I’d just returned home from a week of traveling – long flights, late nights, uncomfortable hotel room beds – and my back was killing me. My shoulders felt like armor, my neck was locked up, and I couldn’t turn my head to the right or to the left. We all have places in our bodies where we carry our stress, the organs and muscles that bear the brunt of our psychic tumult, and mine are my shoulders and neck. I tried a series of stretches, yoga, and other exercises that usually loosen the knots and start to work out the tension. But this time nothing was effective, and it had been days of fairly excruciating pain.
On the fifth day, I took a walk with a friend and related the discomfort I’d been experiencing. “I have something for you,” she told me, and then took out a flat tin container full of green ointment, a sample she’d received of Mary Jane’s Medicinals, a small-batch topical cannabis company in Telluride, Colorado. “Use this for a few days, and see if it helps.” I accepted the gift appreciatively and put it on my neck as soon as I got home. The initial relief was almost instantaneous but subtle. After several liberal applications, my pain was much better when I woke up the next morning and completely gone the day after that. I reluctantly returned the remaining salve to my friend and knew that I’d need to find a way to incorporate cannabis topicals into my self-care routine on a regular basis.
Topicals: extremely beneficial & extremely benign
Anecdotes like mine aren’t rare. People who have used cannabis-infused topical products report relief from a range of issues including migraines, muscle soreness, inflammation, nerve pain, arthritis, menstrual cramps, eczema, sun damage, and psoriasis. Topicals are becoming widely recognized as an extremely beneficial – and extremely benign – product category with unparalleled versatility and variety: you can now find cannabis-infused salves, skin lotions, lip balms, facial oils, cooling creams, bath soaks, pain sticks, itch sprays, tattoo treatments, transdermal patches, and sensual lubricants.
And most topical applications won’t get you high, in the conventional sense. They work by permeating the skin, where they interact with cannabinoid receptors at the site of application. With the exception of transdermal patches, which include added chemical delivery agents, the cannabinoids such as THC in topicals do not enter the blood stream and therefore have no psychoactive effect on the brain. This makes them a great choice for people who experience chronic pain or skin issues but don’t want to ingest a psychotropic substance all day long. I was introduced to cannabis-infused topicals by my brother, who moved to Denver three years ago to treat and manage multiple sclerosis with medical cannabis. He quickly discovered that topicals provided significant relief from nerve pain and muscle spasms, which he experienced almost daily, but did not affect his balance and coordination the way other methods of cannabis ingestion might.
The “new” miracle cure
Because they can address an array of conditions without negative side effects, cannabis-infused topicals are touted by many as a new miracle cure. But they’re hardly new. Though a relative novelty in today’s marketplace, they’re actually based on decades- and centuries-old concoctions, many of which were widely used in the U.S. until the 1930s, when cannabis was demonized and criminalized.
“We’re actually reintroducing cannabis topicals. We’re taking things that have always been used as medicine and giving them a modern spin,” says James Kennedy, founder of Colorado topical company Apothecanna. Kennedy’s company honors the tenets of traditional plant medicine by sourcing organic and wildcrafted ingredients and creating their formulations from native plants and therapeutic-grade essential oils. At the same time, Apothecanna stays on the cutting edge of plant science and savvy branding. This combination of age-old wisdom and innovative technology has enabled the topicals category to become one of the fastest growing in cannabis.
Changing minds about getting high
But these products weren’t always such an easy sell. Kennedy was initially met with an “if it doesn’t get you high, what’s the point” mentality from dispensaries when he introduced Apothecanna’s original products in 2009, and he invested a great deal of energy evolving perceptions of what cannabis products could be. Ah Warner, founder of Seattle-based Cannabis Basics, agrees: “We had a prolific medical system in Washington, and even here, people didn’t buy in.” It took major educational efforts by pioneering topical companies to ensure that customers and retailers understood the viability of this modality and its potential for pain relief and healing. “So I really think the success we’ve seen now is built on the backs of early topical makers who did this education because we had to sell our products, we had to make people understand that this was a serious option for many ailments,” Warner concludes.
A safer alternative
Recently, the topicals industry has profited from an increased curiosity in the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant on the part of mainstream consumers and among the more niche cannabis community. Dramatic changes in public perception of cannabis have made medical applications more accepted, and advances in plant science have opened the doors beyond the psychoactivity of cannabis and into its other vast potentials.
Trista Okel, founder of Oregon’s Empower Bodycare, also attributes some of the success of topicals to our increased understanding of the dangers of opiates. We have seen the destructive effects of their misuse, and it’s clear that we are in need of safer alternatives. Okel contends: “The federal government is cracking down on opiate use. We know more about the dangers surrounding opiates, all the damage to the body that those kinds of drugs do. So a nontoxic, non-psychoactive way to deal with pain and treat skin conditions, without negatively affecting the body, stressing organs, wreaking havoc on our kidneys and liver – people are hungry for that kind of treatment.”
Why are topicals so effective?
Why do topicals work so well that they’re replacing opiates? First, cannabis has anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, analgesic, and cell-regenerative properties that make it ideal for topical application. The topical formulators I spoke with concur that it’s the entourage effect of whole plant medicine, the interplay of specific cannabinoids to produce a result that is far more effective at healing than the constituent parts would be alone. Additionally, the synergistic qualities of non-cannabis ingredients, often derived from other plants such as arnica, echinacea, and lavender, contribute to the efficacy of the product by working toward a common goal. “When you get the right harmonic balance with these plants together, they do incredible things that are way more effective than over the counter and prescription drugs. You have the benefit of very clean formulations and this once-illegal, but very effective, active ingredient,” says Kennedy.
Topicals for self-care and wellness
Those benefits go beyond medical applications. There’s a burgeoning cannabis health and beauty aids (CHABA) movement afoot, which casts cannabis as a self-care and wellness product, in addition to a medical product or a social/recreational product. The growing awareness that what we put on our skin is just as important as what we put in our mouths is driving the demand for body lotions, lip treatments, eye serums, and face creams made with natural ingredients and infused with cannabis. In some states you can visit cannabis spas, with hash baths, medicated massages, and infused facials.
A law in Washington has expanded access to cannabis health and beauty aids, such as Cannabis Basics, which can now be sold on grocery and pharmacy shelves. The state’s Cannabis Health and Beauty Aids bill, first of its kind legislation co-authored by Ah Warner, defines these topical CHABA products as “not usable marijuana” and, consequently, removes them from Washington’s controlled substances act. Access has always been a vital issue for Warner, who also has a hemp body care line that contains no THC and can be sold nationwide. This legislation makes even her cannabis health and beauty products, which are made from organic hempseed oil and cannabis flower oil, available to everyone via mainstream retailers and spas within the state despite the fact that they have low levels of THC (less than .3 percent by law).
Perhaps due to the assortment of products and applications, topicals have attracted an extremely diverse set of customers, across all demographics and lifestyles. “I originally thought my Empower Oil would appeal only to baby boomers,” admits Okel, who hopes the broad audience her products have reached in Oregon’s medical market translates to mass appeal when adult-use sales of cannabis-infused products start in the state later this year. She counts professional athletes, trauma survivors, and conservative grannies among her brand loyalists. In fact, it was witnessing the remission of rheumatoid arthritis in one such customer that led her to believe that “topicals will normalize cannabis.”
Significant possibilities for women’s health
While topicals are not solely women’s products – Okel calls her branding “intentionally unisex” while Warner describes hers as “targeting women without alienating men” – they do offer significant possibilities for women’s health. In addition to topical oils that ease menstrual pain, companies like Apothecanna are developing product lines that relieve symptoms of menopause. Others have ventured into the realm of sensual oils, which can have a variety of benefits for female sexual health from enhanced pleasure to overcoming painful intercourse; I don’t mind sharing that Empower 4Play is a personal favorite. Beyond that, suppository delivery systems might provide improved reproductive health, with the potential of managing symptoms of PMS, endometriosis, and other similar issues.
Foria is one such company whose mission focuses on female sexual health; Foria Pleasure is a sexual enhancement oil and Foria Relief is a vaginal suppository that alleviates pain. Company founder Mathew Gerson was motivated to develop these products when he noticed the relative lack of options, both natural and pharmaceutical, that specifically address women’s sexual health. “We’re coming from a place of health and wellness and compassion. We got into this business to increase pleasure and decrease pain, and hopefully help provide a better overall quality of life for women,” Foria PR Director Brittany Confer tells me. “We’re excited to see new products come into the game and to welcome people like Whoopi Goldberg who are bringing more attention to the fact that women need this. At the end of the day, it’s really about community and collaboration.”
The key to normalizing cannabis?
The future of topicals is wide open – we can look forward to continued research into transdermal cannabinoid delivery, high-end beauty treatments, sports medicine applications, and new approaches to women’s health products – but today’s industry leaders have already solidified a legacy by crafting the finest quality cannabis-infused topicals and putting forth new models of success.
For James Kennedy that means looking beyond the bottom line, “designing a company around the values of the people involved and building a culture of inspiration and empowerment.” Ah Warner counts her integrity as her greatest success. “People trust my brand because I’m focused on making it the best it can be. Cannabis Basics will always be about integrity.” And for Trista Okel, it’s about putting the cause first: “My goal has always been to be an ambassador for the plant, to change the hearts and minds of people who would never consider using cannabis as medicine prior to trying a topical.”
The energy of those intentions, and the passion behind their vision, is evident in the unique and beautiful products these topical formulators create. Their work may, in fact, be the key to normalizing cannabis.
This piece was first published in Issue 2 of MARY Magazine and is reprinted here with their permission.