Katherine Golden and Jennifer Axcell met while working at a medical marijuana clinic in Boulder, but took separate paths to get there. Golden, a registered nurse, used to look down on cannabis, she says, but she changed her mind after she saw how it helped her brother-in-law with cancer. That prompted her to dig into peer-reviewed research about the potential of medical marijuana, and what she found impressed her enough to shift her career.
Axcell started using cannabis in place of opioids to treat the pain from a car accident thirteen year ago, and used her experience in business development to get into the medical marijuana industry.
Both women say that credible information was hard to come by when they started their respective journeys, and they had to find their own way to research and understand the medical benefits and health effects of cannabis use.
After spending several years together at Holos Health in Boulder, the pair became information ambassadors in the cannabis and health-care communities. Now they hope to reach even more people through a free hotline that connects the canna-curious with registered nurses who have experience with medical marijuana.
At a time when almost anything is subject to skepticism, Axcell notes that nurses are heard as voices of honesty, and the numbers bear that out. According to a Gallup poll from December 2018, 85 percent of Americans rated the honesty and ethical standards of nurses as "high/very high," making nursing the most-trusted profession out of a list of twenty lines of work. Doctors came in second, at 67 percent, while members of Congress came in last, at 8 percent. (Journalists came in twelfth, at 33 percent.)
"This is a profession people feel comfortable talking to," Axcell says. "Because of the legal nature of this plant federally, so many nurses are forced to talk about cannabis in a behind-the-scenes manner."
Axcell and Golden want their hotline, Leaf411, to be up front, and are enlisting registered nurses with cannabis education experience to answer the phones. They expect many of their callers to be senior citizens, a growing user demographic for legal pot that's more likely to need health care and use the phone.
The pair hope to launch the hotline by September, and are currently applying for funding with the State of Colorado under a provision that earmarks tens of millions of dollars in marijuana tax revenue for education and public health; they're also courting the cannabis industry for donations. If all goes well, they'll have four nurses on the hotline twelve hours a day, five days a week, by the end of the first year, Golden says.
A registered nurse for over twenty years, Golden says she "believed the propaganda" about cannabis up until a few years ago. Once her brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, though, she felt a responsibility to learn about medical marijuana, which was still considered a "last resort" among most of her peers at the time.
"I was the nurse of the family, so I looked into the validity," Golden remembers. "We're skeptics — we should be — but I couldn't believe this information was withheld from practitioners."
Through their hotline, Axcell and Golden want to share information about marijuana's potential to treat pain, nausea, forms of epilepsy and other conditions, as well as its long-term health and side effects, with the public and curious health-care professionals who didn't learn about cannabis in medical school. They expect questions about everything from CBD to mixing edibles with prescription medications, but are quick to point out that it won't be an emergency line.
Rocky Mountain Poison & Drug Safety, a division of Denver Health, has a marijuana health and safety hotline for similar purposes (and also advises any cannabis-related ingestion emergencies to call 911), but the duo believes that the division doesn't have sufficient resources or exposure to cannabis information. That can put nurses with limited professional medical marijuana experience in tough positions when callers have complicated cannabis questions.
"If you go on to PubMed, there's more scientific research being done on cannabis than any other plant for medical purposes. There is science, but there's not a lot of quality training that is targeted toward nurses," Axcell explains. "We've got nurses who work in hospice, who know where cannabis can be really effective for pain relief and quality of life."
As cannabis legalization becomes more prevalent, more organizations are providing education and support for medical professionals interested in marijuana. Americans for Safe Access, a national organization that advocates for medical marijuana access and research, offers continuing medical education (CME) credits for medical professionals through a Cannabis Care Certification program, while groups like Cannabis Clinicians Colorado hold seminars that provide similar educational credits for nurses and doctors.
But connecting those professionals with new cannabis users and desperate medical patients is a challenge, according to the Leaf411 ladies. Budtenders shouldn't be a patient's first line of medical information, Axcell notes, so she and Golden have already reached out to dispensaries to let them know about their free hotline. They've also partnered with the Cannabis Nurses Association and Cannabis Nurses Network to spread the word for phone operators and potential callers.
"We really wanted this to be a service that is majority-funded by the cannabis industry," Axcell concludes, "because they're the ones who benefit from an educated consumer."