From Patient to Advocate: Julia Ruiz

Julia Ruiz is a marketing executive at Majix Enterprises, LLC, a managerial and consulting services company that provides services to the legal, medical, and adult-use cannabis marketplace. Julia’s path to the cannabis industry started when she faced a medical crisis that traditional, allopathic medicine couldn’t cure. Lack of access to legal cannabis in the state where she lived led to her incarceration for possession of a cannabis.

CBMD: Can you share what medical condition first led you to try cannabis?

Julia Ruiz (JR): When I was 17, I woke up one morning unable to move the right side of my face. Thinking I’d had a stroke, I drove to the ER where I was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a non-life threatening condition that paralyzes one side of the face, causing the face to droop. I couldn’t close my right eye or chew on the right side, but doctors assured me that it would heal on its own within a month. There was no medical treatment available for Bell’s Palsy, but the doctors put me on steroids, which hasn’t been proven to cure or even alleviate the symptoms of Bell’s Palsy.

Two and a half months later, nothing had changed. I had to tape my right eye shut so that it wouldn’t dry out, and I was so self-conscious that I only left my house to go to work and high school. Heading into the third month of paralysis, I was seen by a pediatric neurologist and was given a devastating prognosis: I was medically incurable.

Failed by Western medicine, I tried acupuncture and tissue massage to no avail. A last-ditch Google search resulted in me finding a chat room post by another Bell’s Palsy patient saying that smoking cannabis worked. Living in Virginia, where no form of cannabis was legal, I was forced to choose between the law and my health. I consumed cannabis for the first time as a teenager in an act of desperation, not at a party or to “‘mellow out”.

CBMD: What results did you experience after you began medicating?

JR: Within two days, I could twitch my eye. After a week, I could blink. A month later, I took my high school senior pictures with a smile. I do want to note that while my condition causes moderate discomfort, from a medical standpoint it is mainly a cosmetic issue. I’ve also known Bell’s Palsy patients who tried cannabis and it did not help, so my evidence is anecdotal.

The primary reason that cannabis is part of my wellness routine is that it fends off the anxiety that caused my condition in the first place. Bell’s Palsy can be caused by stress, specifically stress caused by a traumatic experience. It also can happen randomly for no reason at all. Five months before I got Bell’s Palsy, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly. I believe the emotions and anxiety of that experience caused my Bell’s Palsy, so I have to take care of my mental health to avoid a relapse.

CBMD: How did your incarceration come about?

JR: Bell’s Palsy has a high relapse rate, so I incorporated cannabis into my life to ward off the two major causes of it: swelling of the facial nerve and stress. About two months after I graduated from George Mason University with a degree in communications, I was arrested and held in a county jail for 45 days. The Commonwealth of Virginia arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated me for my possession of cannabis. My medicine came with no labels, no lab testing, straight from the black market. I was given no medical treatment options, and punished for illegally healing myself.

CBMD: What effect did your incarceration have on your life and your outlook on the American legal system?

JR: It was my first direct interaction with the criminal justice system, and the disproportionate number of minority and low income inmates revealed to me how broken this system is. American prisons are not places of rehabilitation for drug offenders, they are for-profit businesses that incentivize law enforcement to focus on low-level possessions to fill jail cells.

I made the most of my time there; I read 22 books, and attended yoga and bible study classes provided by devoted volunteers. I learned valuable life lessons from other inmates, and I shared my knowledge of ballet and Roth IRAs with my fellow inmates. While my experience taught me a great deal about how draconian our nation’s cannabis laws are, it also taught me about the injustices of the cash bail system, for-profit prisons, the opioid epidemic, and racial bias in policing.

CBMD: Did your incarceration and your inability to medicate while you were incarcerated have any effect on your health?

JR: I was very lucky that the stress of the environment didn’t trigger another onset of Bell’s Palsy. I have very little scientific data about the condition itself or how my case manifested, but from what I can gather the damaged nerve gets inflamed when I can’t medicate. Remember when your mother told you not to make faces or your face will get stuck like that? Without medicating, my face actually gets stuck like that! I experience small muscle spasms in my eyelid and mouth, and if I laugh or cry it can trigger a larger spasm in my face.

CBMD: Beyond your experience when you were incarcerated, what led you to become a vocal advocate for cannabis?

JR: I studied communication with a focus in public relations in college. My professor recommended that I intern on Capitol Hill, and said “Just find an association. There’s an association for everything.” That’s how I found the National Cannabis Industry Association (NICA). I attended meetings with Hill staffers with their government relations team. After interning with NCIA, I was inspired to get involved in the cannabis movement and develop my professional expertise around something I was already passionate about.

Today, I work in the industry and advocate for cannabis, and dream that one day patients won’t need to choose between their health and federal law!