What's un-Christian about that? What's liberal or not conservative about that? I think there's a big misconception about what type of people are in this industry. We're just normal people who want to help people. We're really lucky. We get to help a lot of people and make a living doing it. Not many people can say that.

JESSE: The first cancer patient was my cousin Ron. He asked us if we knew anything about hash oil and treating (for) cancer. We did our research and learned that it did help with nausea (as an) appetite stimulant and sleep, which he had a lot of problems with. Once word got out that we were helping with him, a lot of our friends had relatives that had cancer.

JOEL: You sit with someone who's going through chemotherapy and they tell you, “I wasn't eating, I wasn't able to sleep and I wasn't able to hold my food down, but now I'm surviving my chemotherapy treatment because I smoked pot and got the munchies.” Once you see it in that light and see that value of it, it begins to change your mind. Our first 30 patients were cancer patients. We pooled our money together and built two little groves — in basements. We were just caregivers then, didn't have any stores. It was done legally according to Colorado. We sold to local dispensaries wholesale, and that funded the medicine for (our) cancer patients. Out of that, we ended up with stores and big greenhouses and, you know — here we are, five years later.

Medicinally focused marijuana with low levels of THC makes up about 70 percent of the Stanleys' crop.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

JESSE: We started from cancer, (and the business) turned into multiple sclerosis. It turned into diabetes. It turned into severe pain. It turned into a lot of different people. We did research on our own to learn (about) CBD (cannabidiol). Nobody had it, at least high levels of it. We had a plant that was already fairly high, so we decided, why don't we try to make it higher? The studies that we had read (said that CBD) helped stopped the metastasizing of cancer, which is really important for us.

JOEL: We didn't start this with a ton of money, and we've never thought of this like a traditional capitalistic business.

JESSE: When we first started, it wasn't about making money, because nobody would buy CBD. They call it the “hippie's disappointment” — you could smoke it all day and you wouldn't get high. But we still grew it, so much so that it actually hurt our other crops. It wasn't ever about turning a profit — it was about a specific goal to help people that have cancer. And now it's about helping children, specifically children with epilepsy.

It wasn't until Paige Figi came along (that) we learned that it was helping stop the progression of seizures. Paige found us through another friend that was in our program already. She came to us and said, “Hey, my daughter has Gervais syndrome.” We didn't know what that was. Once we knew, we knew the severe implications of it.

At the time (Paige’s daughter) Charlotte was 5 years old. Joel said, “Hey, there's this woman who wants to treat her daughter with cannabis.” I said, “You're crazy. That’s just going to end us right up in jail. Like, we're already walking that line. This is just gonna push us over the edge, get us all in orange jumpsuits and we'll be eating slop for the rest of our lives.” But he said, “There's something to this, and it would be (using) CBD.” Once we started (Charlotte on the CBD treatment) — first day, no seizures. A week went by, still no seizures. So then we knew we were onto something. All that time and preparation into CBD meant that we technically could start treating more epileptic cases.

After marijuana with high levels of cannabidiol is soaked in food-grade alcohol, the solution is heated in a rotary evaporator to extract a concentrate.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

JOEL: Right now we have around 180 kids on the Charlotte's Web program and, for the most part, very responsive to it.

JESSE: We have not seen any secondary effects. You can't overdose on it. Because of Charlotte and the other patients, we've been able to collect data to help with dosings for other people that are on the medicine. These families, they're all very tight-knit. They have a community. They have support groups. And once it got out that Charlotte was not having seizures from this medication, it was a wildfire.

JOEL: Tracking each patient's progress in order to make their medicine even better, even more effective, finding out what's working and what's not working — that's very important to this. That is very basic science that can be done that hasn't been done in this industry. We feel like we brought a lot of that data tracking, patient monitoring and individualized patient care to this industry — and it was lacking before.

Charlotte Figi was the first child to be treated with the Stanleys’ medical-marijuana derivative. Now the treatment named for her is helping reduce seizures in almost 200 kids with epilepsy.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

JESSE: We stumbled across it, and now we're just asking for people to study it. But Charlotte's Web is a solution. I see it every day in the patients. There's autistic kids that are on this that have never spoken before and they're able to talk now. Or there's kids that never move, and now they're rolling on the ground and their parents are crying and screaming, sending me emails because their kid sat up, or their kid actually looks at them and listens. So, if studies come out and it's not the answer, we'll still continue to do what we do, and we'll search for clinical trials to understand why it works.

JOEL: And then also there's the social impact. This is creating a very necessary change, as far as social impact goes. For the last 30 years, activists and hippies have knocked at these government doors — whereas little Charlotte and Zaki busted them right down. I think it takes sometimes that kind of story where you see something we can all relate to — a sick child getting better. No one wants to deny that, and I think that that's the reason why we're now having such a positive change. That's been really an honor to be a part of. Charlotte's Web changed our life in a huge way.


To learn more about the Stanley brothers, Realm of Caring and Charlotte's Web, watch "TechKnow," Sunday 7:30ET/4:30PT.


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