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Jessica VerSteeg Talks Transparency, Touchdowns, Tech & THC

Economics

Jessica VerSteeg Talks Transparency, Touchdowns, Tech & THC

Photo Dre Humphries

Jessica VerSteeg Talks Transparency, Touchdowns, Tech & THC

Jessica VerSteeg builds brands, breaks categories and takes on the NFL.

Just off Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood, the Paragon offices look fairly nondescript from the street. With a fleet of luxury vehicles parked in front and an exclusive-looking private entrance, the space could house any number of Hollywood studios, post-production offices or agency headquarters. But once you’ve made it past the intercom-protected gates and been greeted by Priscilla, a blue brindle French bulldog who trots around like she owns the place, it’s clear this isn’t just any LA chic office space.

Sure, there are lounge-like spaces, open floor plans and even a ping-pong table, but the real epicenter of Paragon is an inviting courtyard with built-in seating, an ideal spot for opening your laptop to work and enjoying a joint in the California sun. It’s this vision for a cannabis co-working, events and networking space that launched ParagonSpace in 2018. The multi-functional space is also HQ for the ParagonCoin, a blockchain service launched in 2017 by Paragon CEO Jessica VerSteeg.

Tracking Cannabis With Blockchain

The “model-slash-fill-in-the-blank” category is robust in Los Angeles. Model-slash-singers, model-slash-actors and model-slash-dancers are de rigueur in a town filled with Midwestern transplants chasing their big Hollywood dreams. But model-slash-tech-innovator-slash-cannabis-CEO? That’s a first.

VerSteeg’s label-defying nature is driven by her unique mix of talents. She’s strikingly beautiful and surprisingly approachable; both of these qualities contributed to her success as a model and a beauty queen — she was, after all, Miss Iowa United States 2014. But you don’t have to get too far into to a conversation with VerSteeg to see that she’s also bright, curious and bursting with creative energy.

And these days, the thing that’s captured VerSteeg’s imagination is the future of blockchain technology as it relates to the cannabis industry. VerSteeg explains that the primary mission of the Paragon team is to develop software that tracks cannabis from seed to sale and interfaces with the state’s system, Metrc.

Simply put, blockchain is an inalterable digital account that records all transactions and information related to a single product. With California’s stringent seed-to-sale tracking and products changing hands multiple times before reaching the consumer, VerSteeg sees blockchain as offering an ideal solution for the industry to establish transparency with consumers who increasingly care about where their cannabis comes from.

Photo Courtesy Jessica VerSteeg

“In the end, I envision this benefitting the cannabis industry by creating a more trusting, transparent industry,” VerSteeg says. “Let’s create an industry that’s so transparent that it’s better than Big Pharma. Why wouldn’t people choose this over opioids if we’re able to create an industry that’s transparent?”

Once Metrc is up and running, VerSteeg says that Paragon will be too. In the meantime, she has been working to develop a system of “smart contracts” — digital blockchain-friendly documents that will lock in everything from testing results to cultivation details. The benefit to tracking all of this data in blockchain is that once the information is in the system, it cannot be altered or edited.

Paragon will also track the transaction details between cultivator and distributor, distributor and testing lab, distributor to retailer and finally, retailer to customer. Not only will all of this data be collated into a Metrc-ready format that will facilitate compliance and reporting and for companies along the supply chain, but the consumer will also have access to it via a QR code on the package.

The Roots of the Cause

“Cannabis was never something I thought I’d be a part of,” admits VerSteeg, recalling how, as a child brought up in the era of D.A.R.E. propaganda, she didn’t want to have anything to do with cannabis.

But the plant became an issue in her life when her then-boyfriend Tyler Sash, who was at the time playing in the NFL for the New York Giants, came to her and asked if she thought he could smoke cannabis to help ease his pain.

“He needed ankle surgery, and he was having neck issues, back issues, head issues. That was his biggest thing: shoulder pains, he had six pins in each shoulder,” recalls VerSteeg. VerSteeg discouraged Sash, reminding him the drug was federally illegal — and banned by the NFL.

“I wish I’d never said that to him,” she says. “We were young, and you trust the NFL because they’re such a big corporation, and you grow up with it, especially in America. It’s ‘America’s game.’ And you trust doctors.”

But as Sash’s journey in the NFL continued, VerSteeg learned more about how the NFL and its doctors operate, and says she watched them encourage Sash to use opioids with reckless abandon.

“He literally called [the pill dispensers] ‘candy machines.’ Just put your pill bottle under it. Twist it like an M&M machine, fill it up and there you go. You get as much as you want of these painkillers,” she says.

In a preseason game of the 2013 season, Sash received what was at least his fifth concussion during his time in the NFL, which according to VerSteeg, was the unofficial maximum allowed by the league. The Giants cut him from the roster after reaching an injury settlement.

“After the fifth concussion, you’re out,” VerSteeg says. “Not just out of the NFL, but out of pills.”

In 2017, the Boston University CTE Center announced that it had found evidence of CTE in 99% of the former NFL players whose brains it studied.

VerSteeg became concerned when Sash’s behavior began to change, but she knew he was struggling with adjusting to post-NFL life. “I was so worried for him,” she says. “Not being able to have that jersey and the game day and not being able to see his fans, and I knew he was depressed.” But VerSteeg didn’t know exactly how Sash was adjusting to life without access to the NFL doctors and their opioid prescriptions.

Sash began training college athletes in exchange for pills and his behavior worsened as his addiction deepened, VerSteeg says.

“He became extremely aggressive, extremely depressed, [was having] crazy mood swings, was very forgetful… hearing voices. He was very happy one moment, and then very sad at another,” she says. “It wasn’t him. The real him was the most genuine and loving person. This was just not him and I knew it.”

In order to get help, VerSteeg began reaching out to the NFL.

“I started calling the NFL, saying, ‘I think he has dementia; I don’t think it’s depression.’ Depression isn’t going to make you forget these things and hear voices. And at the time, the movie ‘Concussion’ hadn’t come out, and the NFL really wasn’t vocal about CTE,” says VerSteeg, referring to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, and the movie about it released in 2015, starring Will Smith. “They said, there’s no way he has dementia, he’s too young. He’s just depressed. And he was sleeping 20 hours a day and vomiting nonstop, and they said, these are all symptoms of depression. Let him sleep.”

At the time, VerSteeg was unaware that the NFL had known for years that CTE was a form of dementia and that its players had extremely high rates of incidence of the disease.

It wasn’t until early 2014 when VerSteeg found a handful of undissolved pills in Sash’s vomit that she began to piece together what was really going on with her partner.

“I understood then that it was an addiction,” she said.

When VerSteeg confronted Sash about the pills, it only made things worse. VerSteeg says she ended up in the hospital when things turned violent between the them and she knew he needed to get clean, so the two separated and VerSteeg moved to San Francisco in August of 2014.

“I was looking up every alternative to painkillers. All I wanted to know was how we could get back together,” she says.

It wasn’t long until she came across cannabis as a pain management alternative to opioids. VerSteeg was surprised to see that Sash had been right in the beginning, but blames feeling a breakup-related resentment for her decision to not reach out and tell Sash. He had a girlfriend and he seemed clean, so the two made plans to meet up in October 2015. That meeting never took place, because Sash died of an overdose in September 2015.

“It was really, really, really hard for me,” says VerSteeg, who admits she spun into a deep depression after Sash’s death. “I blamed myself for not telling him about marijuana and what I found…. But I should have at least said, ‘You were right. This is an alternative. And if you’re still in pain, you should feel comfortable with marijuana, because I know you wanted it, and I’m sorry I said no originally.’”

In the time since his death, Sash’s sister Megan Wieland spoke to the Des Moines Register, asking VerSteeg to stop using Sash’s story to promote her business.

“If she wants to have a business that’s fine. We just wish she would leave Tyler out of it,” Wieland said.

In 2017, the Boston University CTE Center announced that it had found evidence of CTE in 99% of the former NFL players whose brains it studied. Sash’s name was on the list of players affected, with his severity a level two out of four.

Continuing Advocacy

VerSteeg said Sash’s story has, in a roundabout way, driven her passion for transparency in the cannabis space as she translates that to cutting-edge technologies. In 2014, she founded Au Box, a high-end monthly subscription box (now defunct) curated to offer high-end cannabis products to discerning medical marijuana patients.

“I created it out of [feeling] so guilty about what happened with my ex,” VerSteeg says. “I didn’t want anyone else to suffer, and thought that maybe if they saw cannabis in a nicer light, they wouldn’t judge their partner or their children or their grandparents.”

VerSteeg said she was committed to sourcing only high-quality products and required lab tests from all of her supplier partners before California’s adult-use regulations passed with Proposition 64 made it mandatory. But when she came across a supplier who had been presenting falsified lab results, she knew there was a problem that needed to be fixed.

“I thought, sh*t, this is not good. I was giving this to actual patients, and I wanted people have good products. I wanted to fix this.”

That’s exactly where VerSteeg is with Paragon today — working to develop tamper-proof results that consumers can trust.

To date, cannabis is a banned substance in the NFL, and players who test positive for cannabis are subject to heavy fines and suspensions. In addition to its pain management qualities, THC and CBD both appear to be neuroprotectants and have been shown to reduce trauma following a head injury.  

Armed with this knowledge and with the memory of Sash in her heart, VerSteeg is a frequent letter-writer to the NFL, admonishing them for their outdated policies on cannabis, CTE and the over-prescription of opioids. One such letter concludes with a heartfelt plea, made in Sash’s honor: “I would also encourage the NFL to allow players the option of painkillers OR cannabis to ease their pain,” she writes. “Not every player wants to be pumped with opioids. We all know you love your players because you see dollar signs over their heads, but it’s time that you start loving your players as humans and caring about what is in their heads.”

Editor’s Note: Since the reporting of this story, ParagonCoin announced in an SEC filing that it would be selling the ParagonSpace office building and ceasing to operate a cannabis co-working space. In the filing, ParagonCoin said it would now focus entirely on developing its blockchain technology.

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Originally published in Issue 37 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

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