Jessica Tonani checking out tissue cultures that have been differentiated into stem cells at her Seattle office.

Jessica Tonani, 40, CEO of Verda Bio, a DNA sequencing company, has a personal as well as financial interest in marijuana’s future. She turned to marijuana a decade ago, as a treatment for a gastrointestinal condition that led to the removal of part of her stomach, multiple surgeries, and twice-weekly intravenous infusions. After her doctors discussed her “last wishes” and she exhausting all other options – Jessica decided, marijuana was worth trying.

A decade later, she acknowledges wholeheartedly that marijuana worked for her. But also states that the medical marijuana system wasn’t easy for her to navigate. So, four years ago, she founded Verda Bio, a BioTech company that focuses on the delivery and genetics of cannabis.

With the science of marijuana being embryonic due to federal restrictions on research, Jessica and business partner Kersten Beyer VP of Clinical Affairs, still travel Washington educating and advocating for cannabis research.  Recently, I was able to sit down with Jessica and Kersten at Verda Bio to discuss the future of cannabis research.

Verda Bio: The first thing I should say, is that it was illegal to research marijuana at the time Verda Bio started. What I mean is that if you’re a 502 producer, you’re allowed to grow, dispel and destroy your marijuana. If you do anything outside of that, you’re breaking the law. If you want to grow for research purpose, that’s illegal. If you want to breed, that’s illegal. If you want to change anything about your plant’s genetics, you either have to buy clones from other 502 producers or you illegally start breeding them on your own.

We know more about hamsters then we do marijuana and it’s a plant. As marijuana becomes legalised for medical and recreational purposes across the US, academic researchers and the burgeoning industry are turning to genomics and genetics to characterise and develop better and more consistent strains of marijuana.

Washington State Bill 5121 and State Bill 6177, both of which were created by us, worked to address these research issues. Essentially, SB5121 worked to help enabled the state to create a Marijuana Research System and The Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF) was the scientific reviewer of this process. Frighteningly, 2 months after SB5121 was put into legislation it was defunded, by Washington State; and left researchers and physicians without the ability to effectively research cannabis and its genetics.

A little over a year later, though, we were back with State Bill 6177!  Which creates a new type of marijuana license for firms looking to further their research and is overseen by the WSLCB. It also requires a third-party scientific reviewer to evaluate the scientific merits for each applicant. As of now, the WSLCB hasn’t found any acceptable scientific reviewers leaving us temporarily waiting.

Jessica: Being able to know the genomics and genetics of marijuana before it was ever even planted — would be tremendously empowering to the industry. Genetics are poised to help researchers create better, more powerful, and sometimes personalised strains. Which can be optimised for different medical conditions like anxiety, pain, cancer, epilepsy and autism to name a few.

Right now, for example, we’re seeing a lot more autism research because they’re finding there’s a huge jump in activity when kids endocannabinoid system isn’t deficient anymore. It’s unreal. As you guys know, watching a kid go from staring down at the ground, sitting Indian style, to changing the channel on the TV, and smiling….I get goosebumps just talking about it!!

Research like this is so important because these kids need it. You can’t tell me that cannabis doesn’t work when the case studies are so powerful!

Verda Bio: I don’t think people realize how bad these kids are. I think they interact with their normal/neo-typical kids and they get a false sense of reality. They say, “Why would you give your child cannabis?”  What they don’t realize is – there is no other solution. I oftentimes say people go to medicinal marijuana as a last resort, not a first resort.

Jessica: Absolutely, it’s always that.

Verda Bio:  It’s truly a system of hope, based on science right now. We need to change that system.

Jessica:  To a science that offers hope.

Verda Bio: Exactly! A science that offers hope. If we’re talking about autism – autism is a part of these kids’ biology, as much as the shape of his nose to the color of their eyes. Now if we could just understand the biology of this life-saving plant!

Jessica: I know 502 retailers hear your frustration – along with many others in the cannabis research field. I think we can all agree, that we need the public’s acceptance of these debilitating conditions and for the public to realize the importance of genome mapping. That, in itself, is really going to be an incredible asset to patients.

Verda Bio: A life-saving asset to some! We need to challenge how cannabis is defined – as a gateway drug – because this description leads us inexorably to “regulate” cannabis.

We need to challenge how cannabis is portrayed in the media.  Using fear, sadness, and pity to generate opinions devalues cannabis research and terrorises patients.  Doctors are going to want to know that the material consumed by their patients this year, is the same as last years. If someone asked me what the future of cannabis growing will be — it will be genome mapping. I hope that by collecting data and making it public to other scientists, it can help aid in the understand and recovery for thousands of patients.

Cannabis Research isn’t about defining a set of rules. It’s about seeing our medical and science community in ways that we didn’t expect and then challenging our own prejudices and reactions. It’s about learning to broaden our narrow perception of cannabis, thinking carefully about what we mean when we say “NO”  to scientific research and how we define consistency and variety in medical marijuana strains to be able to help our medical community!

Written by: Jessica Krantz

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