Mara Gordon is the Co-founder of Aunt Zelda’s, as well as their Chief Process Engineer. Mara specializes in developing cannabis extracts, cannabis-infused olive oils, cannabis-infused coconut topicals, and treatment protocols for seriously ill patients in California. A lot of Mara’s work is data-driven, which is definitely something that’s sorely needed in the cannabis industry at the moment, especially for medical marijuana patients.
What made you want to get involved in the cannabis industry?
I got into the cannabis industry initially because of my own and my husband’s health issues. My husband now, as of last week, has been sober for 29 years from alcohol and drugs. He had broken his back and required surgery, and he wasn’t willing to risk his sobriety by going onto long-term opiate use. And so we started investigating alternatives, and cannabis kept coming up as one of the options.
Now, this was before doctors were really recommending it. It was more like friends who had made brownies — it was more on the anecdotal side. I had my own health issues as well and was on a ridiculous number of pharmaceuticals. So we started investigating it as an option for ourselves. So what we found very, very quickly was that there was just no accuracy around cannabis or cannabis therapeutics at that time.
There was no data, there was no dosing, there was no lab testing. There were none of the things that would make something qualify as a "medicine". With my background as a process engineer, I immediately started looking for patterns in usage, what we’re using, and so on, and found there were no products out there [reaching this standard]. So we started making our own for ourselves, with really no intentions at all — I accidentally backed into a business! Which has transformed the trajectory of my life, and I guess several others, or many others, since that time.
What were the biggest challenges in setting up Aunt Zelda’s? What are the biggest challenges you face currently?
The setting-up initially was very simple. You know, you file with the Secretary of State and you set up a mutual benefit non-profit organization. The initial problem, which I think is a problem that still exists in this space to this day, is a lot of the legal representation that’s available out there. There’s not really such a thing as a "cannabis lawyer". There’s a set of laws, and some of those laws apply more to cannabis in different ways because of regulations, and some don’t.
But to find an attorney that was a "cannabis attorney" meant that they had been used to doing criminal cases, and it didn’t mean that they had business acumen. And so, finding a business lawyer or a corporate lawyer who was interested in cannabis was almost impossible in the early times. So we ended up getting some pretty poor business advice from some of our early representation, and as a result, we could have made better decisions or better agreements potentially early on.
But some of the greatest obstacles we have are the fact that there has not been any regulation in California up to this point. And so you have a lot of companies that are putting all of their time, money, and effort into promoting basically pretty low-quality products. And a company like us, which is committed and focused on research & development, and interested in getting the best quality out of things, and taking a long time to do it … Are kind of left in the dust a bit by the noisier, flashier products.
Now, we’re in fundraising and we’re looking to raise money for expansion. And the properties available for our type of manufacturing anywhere in the area are so few, and the competition for them is so strong, and there are people that are far better funded than us who can come in and pay ridiculous prices. This has caused prices to shoot up, and what happened to the dot com and real estate markets is now happening to cannabis and the locations that would qualify for cannabis licensing. So it’s a real, real challenge for us.
Could you tell us about your products and the lab testing processes you go through?
To talk to you about our products and lab testing, what we do is this; every flower that comes to us is lab tested. We homogenize our samples so that we know that our lab testing is quite accurate. We test for everything you can possibly test for at this point in California. And then, once we make each batch of medicine from these flowers, we then individually lab test each one of these batches as well.
For example, a lot of companies out there will buy, let’s say for ease of math, 100 pounds of flowers. They make 10-pound batches of their products. And in their companies, they may have one lab test, and they just use it over and over again, from that one test. We would do ten individual tests for each one of those batches, to catch the differences between every one of them, so that it’s completely accurate when dosing to the milligram.
Now, what we’ve done is we’ve created some infused olive oil products that are standardized to approximately 10 milligrams per milliliter and 50 milligrams per milliliter, for ease of dosing, so that we have the higher therapeutic doses for our cancer patients, who require quite a bit more. We also have our own extract, which is in syringes, for the people that need it in really high doses or want to take it in a different form. They can also take it and put it into some vapable devices, which they can inhale for instant relief, relaxation, etc.
And then we have the topical products, that are very popular, well-received, and used for many, many things. I designed it initially as a pain reliever, but very quickly found multiple other uses for it, including radiation burns, that many people experience when they go through cancer treatments. We’re actually trialing it for eczema right now down in Chile, so it’s a very promising and popular product.
Does doing all this testing put you at a competitive disadvantage?
Well … Our prices are still pretty low, certainly compared with the quality we have and the competition in the market. Our prices are extremely low, and we’re able to do that with this level of lab testing. So, I don’t know that it has impacted us, other than the fact that maybe our margins are a little bit narrower than the people who are just rushing into the market with inferior, untested, or understood products. We have still managed to stay very competitive on our pricing.
In fact, Joe Dolce wrote an article recently on examining all the pricing on various CBD products around the country, and ours is the one he used as a baseline to compare them to, and essentially said, "Isn’t it interesting that the platinum standard is able to achieve this price point, and these other, inferior products charge so much more? What’s the justification?"
Our philosophy is, "Get the medicine into the hands of as many people as possible." This way, we can help them alleviate their suffering. And when that’s your primary motive, you look at business a little differently.
Do you feel the sorts of processes you use to test your products should be standard in the industry?
Absolutely! In fact, I’ve been asked to write an article for the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Spring Journal. In it, I outlined basically my view and my philosophy on how cannabis should be rolled out as a medicine. And we’re living by that every day, which is what we do at Aunt Zelda’s. I’ve now been named as a founding member of the NACB, (National Association of Cannabis Businesses), which is a self-regulatory organization for the industry. It was a natural fit because I have very, very strong views on doing it correctly to help people!
Yes, people still have to make profits, because we need to be self-sustaining in our efforts and there’s no reason why not to be — otherwise, why do it, right? On the other hand, if profit is your only motivation, then your standards go right out the window. So, have high standards, and do it in a way that is sustainable and safe and so we can hold a light up to it, comparing it to other industries, like the pharmaceuticals, the food industry, etc., and how we can do this for ourselves. We can do this in a way that’s ethical and helps people, not exploiting them for quick profits.
One more thing … I think there’s a lot of companies right now, that see the landscape ahead with legalization and all the new regulations, and they’re saying, "We’re just going to make as much profit and money as we can until we get shut down." And so, you know, they’re the ones I’m sort of looking forward to being "out of the way", so to speak.
How do you match specific products and strains to specific conditions? Have you noticed any specific patterns?
We absolutely have found patterns. In fact, we specialize in treating very serious diseases, and we’ve been collecting data on this for six-and-a-half years now on thousands of patients. And we have found definite patterns around cannabinoids and terpene profiles for treating different diseases. For example, I spoke at CannMed 2017, where I was presenting our pre-clinical results on treating HER2+ breast cancer, utilizing our full-plant extract, compared to pure compounds or single molecules. So, what we were proving is, "Yes, you do need that entourage effect." You need the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes etc. in order to treat diseases more effectively.
What we found was is that there are certain profiles found in the plant that work better for specific diseases. Let’s take ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) for example. People with ADHD tend to respond most favorably to the narrow-leafed profile plants that tend to contain more alpha- and beta-pinene, limonene, and other terpenes that are "uplifting". For me, as I’m not ADHD, if I use those cultivars or plant profiles, I’ll be very jittery, jumpy, and uncomfortable.
But for someone with ADHD, it can be extremely calming to them, in the same way, that when they take Adderall or Ritalin that would be "speedy" to us [they are amphetamines, after all!], they’re calming to them. Another example I like to talk about is the terpene, linalool. Linalool is predominantly found in lavender. Now, for anyone who’s ever gone for a massage, usually, there’s some lavender oil or scent because it’s very calming. And so, when you’re looking for a calming medicine, you’re going to look for one that contains linalool, because it’s more calming.
What’s so special about the 20:1 and 25:1 ratios?
Absolutely nothing! Not a single thing is special about that ratio. There’s a "cannabinoid of the month" trend or "lingo of the month" sort of thing. There’s absolutely nothing special about any ratio, other than the fact you can then understand it for the purposes of dosing. Now, we tend to make our medicines around the 20:1 to 25:1 ratios because of what’s available in the plant. We tend to keep them separate instead of mixing them to a ratio of 1:1, 2:1, and so on because we believe you are empowered with the ability to dose to any ratio that’s going to work best for you when you keep the medicine separate. Once they’re mixed, then you’re stuck with whatever that ratio is.
So, what grows as native in the plant — you only have 100% total — so if you have something that’s 25:1, what else is in the plant? What are the terpenes? What about the flavonoids and whatever else that’s in there? What about the other cannabinoids? That all has to be taken into consideration towards being a medicine. The ratio of it doesn’t tell you anything about a dose. It doesn’t tell you how to achieve, say, 5 mg. It’s enough information to start running the calculations, but it’s not going to change the outcome for the patient one way or the other. It’ll just change the amount that they have to take.
Dosing is one of our biggest concerns. Many patients ask, "What do I do? What do I take, and how much of it, and when? My friend’s taken this — should I take the same thing?" There’s a real gap in knowledge, and people in dispensaries don’t necessarily have the training to deal with this. How do you deal with this? What advice would you give patients?
It’s going to be a bit of a mess at first. The passing of Prop. 64 was a very big deal. I did an interview that night, what I said was, and I still stand by it, "This [going recreationally legal] is going to allow us to have those companies on the recreational side, to be authentically recreational." You know, "Be recreational. Stop pretending to be medical." You know, you create a BHO [butane hash oil] shatter, you are not making a medical product. You are making a recreational product. Yes, maybe a medical patient will use it, but you are most definitely not gearing that for use as medicine. So let’s leave the medical to the medical.
As for new rules around distribution and things like that, are going to pose some significant challenges for us. Now what we’re planning to do, is allow a third-party distributor and for us to spend our energy and efforts either setting up kiosks of some sort when it’s appropriate within a dispensary, having education days for patients, continue doing the lecturing and educating that I do all over the place (with more focus on California) … So there’s a lot of things we have in the pipeline to actually accomplish this.
But the thing to keep in mind is, with the new regulations and recreational now becoming legal, I believe that’s going to increase the medical side of things in an enormous way. However, a lot of these "patients" will be buying on the recreational side as patients. Because even though they may not have entered the medical space yet because they might not feel comfortable getting a [medical] card and registering with a doctor. So they’re going to go into a dispensary as a medical patient and ask all the questions, and they’re willing to pay the surcharge to pay for the recreational cannabis.
So we have a real challenge to make sure those people aren’t getting bad advice for their grandma or their two-year-old by a budtender that’s been on staff for about five minutes …
Now, as you may have guessed by now, we spoke with Mara Gordon for a lot longer than this. (Noticing a pattern here?) As you have probably seen by now, Mara knows her stuff, and her passion, knowledge, and expertise on marijuana as a medicine are of utmost importance in getting to see the therapeutic and medical potential of this amazing plant.
We recommend checking out Aunt Zelda’s website to learn more about what they do and the products they sell. (Especially if you’re concerned with titration and dosing, and trying to figure out what product or cannabinoid & terpenoid profile will work best for you.)