Women of Cannabis: Q&A with Dr. Alex Capano
Dr. Capano is among the many respected women making progress in cannabis. She was the first doctoral candidate of any discipline who focused on cannabinoid science. As Medical Director for Ananda Hemp, Dr. Capano acts as principal investigator on clinical research and trials, focused on hemp-based CBD therapies. She is also a faculty member of The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University.
What inspired you to get into the cannabis industry?
Cannabis seemed like the perfect industry where I could help people and also channel my ambition. As a Nurse Practitioner, I am passionate about improving the health and lives of my patients, but I felt I had reached a plateau career-wise. I wanted more opportunity for professional growth without compromising my core values and ethics. I recognized that I could see 100 more patients a week and work another decade, but my earning potential would not change. Cannabis has the potential to improve lives, but there is a huge need for professionalism and quality research in the industry. Also, I feel strongly about the role of cannabis in combating the opioid crisis. Coming from Philadelphia, I have witnessed the deadly consequences of this epidemic both personally and professionally, and I am committed to finding better solutions. My current research initiatives focus on just that. It's something I can feel proud of at the end of the day. I still see patients, but only part-time. My role in the cannabis industry allows me to be fully engaged during patient care without the risk of burnout that so many providers face.
How has cannabis/hemp influenced your life?
Other than allowing me to pursue a career I love? Personally, I use CBD to improve anxiety and sleep. I have never been a great sleeper, and that tends to compound my anxiety. Traditional anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, come with considerable risk for dependence or even accidental overdose, so I was very hesitant to use them. Still, meditation and exercise weren't always cutting it for me. CBD has helped me enormously in these areas. I can sleep through the night and wake up ready to take on the day, without any anxiety. When I'm less anxious, my productivity increases, my relationships thrive, and my life is better overall.
What is Cannabinoid Science and what does that entail?
Cannabinoid Science is basically the study of the endocannabinoid system and the active molecules, cannabinoids, that influence the system. It includes the human endocannabinoid system, which was discovered in 1992 by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. Unfortunately, the endocannabinoid system is rarely taught in medical, nursing or pharmacy schools, so there is a major knowledge gap surrounding medicinal cannabis.
We make our own cannabinoids, but we can consume additional, plant-derived cannabinoids, such as CBD, from the cannabis (hemp or marijuana) plant. Studying cannabinoids includes evaluating the mechanism of action of these molecules, and the results these actions have on the human body. There's so much to learn and so much we don't know yet.
What sparked your interest in studying and creating a profession around Cannabinoid Science?
I think that I answered this in the first question. But I will add that there was a bit of serendipity for me in the opportunity to study cannabis. I asked my advisor, Dr. Jennifer Bellot, at Thomas Jefferson University if this was a possible area of study. It took me a little while to work up the guts to have the conversation; I wasn't sure if I would be laughed out of the room. But instead, quite the opposite happened. She told me that Thomas Jefferson was about to announce the first academic center focused on comprehensive cannabinoid science, research and policy. It wasn't actually called the Lambert Center yet. She introduced me to the center's Director, Dr. Charles Pollack, who agreed to be on my doctoral committee and guided me through everything. He even introduced me to the Chairman and CEO at Ananda Hemp, which is how I am here today. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
What is the Lambert Center?
Can you explain what studies surrounding cannabis are taking place there?
The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University is the first university based, academic center in the U.S. focused on comprehensive cannabinoid science, research, policy, entrepreneurship and social impact. They identify research gaps and try to close them through high quality and well-designed studies, which is absolutely necessary in driving the needle forward in medicinal cannabis. Additionally, the Lambert Center is focused on social impact, because you cannot have the conversation about cannabis without acknowledging the social justice issues that surround it.
The Lambert Center is conducting studies on the effects of hemp-extract on spinal stenosis patients, evaluating pain and different quality of life outcomes over a six-month period. We are also studying the effects of hemp-extract on opioid use and quality of life outcomes in chronic pain patients. Additionally, the Lambert Center is an integral part of research coming out of Pennsylvania from a network of medical schools. This program and collaboration across the state will allow for high quality, large data sets on medicinal cannabis that have been otherwise unavailable.
What attracted you to start working with Ananda Hemp?
What does a principal investigator of clinical research do?
I was hesitant to work in the private sector, but Ananda Hemp's Chairman, Barry Lambert, made the decision easy. He is committed to research that will help people all over the world. His values and principles align with mine. I found that to be true of not only of Ananda's leadership, but everyone in the company. Additionally, I can honestly say in good conscience that Ananda Hemp is growing and producing hemp with the highest quality standards. They are refreshingly transparent in an industry that is otherwise opaque. Lastly, my role at Ananda allows me to do the research I want on the topics I find most important and valuable, such as decreasing opioid use. This includes writing protocols, waiting (not-so) patiently for IRB approval, and overseeing the studies from all sides.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about hemp?
People think hemp is marijuana, which carries a stigma. Or that it doesn't have medicinal value. Hemp will not intoxicate you, it will not get you high, but with the right genetics, hemp can produce high quality CBD oil. But hemp isn't just about cannabinoids or CBD. Hemp is rich in omega-3s and omega-6s, particularly linolenic acid, alpha-linolenic-acid, and gamma-linolenic-acid, which are great for cardiovascular health. And the terpenes in hemp, such as beta-caryophyllene, have anti-inflammatory, health promoting potential as well. Plus, it's incredibly sustainable and great for the environment.
What have been your biggest hurdles working in the cannabis industry so far?
Stigma, probably. I've never been one to shy away from controversy, but I notice some negative reactions when people ask what I do for a living. But that's where the need for education comes into play. For example, even my mom, who is an incredibly smart and very well-respected Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, seemed pretty skeptical and apprehensive about my decision to study cannabis. She thinks of me as quite smart (thanks, Mom!), and perhaps she was worried I wasn't living up to my potential. But now she's supportive of and excited about my work, and she even acknowledges that this can really help people. Secondly, the biggest hurdle is all of the red tape in research. Until there's reasonable policy change, it's difficult to study effectively.
What advice would you give to an aspiring cannabis entrepreneur?
Keep your integrity intact and make sure to surround yourself with honest people. There are so many genuine people in the industry, but you may have to sift through it a bit to find them, so do your research. Also, be careful of making any unsubstantiated claims that sound too good to be true. There's a lot of hyperbole in the industry, such as "cannabis cures cancer," and that's just not supported by research today. Those types of claims can put people at risk, because they may opt out of traditional, effective treatment in favor of cannabis with unrealistic hopes. It's dangerous and frankly unethical to give people false expectations.
On a more positive note, I would say don't be afraid to take a chance to do some good! This is a rapidly growing industry with potential for unprecedented diversity and growth. We can make this multi-billion dollar industry one that is founded on the values of inclusivity, creating equal opportunities for all genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, orientations, etc. The financial rewards you reap can help fund employee benefits (such as comprehensive parental leave, which we desperately need in the U.S.), bolster your favorite non-profit, fuel community programs, grant children better education, and more. Setting a precedent for positive change is so important. It's up to all of us to harness this moment for a better future.
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