Would the AVA's resident expert on the media, Flynn Washburne, regard this story as newsworthy? Probably not! After all, it’s not about his backyard and not about anyone he knows. Chances are, you don’t know the person at the heart of this story, either and don’t really care that she has been coughing and sneezing lately. No, Heather Despres, 41, doesn’t have COVID-19, hereafter referred to as just 19. Rather just ordinary allergies that hit her hard every year when heaps of pollen is in the air. Still, 19 has altered Despres’ life. No more flying around the country and no more visiting and checking up on cannabis dispensaries, cannabis farms and manufacturing centers.
Like millions of other Californians, Despres works online from the relative safety of her home in Santa Rosa, where she lives with her wife, a social worker who has been allowed, by the county, to go to her office and do whatever social workers do. Despres has also been at home schooling a nine-year-old. She has her hands full and a lot on her plate. She’s also as cool, calm and collected as can be expected with body counts rising and too much sneezing and coughing around town.
Despres is the Director of Patient Focused Certification at Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the largest cannabis organization in the country, with thousands of members, including doctors and scientists coast-to-coast. Call her a “good cop,” though she wouldn’t use that phrase. Her job is to monitor every aspect of the cannabis industry, from seed to shelf. Hey, someone’s got to make sure that dispensary workers are savvy about the hazards that can be associated with smoking pot. ASA also provides top-notch training and reliable certification. As a third party independent, Despres' word can be trusted.
The cannabis industry as a whole, she tells me, hasn’t always done what it claims it’s doing. She wants it to reform its ways, before the government cracks down and closes businesses. She’s on the side of patients who need cannabis for a variety of medical conditions. Right now it’s essential that people not spread the virus by sharing joints, pipes, bongs, roaches and the like. It’s not as easy as it may sound. Some heads, stoners and medical marijuana patients have been smoking joints for decades. Old habits do die-hard. Despres says, “In regular flu season, people shouldn't share joints. The same holds true now, only more so because 19 is so contagious.”
The drug culture, as it has been called, urged pot aficionados not to “Bogart that joint,” a phrase made popular originally by the rock ‘n’ roll band, Fraternity of Man, and by the movie, Easy Rider with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. It’s still a catchy tune, though everyone who wants to avoid 19 might try cannabis edibles, salves and ointments, which are safer than joints.
I recently switched to gummies, which can take a couple of hours to kick in. The experience is pleasant. What’s not so pleasant is buying them at a dispensary: about $20 for 10 gummies. I purchase the kind that contains both THC and CBD. The gummies don’t always work. It’s hit or miss and unpredictable, too. Despres calls CBD “an amazing compound.” She also believes that some proponents of CBD have disseminated misleading information about its wonder working powers. “We don't want false information out there,” she says.
The Project CBD website recently published an article titled “CBD as a steroid sparing treatment” that called the compound “an unexpected contender for a novel steroid sparing treatment of the future.” One had to read to the end to learn that CDB is not “a proven and safe alternative to steroids.” Despres’ vigilance is essential.
A native of New Hampshire who moved to California about 18 months ago, she has a Masters in Chemistry and experience working in a nursing home. She also ran cannabis-testing labs. She’s totally suited for her job, which is to protect patients, who often find themselves on the shitty end of the stick these days.
That’s because California has in large part turned its back on medical marijuana and opted for capitalist marijuana with taxes, regulations and a bloated state bureaucracy and Lori Ajax, the czar at the top of the agency, who came over from the world of alcohol and knew little about cannabis. Two steps forward and one-step back. The good part is that most folks don’t go to jail anymore.
Despres urges cannabis patients to work with their own medical doctors, though she allows that many doctors are poorly educated about cannabis. Then, too, she says, many users don’t disclose their cannabis habit. It’s still taboo in many circles.
In the present crisis she feels that masks are essentials for doctors, nurses and health professionals. Indeed, they can help contain the spread of the virus. “Homemade masks give people peace of mind,” Despres says. “But if you're not sick they won’t provide total protection.” She gives the State of California pretty high marks in the campaign against the virus. “Shelter in place slowed down the spread,” she says. “19 has not moved as quickly here as it has other places because California acted quickly.”
After a conversation by phone, we found we agreed about a great deal, including the slogan often heard these days that makes more sense to me than any other. Maybe you’ve also heard it: “This too shall pass.” It's attributed to the Persian Sufi poet, Rumi, whose verses are helping the anxious, the fearful, the sick and the families in which a parent or grandparent, a child or a friend has died as a result of 19. Rumi wrote his verses more than 700 years ago. Maybe, by Flynn Washburn’s standards, that’s too long ago to be considered news, but I always went along with Ezra Pound who said, “Poetry is news that stays news,” and “make it new” which applies to poets and reporters alike.