Mara Gordon and Stewart Smith’s two dogs are the dominating force of their home. When our group of cannabis-savvy women arrive and jump out of the car — already savoring deep breaths of the fresh salt air blowing off of Bodega Bay — the couple has not yet returned home from a trip to Los Angeles.
We are welcomed inside by Aunt Zelda’s research and development coordinator, Justin Kander, and a flurry of activity as a hyper-charged pup circles round and round the space.
When Gordon and Smith arrive, the activity only increases as the smaller dog leaps from the ground into Gordon’s arms.
“This evolved from the wolf, I mean think about that. You know?,” she says, pointing to the dog. “I mean if you think about hybrids and all that in our industry, this is a hybrid of a wolf.”
I made the short drive from Berkeley to Bodega Bay with friends to speak with the founders of Aunt Zelda’s about cannabis’ promise as a true medicine. I found their home to be tastefully decorated and was surprised to see that it bore only one small token of their business — which started as an edible company — in the form of a marijuana cookie cutter in the kitchen.
While both Gordon and Smith boast an incredible knowledge of the curative applications of cannabis, it wasn’t always that way. They each have extraordinary narratives of healing themselves with medical cannabis, but it was their path to discovery that has helped and will continue to help countless others find their own relief.
The Science of Medical Medical Marijuana
“The question that we’ve been seeking to solve for the last six plus years now is, ‘Is there a way to accurately and consistently dose cannabinoids and terpenes over time across diseases?’” Gordon says, when she catches her breath and settles down to speak with us in the living room. “We set out to figure out what different criteria that we would have to address in order to be able to do this.”
Founded in 2011, the business now has three distinct elements, all within a holding company called Caziwell: Aunt Zelda’s, a medical cannabis provider that creates infused olive oils, strain-specific extracts and cannabis topicals; Calla Spring Wellness, a team of medical experts offering cannabis recommendations in California; and Zelda Therapeutics, an international organization of cannabis experts focused on pre-clinical and clinical scientific research
All of Aunt Zelda’s products are made in small batches and tested rigorously to bring an understanding of the cannabinoids (the chemical compounds like THC and CBD which interact with receptors throughout the body) and terpenes (the aromas that give cannabis much of its effects) to patients so they can successfully heal.
“My background is as a process engineer so it’s kind of a natural space for me to be looking for patterns, repeatability and consistency in a crazy world like cannabis,” Gordon says.
While we are speaking with Gordon, Smith is taking calls from growers and reviewing a presentation he has given on different extraction methods. While extremely knowledgeable about cannabis himself, Gordon is the most public face of the company.
Finding the Right Dose
When Gordon tried a cannabis edible for the first time, her initial reaction to the ensuing reprieve from long term pain, which had once confined her to a wheelchair, was anger.
“My immediate reaction was I was furious, that nobody had told me years before and that I had suffered all these years needlessly,” she said. “And then the second thing was, ‘Why doesn’t everybody know about this?’ And then, ‘How do you know what to do and how do you know what to get?’”
Gordon had stopped working because of health reasons in 2003 and her husband was also experiencing extreme pain stemming from a pole vaulting accident in high school that broke his back.
When Smith — sober for nearly 30 years — had to have a back surgery in 2007, he was not willing to take a gamble on becoming addicted to opioids. Searching for solutions, the couple turned to a friend they had met while living on the road for two years in a teardrop trailer, now located in their beachside backyard.
“Talk about a different lifestyle, I mean I’m so straight,” Gordon says of her friend. “She was one of these wake and bake people — that’s what she called herself. I had never heard of any of this terminology at all. I’d never heard of ‘wake and bake,’ I’d never heard of ‘puff, puff, pass.’ All these things I learned from her.”
Once she tried a brownie her friend gave her and felt her pain decrease “from an eight-and-a-half to a two,” Gordon and Smith both got their medical marijuana recommendations and went to a dispensary recommended by their doctor.
Gordon remembers their first purchase: caramel corn, a brownie and a marshmallow rice square wrapped in cellophane with an adhesive tape label marked in permanent ink that read “five to 20 doses.”
“Me being me, I immediately took out a new Moleskine [notebook],” she says describing the effort she took to weigh each piece and note the duration and effects of the medicine. “I did all this from the very first dose and it was insane.”
The range of doses was wildly inconsistent, even changing depending on which piece of the edible they each consumed. Upon their first purchase at a medical marijuana dispensary, Gordon had some serious questions.
“What’s five to 20? What does that mean and what’s a dose?”
Aunt Zelda’s Carrot Cake
Discouraged by the inconstant results of dispensary-purchased edibles and knowing they couldn’t afford the medicine they needed at such a high retail cost, Gordon and Smith set out to create edibles for themselves. And, because they did not know any growers in California, they traveled to Oregon and paid $500 each to become patients there.
They then purchased 2 ounces of Chemdawg and, with no instructions — Gordon says these days you can’t “swing a cat without hitting an expert” — made an infused oil that “accidentally” came out right.
The baking gene runs deep in Gordon’s family; her grandmother was a baker and her dad invented cheesecake on a stick in his “second to last career.” It was while searching for a recipe heavy in oil that Gordon found her aunt Zelda’s carrot cake.
“I know how to make it so that the outside pieces are just the same moisture level as the middle,” she boasts, adding that a common problem with edibles is dryness on the outer edges, which means if you eat one piece you might not feel it, but eat another and you might not be able to open your eyes.
The turning point for their business came when a friend of their attorney provided a profound piece of advice.
“Why are you building everyone a house when you can provide the lumber?” Gordon says. “In other words, instead of baking everybody a cake, provide them with the infused oil because that’s scalable.”
Talking in Waiting Rooms
Taking the edibles out of the business equation meant a true focus on the medical applications of cannabis. Edibles are not “where it’s at” to treat diseases, Gordon explains, because one has to worry about things like added sugars and all the varying ways bioavailability is shifted with different methods of ingestion.
Take the oil, then eat a carrot cake or a salad — “your medicine is your medicine,” she says.
Her voice drops when speaking of the first cancer patient Aunt Zelda’s treated with careful doses of infused cannabis extract, saying that they did what they could without knowing all the things they do now.
“You know how it is, people talk in waiting rooms,” she says.
Once word of the company’s reputation got out, the family of a 6-year-old girl suffering from cancer requested extracts from Aunt Zelda’s.
“This was really when our whole life flipped was because of that child, because Stewart took over making the oil,” Gordon says. “Up until that point I had been the only one making the oil — I had been doing all the patient care, doing everything.”
The young girl, who has since died, was in dire straights and non-verbal as her parents shifted her from treatment to treatment. Even after arriving upon the potential hope of medical cannabis, the girl’s mother still had concerns.
“Her mother took the medicine herself and said ‘I can’t give this to my child, it got me so stoned.’ And I’m like, ‘Do you have cancer? Do you take her chemo drugs too?’ That always is just one of those things that just irks the heck out of me,” Gordon said.
Caring for the Patients
Aunt Zelda’s is currently a direct-to-patient service that provides deliveries via a courier service. It is also in the process of expanding to dispensaries, and Gordon estimates they are currently treating around 3,400 individuals.
Each patient is provided specific dosing regimens to work with. The cost of the medicine ranges from between $50 for chronic pain to around $800 and $1,800 per month for cancer medications.
“We set titration schedules and what our target therapeutic doses are, and then in our feedback loop we find out if it’s too little or too much,” Gordon says. “And the way that we do that is by looking at scans, bloodwork, pathology reports, tumor markers — whatever the marker or the mechanism of review would be for that particular diagnosis, we’re able to track it.”
The company has established 300 different data points for each patient to establish dosing protocols for specific diseases, including the 200 different types of flexion cancers.
“We’ve also set up rules to backfill [patient data] based upon our experience and our research because it goes on more than just what people are using,” Gordon says. “I mean, we’re working with the chief scientists around the world and some of the top researchers and medical professionals to understand more about the endocannabinoid system and the way cannabinoids interact with different diseases.”
Filling in the Gaps
“This is bespoke medicine — there’s no other way to think of it than bespoke,” Gordon says. “All medicine is, but even this has certain extra complexity.”
In saying that, she also reveals upcoming proposals to provide cannabis therapy, via her team of medical experts, for 10 diabetes patients from China in either California or Hawaii in the coming months.
“I want to have a place where people can come and get set on which medicines work best for them, to get them titrated to a therapeutic dose and then send them on their way with a correct profile so that it’s repeatable and sustainable,” she says.
Both Gordon and Smith are committed to cannabis as a medicine and demonstrate an endless fascination with discovering more about the plant. Their day-to-day lives are filled with talk of scientific discoveries and new treatment methods for cannabis.
“I was a primary caregiver for so many people. My mother, my father, my first husband, my sister, my brother in law, my best friend — so I’ve done this a lot of times, besides myself,” Gordon says. “I had to learn how to receive after giving, giving, giving, but I know where the holes are and hopefully we’re filling those.”
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