Alisia Ratliff: Data Turns a Doubter into a Cannabis Scientist + Industry Leader

229

Alisia Ratliff has a unique story in the cannabis industry. As a scientist, she was initially very opposed to cannabis. Now, she’s a medical cannabis patient herself and at the time of our conversation, Alisia was chief science officer of Jersey Hemp, located off the northwest coast of France. She’s also CEO of her own consulting firm, Victus Capital Ventures, where the focus is to help investors and founders of new cannabis firms.

Alisia shares her global experience in the cannabis industry with CannabizMD Founder/CEO Jacquie Cohen Roth, MS. Alisia’s experience across the globe has helped to shape an intellectual approach to creating best practices and sound industry regulatory guidance.

Jacquie Cohen Roth, MS (JCR): I am very, very interested in what shifted your mind from the opposition to medical cannabis to become a patient yourself.

Alisia Ratliff (AR): I would just say I was definitely sheltered as a child growing up, and there weren’t a lot of things I was exposed to. I did kind of take on the negative stigma of cannabis very early on, just not knowing what I didn’t know. And then once I kind of got into my career as a scientist and started working in traditional laboratories and kind of moved into project management, I really found that I was just so unfulfilled.

I didn’t like the nine-to-five and doing the same thing every day. I felt this hole where I just wasn’t making an impact with my work. So I really started to dig in, search and see what it was I was passionate about. I remember coming across CNN’s documentary with Dr. Sanjay Gupta “Weed”. It was a four-part documentary that I was like, “Oh, this looks kind of interesting. Why not?”

I watched it, and he literally had parallels to how I felt about cannabis. That was completely dispelled by data and science and all of this research that has been done. For me, being a scientist, everything lies in the data. So I was already just like, “Okay, I’m intrigued.”  My interest was piqued because he has shown me data that I can actually go chew on and really kind of digest this. And when I did, I started to look into it. And Charlotte’s story, Charlotte Figi.

Oh, God bless her soul. She really pioneered the way for CBD, her and her mother. When I look back at just all of the research, all of the hard work and effort as a mother went into finding something to work for her child. My God, it just really opened up doors. It really opened up just this whole new world of science that I was so interested in getting into. So that’s honestly what just kind of started that shift in mindset before I just jumped right into the industry that I heard the word passion.

JCR: Thank you for sharing your transition to a “believer”, one based on data and science. Here we are in late 2021. We have 38 States U.S states which currently have some version of a medical cannabis program, along with the District of Columbia and territories. We have over 20 countries across the globe that have some sort of medical cannabis program. You have the global, you now have been working internationally as well as in the U.S., I’d like to dive into a bit more of your experience in the States.

Speaking first to the U.S. industry, why is it so important for the industry to self-regulate itself? And to clarify, before federal legalization.

AR: Oh, my goodness. Okay, so that’s definitely a mouthful there. It does all come down to data. It does all come down to education, and it comes down to consistency in my opinion, right now where the States are, there’s so much compartmentalization of the industry and what’s going on across region to region. You have multiple States that are now full force adult-use, totally different regulatory framework, totally different marketing product offering form factors. Things are just different. Then you have your medicinal-based states where there are definitely caps on the limits, there are caps on what you can access, and what types of form factors you’re actually prescribed.

“I think self-regulation is going to be quite important just on the state level, once they’re able to look at standardization of testing, what those limits should be comparable to the data that we now have over 20 years now versus early on in the Green Rush.”

So there’s a bit more, I would say tightness around the medical market, and then you get into your hemp only states which they’re producing for CBD specifically or hemp biomass for other purposes. If I were President Biden or whoever, I would be confused, I wouldn’t really know what that legalization would look like across the board for all 50 States. I think self-regulation is going to be quite important just on the state level, once they’re able to look at standardization of testing, what those limits should be comparable to the data that we now have over 20 years now versus early on in the Green Rush.

We really just didn’t have that data. So we had to pull on other industries and look at limits of food and foodstuff that really weren’t comparable. So I think we’re in a great place in the States to where now a lot of those things are starting to be identified at the state level. So then the next step is going to be how do you transfer translate this States model to this state so that there’s consistency because you’re going to have to have consistency in this product.

It’s consumed by a human so it has to be consistent in the quality and what’s being delivered. So I think that’s the next level up. And then I think that would give a pretty good benchmark for federal legalization to say, okay, this is working. We’re seeing that there’s great continuity between all the different states that are operating with medical, adult, or even a blanket type of industry. I do think self-regulation is so important from the standardization piece and how you transfer that from state to state before we can really have that large conversation about how you do it as a country.

JCR: How many U.S. states have you worked in?

AR: Oh, wow. Okay. Physically, I’ve worked in three, and by virtual, by remote, I’ve worked in an additional four. And then when you talk about education, there’s an additional two states. I’ve physically worked in Florida, that’s where I got started whenever everything became legal. In 2016, I was very lucky to work with one of the first five medical marijuana treatments centers. Then I moved on from Florida, up into Ohio. When they started up their market, they essentially headhunted for talent.

I went up there and that was a very interesting market, or at least very close to Pharma, I would say. Then I moved into North Carolina, which was hemp-based, and I was able to really get a flavor for processing hemp. And there are very big differences there, even though it is all cannabis, but very different. And when it comes to consulting, I have had the opportunity to consult and work in California and Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, and New York and Pennsylvania.

JCR: Fantastic! We’ve referenced that each U.S. state has its different set of regulations and most with a difference in qualifying conditions for medical cannabis patients. I was recently doing work on a project looking at five states and the massive list some states have on qualifying conditions versus others is extremely limited. With your work in nine medical cannabis states and that the need for standardization, are you seeing a couple of states doing a better job of it? To that, you’ve referenced Ohio having more of a Pharma model.

AR: Yeah, sure. I mean, I do think there are some states that are getting it right. For instance, Florida. I’m not native, but I was definitely raised most of my life in Florida, and I do think that market specifically is really blowing up, and they’re going to be, in my opinion, on track to be similar to California. I really do now. The only difference is with California, they kind of came out while we were a pilot program trying to figure this out. So standardization has come in now and has really hampered a lot about separation and kind of caused that ripple effect.

But now I think they’re starting to really get their legs about themselves and start to run. I think Florida had a very different approach to it, to where they did adopt some limits that were a little bit less tight and stringent to where you do have a bit more room to play there. But again, the safety and efficacy were still tested. The limits that they were adopting were tested based on FDA limits for different solvents that you’re using different contaminant levels and stuff like, like that.

So I do think Florida is somewhere that we should all keep an eye on because it’s definitely a market that’s robust at its best right now. When I got started in Florida as I said, there were the five large MSOs, and now, five years later, you have many processors. You have research in … you’ve got FSU (Florida State University) doing hemp-based research and cannabinoid research. There’s just so much going on within Florida that I think is just so important to keep an eye on.

JCR: Yes, it’s a massive-sized state, and the residents that are there, the seniors at the largest growing population demographic for medical cannabis patients, as well as what we’re going to see with legalization and with tourists there.

How about in the global market? Let’s just dive into the difference of what you’re seeing in the global market in the EU versus what’s going on in the States and what are some takeaways for regulation? And again, speaking to me if we can focus on medical cannabis that the industry in the state should borrow from the EU.

AR: Yeah, that’s a really great question. And I’m just so happy that I have the unique experience to have worked in the States and also come over here. So now I’m looking at it in the UK currently, and I’m actively working with politicians with lobbyists to really try to get some industry knowledge and professionals on board to really help drive the medical cannabis community here, because, in my opinion, I think it’s quite prohibitive for entry into this market, specifically from medical cannabis. Access is a big issue here.

I am a patient, and it is difficult for me to get my prescription on time consistently and not have gaps. One of the things I really want to say about that and why that’s such a big deal is because for myself, I suffer chronic pain and I experienced a flare-up to where I was literally put down for four days in my bed and I could not get up and not having the access to my medicine that I needed. Oh, my gosh, it was so horrible.

“… in my opinion, the Western Hemisphere did a little bit of ‘Let’s open the floodgates and let’s bring it back with regulation.’”

It was really hard. So I do think that that’s a huge issue here over in this market because they did take a very different approach to medicinal cannabis. I do like the approach now, in my opinion, the Western Hemisphere did a little bit of “Let’s open the floodgates and let’s bring it back with regulation.” Here, in the UK, they’re looking at the laws that, in my opinion, are antiquated now, but they’re looking at the laws like the Misuse of Drugs Act, and this was something that was drafted years and years ago based on a lot of stigma around cannabis, and they took that and started to build their framework around medicinal cannabis and how to regulate that.

And it’s very stringent, it’s highly stringent. You have to have a lot of capital to really produce to the compliance limits that we’re held to here in the UK now kind of pivoting over into the EU. The EU is quite interesting. It’s very similar to the States, and that you do have all these different countries that now have their own regulatory framework. For instance, you have Spain and Portugal that are, in my opinion, very similar to adult-use states. And you have Switzerland, which is very similar to a medicinal state.

Then you have places like Croatia, Italy that are more hemp-based only. And then Germany. Germany is quite an interesting place as well because they’re not necessarily cultivating the flowers they’re importing their biomass. They’re a huge processor, the huge processor of oils and different products that are being prescribed. So, yeah, it’s a different global framework. And I do think that has quite a long time to go to really start to increase that access. But there’s a lot of people on the ground level that are pushing, specifically the Association of Cannabinoid Industry Centere for Medicinal Cannabis.

They are active in the forefront of having those conversations with MPs (Members of Parliament) to make sure that we are going to increase this access to the patients.

JCR: I had the opportunity, the pleasure to meet Hannah Deacon, a couple of years ago, we were both presenting at a medical cannabis conference in Malta and I also hosted her on a CannabizMD Video Profile. I’m so impressed by her advocacy and her tireless efforts to make sure that medical cannabis is available to patients, particularly in the UK with the story of her son Alfie. Their story is of a little boy seizing, I don’t know if it’s hundreds of times a day, but significant impairment because of his epileptic disorder and then what took her to finding a way to treat her son, a little boy at the time, having to move the family out of the country to have access to medical cannabis to treat his seizures with success.

Alfie is one of the first of two medical cannabis patients in the UK. My understanding, though, is that is extremely challenging and extremely expensive to have access to medicine in the UK.

AR: It’s definitely expensive. When I think about my prescription, I literally think about a mortgage. Essentially, I’m going to pay my monthly mortgage for the medicine that I need. And it’s quite difficult because I feel as if I were on just normal pain medication, there’s insurance involved, there are subsidies involved to where I’m able to access it, and I’m able to afford it. And that’s something that absolutely needs to shift. It’s one thing to make get accessible. It’s another thing to make it so dang expensive that you’re just going to turn back to the way you knew, right?

JCR: I have a cannabis industry colleague in Texas; Texas is bit by bit by bit opening up with access to medicine. But what’s the cost? My colleague shared the receipt from the medical cannabis purchase, it was a mortgage payment to treat a patient.

We spoke about the Pharma model specifically, you said Ohio. I reference that the future of the medical cannabis industry and exactly where we are today is the engagement of the knowledge assets of the pharmaceutical industry, the legacy cannabis industry, certainly the technology industry, and traditional healthcare. Are there parallels with your experience that you’ve seen as a scientist that we should draw from the pharmaceutical industry?

Is it a good thing for us to be looking at the pharmaceutical industry?

AR: I really love this question because I feel as if we can’t put ourselves in just one box. If you just look at the plant in itself is highly unique, and it’s highly impacted by several environmental factors on its way to making those flowers. So there’s just so much variability in the plant itself in the input that’s going into becoming an API. So for me, I definitely think that we have to approach this very similarly to how compliance is starting to shape for the industry. At first, we start looking at gaps.

We start looking at GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices) and the API (active pharmaceutical ingredient) for a second. And then, good agricultural practice. So we have quite a few standards that definitely are there and have a lot of meaning to our industry, but I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all. There are parts of good agricultural practices that just don’t fit within our industry and how you farm the plant. There are certain aspects of good manufacturing that just don’t fit all the way. So there’s this GxP (a collection of quality guidelines and regulations created to ensure that bio/pharmaceutical products are safe, meet their intended use, and adhere to quality processes during manufacturing, control, storage, and distribution) now starting to become a norm.  Compliance for cannabis, because it’s all-encompassing of the codes of this one, the codes of that one because we’re using all of them because of the complexity.

Now, when you look at that on a regulatory framework side again, I don’t think we need to shape ourselves to just do a copy-paste of one industry I think we really need to look into. Okay, what about Pharma applies directly to how we’re working? So specifically, when you’re thinking about dosing (medical cannabis) and just different things like that and the repeatability of the infusions that you’re making into the products, that’s a huge thing in Pharma to where you cannot miss dose a product because that’s someone’s life.

“There’s just so much complexity in this industry that I think it’s very difficult to say yes, we can just copy from Pharma and keep moving. I think we have to really craft from a few industries spot on.”

Those types of things I think have their place in cannabis. But then they’re shaped by the fact that it’s a botanical and that it will have a variation to it. And because it has that variation and it is botanical, we do need to look at some of the more alternative industries that have that sort of mechanism similar to the wine industry. You’re growing grapes, they are going to be variable, but you will have a very controlled range of what you can expect. So there are just different things like that I think we could draw you can draw from alcohol and tobacco, that industry and what worked well, and what didn’t you can look at like you said, tech and biotech and delivery methods and mechanisms and medical devices and how that will work and shape a patient’s consumption.

There’s just so much complexity in this industry that I think it’s very difficult to say yes, we can just copy from Pharma and keep moving. I think we have to really craft from a few industries spot on.

JCR: The cannabis industry is unique, essentially being three industries rolled into one with agriculture, the cultivation; processing is manufacturing, and the retail experience is the dispensaries. Let’s pull out some of that. Let’s discuss the certificate of analysis (COA). This is an area that really needs to have some light shined upon it. There are variables to COAs. You’re the scientist. Why don’t you explain what a COA is, its purpose, and then the challenges within the industry and particularly to the patients?

AR: Absolutely. The certificate of analysis is extremely, extremely important for consumer safety. This is going to be your picture, your snapshot of what you’re ingesting what you’re consuming. So you’re going to want to know what’s in it. So typically your COA is going to have a full panel of analysis, so you have to characterize the product. So you need to know what the potency levels are of each cannabinoid that’s in the product, and then you need to know any contaminants.

“I just say that to be able to really open the eyes and shed the light on why these (COAs) are so important and in my opinion, is just so difficult to see COAs be consistent batches.”

You’re going to see heavy metals, you’re going to see micro toxins which is a variable of microbial. You’re going to see microbials on your COA, you’re going to see pesticides on your COA, and then you’ll see terpene analysis just for good information of understanding what’s in your product. Those are typically the pillars that you’re going to look at, for now, the difference and how you interpret those. Because not everyone’s a scientist, not everyone runs these pieces of equipment to understand how to interpret them.

You will have numbers and then you’ll have those numbers and concentrations up against the limit. I always like to look at the numbers because, for me, it’ll tell me a trend. I’m looking at data. I want to see if there is anything spiking. Is there anything dropping off and degrading yada, yada, yada. And you can only get that from numbers. Now you will have COAs that are a little bit more digestible for the consumer, since they don’t have that background that will say pass-fail, and that’s fine.

But I always encourage you to do your due diligence to just kind of dig into what pass-fail means because you can pass a product for, let’s say, it had yeast and mold and it had 9999 colony forming units (CFUs). It passed because it’s one under 10,000 (CFU), which is my limit. So that to me, you know, those numbers mean something because although it’s passing, there still could be a bit of a risk there. You know, if I consume this on a long-term basis, maybe not acutely, but maybe in the long term.

So I just say that to be able to really open the eyes and shed the light on why these are so important and in my opinion, is just so difficult to see COAs be consistent batches. That has been just such a huge it’s been an industry pain point, I think, especially from a processing side to be able to release the product into the market and then from a consumer side for them to have consistency on what they’re consuming. So there’s definitely a pain point there, I think.

JCR: This is where one of the divisions between the medical markets or programs and the adult-use (recreational). I’d say it’s the percentages, where the recreational consumer is looking for high THC. Certainly, there are diseases and disorders where it’s necessary to have those high ratios for the patient. But would you speak to this issue? What we’re talking about is what some of these not cricket cultivators are doing with THC. And with that, what’s going on with the labs in this space?

AR: It’s really difficult without having a standard. And this isn’t just necessarily a standard that’s coming down federally, but just having an industry standard for how we test for how we sample what is considered a representative sample of a batch. Those are things that vary from state to state to state to state. And because of that variability, you’re going to have different results every single time with the conversation around THC. And specifically with the adult-use market. Obviously, you have patients that need a higher potency.

It’s just difficult on the processor side to be able to have a real representative sample of that batch. And so the risk there is that you have this barrier to entry into the market of your product. And if that barrier is, say, we need to come into the gate 35% THC, they’re going to try to reach that number. As a processor, I’m going to be producing to that number for market demand.  And then what happens is you have cherry-picking of samples. You have people who are specifically picking the top colas because they know just from all the research that that’s where the most concentrated levels of THC are.

It’s just difficult not having a standard process that is mandated on how you have homogeneity and a representative sample of a batch.

“I think that’s the evolution that’s going to take is going to be essentially like a co-branding, if you will, with an additional name with the cultivar name and then eventually shift into what will be adopted by the industry as a whole globally.”

JCR: What you’re speaking to also recognizes that the cannabis plant is medicine or rather, the medicine is coming from a plant. There are inherent challenges with that. Another area that I see is a need for standardization in the naming and of the products. What are your thoughts on this? I think the impact adding to the stigma against the plant is medicine is naming your medicine “Pink Cush” or having a product line or brand name “Cookie. I’m based in Maryland which is solely a medical program and when Cookies came into Maryland with the colorful and playful branding and packaging … isn’t the regulation that the packaging is not to mislead or for a child or if a child is old enough to read “Cookies”?

Children are not just little adult bodies. An accidental overdose of cannabinoids can be very, very dangerous to a child. What do you think of what should the industry do? Is there an opportunity to standardize the naming of cultivars?

AR: Yes, I think there is. And before jumping the pond, I didn’t think so because of the fact that we have just so much truncation with adult-use. What’s acceptable what’s marketable and then medicinal communities. And you have the historical names like Pink Cush and Skywalker OG. There is a connection with those names for the cannabis culture, for people who may have been consuming underground, and the behind-the-scenes. This was what they were used to. This is how they identified the cultivars that work for them.

I think we’re in a period of evolution to where we’re now coming out of that phase and really starting to understand that. Now you have medicinal markets to where my mother, who is going as medical cannabis patient in Florida, doesn’t necessarily resonate with Pink Cush. She doesn’t understand that naming convention she’s coming from typical pharmaceuticals and transitioning over. I think that the UK has actually really done a great job with this. They’ve done a great job to where you have your prescription and your prescription cultivar is Headband OG or whatever it is.

Then it actually has its medicinal name which is Aurora Pedanios 20 to 1 or something like that. So it’s like a mix, because then that way, if I was a part of that culture and that was how I connected to that cultivar, then quickly, I can say, oh, that’s the one that definitely works for my pain at night. Now, I’m transitioning my mindset and brain to that top label that says Pedanios 20 to 1. I think that’s the evolution that’s going to take is going to be essentially like a co-branding, if you will, with an additional name with the cultivar name and then eventually shift into what will be adopted by the industry as a whole globally.

JCR: The last question that I have for you is your thoughts on the push for descheduling or rescheduling cannabis. For now, cannabis is scheduled by the DEA as a Schedule I drug, meaning that it has a high likelihood for addiction with no medical benefit. And here we are with a multibillion-dollar industry where very clearly in studies ongoing that yes, indeed, there is a medical benefit to using medical cannabis. So with that big question is, what do you think is the best avenue for the next steps?

AR: Oh, man, that definitely is a heavy question, because I just don’t think there’s enough education at the legislative level to really make an informed decision about that. Now, can we just make a decision as a country? Absolutely. We could just say, hey, we’re going to reschedule this guy and we’re going to figure out where it fits in our framework, or we’re going to reschedule it down to Schedule III and then just kind of look at it from there. I think that first, we have to identify as a country what is it that we’re talking about when we talk about what’s actually scheduled. Is it the specific cannabinoids that we’re scheduling or is it the actual cannabis flower itself? I think that’s quite important. Specifically being over here in the UK, they have taken that model with scheduling cannabinoids. So when it comes to being compliant as a CBD oil, you cannot have uncontrolled cannabinoids like Delta-9-THC, Delta-8, CBN, … all of these different things for whatever the data is to support it.

I think on our end, we have to realize and try to identify, are we trying to reschedule a reschedule cannabis, or are we rescheduling and rescheduling parts of cannabis and those different cannabinoids? I don’t think that’s the way I definitely think we need to treat it as a whole as a plant because we are extracting pieces to make different APIs. But we have to look at cannabis. Is that a Schedule I? Does it fit within the schedule? Is highly addictive? Is going to cause medical benefits for you?

To me, those answers have been proven. The answer has been proven that, yes, cannabis has therapeutic benefits. No, it’s not highly addictive, and that, I think, is where we can finally decide to reschedule or reschedule. And from my own perspective, I don’t necessarily know if rescheduling is the best way or rescheduling. I do ease into things. I like to kind of stress test before you just open up that gate. So in that sense, I would personally rather a reschedule from an informed place and then look at what is rescheduling look like for the community and how will we regulate and police that, and just all the different factors that come along with it.

JCR: I’m 100% in agreement with you. I consider the cannabis industry still has its training wheels on. Certainly, there is a lack of education across the board, particularly with physicians and healthcare providers. Who is reviewing the laws, policies, regulations that impact millions of cannabis patients? What about the industry professionals, particularly those people that are treating patients? Scientists like yourself know so much about the plant and what it can do, what it cannot do. Scientists and knowledgeable clinicians need to be at the table with legislators making the laws that impact patient safety and quality patient care.

AR: I think it’s so important. Yeah, we do have to have industry professionals part of creating the regulatory framework. I think it’s our job to really partner and marry with our politicians, with our legislators that are drafting these laws because we’re in the industry day today. These challenges are affecting us. I’m watching certain companies really strive to fight those challenges and obstacles in a very compliant way. But then there are other companies that don’t necessarily have that level of compliance or even that mindset. They’re just looking at the dollars they can make and they’ll find loopholes in those regulations.

I think it’s quite important that industry professionals are approached by legislators and politicians to really shape a community that’s going to help everybody because I think that’s why we started this industry in the first place. It was to help people and to help people in a way that wasn’t going to be addictive or lethal or just any of those things that we have seen from alternative medicines.

Previous articleGeorge Hodgin: Navy SEAL to DEA Approved Cannabis Researcher