When you think of pioneers and game-changers in the newly emerging United States cannabis industry, two suburban moms may not be the first people that come to mind. However, Gina Dubbé and Dr. Leslie Apgar, founders of Greenhouse Wellness dispensary and Blissiva cannabis products for women, might change your mind.
TMS spoke with these two Maryland-based friends to learn more about their journey making waves in the wellness space through cannabis and related products over the past few years. As they said, they “never expected to be here,” but along their journey, they’ve broken new ground in the industry and so much more.
After growing up in West Virginia and California, respectively, Dubbé and Dr. Apgar found themselves settled in middle age in the Baltimore/suburban D.C. area. Dr. Apgar was working as an OBGYN and Dubbé was an engineer and entrepreneur. They were suburban moms and best friends, and cannabis wasn’t something that was a part of their daily lives. But, after a patient approached Dr. Apgar about a cannabis business permit, she decided to explore the industry on behalf of the patient with her best friend Dubbé, who is experienced in the venture capital scene. The two had a call with some West Coast funders in the industry, but after being “mansplained to” by the all-male group, it left a bad taste in their mouths.
As Dr. Apgar says, that was the point where Dubbé “got mad, and went online and looked up the RFP,” which was a foreign process to Dr. Apgar as a full-time physician. So, the two women with no prior cannabis experience went for it. With their tenacity and intelligence, they pursued the bid for new dispensaries in Baltimore and won (much to their surprise) in 2015, as Dubbé says, “close to 120 hours of work and 600 pages later.”
Along the way, they had both been wary of the lack of empirical data, since both of them have strong scientific educational backgrounds. But they were encouraged by the anecdotal response to cannabis from both cancer and Parkinson’s patients. This kept them going as they began the process of preparing to open a dispensary in this fledgling and female-lacking industry.
A different approach
One of the things that set these women apart from the beginning (even in the application process) was detailing how they planned to run their business. Dr. Apgar planned and has acted from the start to focus the dispensary on a medical model. “I’m the attending physician, and then we have chief residents, interns and medical students, and everybody is learning,” she says. “If they have a question or a problem, they can always go to their senior, all the way up to me.”
It’s this focus on the medical application of cannabis from medical professionals that has set their business apart. Greenhouse Wellness focuses on providing cannabis in a therapeutic manner to help with patients’ journey to health and healing. And in the past four years, they’ve seen some wonderful results.
“I’ve really seen the most amazing medicine happen in front of my eyes on a daily basis, and I used to deliver babies,” says Dr. Apgar. Anecdotal evidence that they have seen includes patients fighting chronic medical conditions able, with cannabis, to continue on with less pain. Others are able to die with dignity and remain lucid instead of being rendered nearly catatonic by opioids.
“[We’ve seen] Parkinson’s patients who come in and tell us that with 5 milligrams of THC they go from not being able to dress or feed themselves to being able to eat breakfast, drink a cup of coffee and sit down to read,” includes Dubbé.
Dr. Apgar continues: “Patients who have been failed by Western medicine are then turning to cannabis as a last resort.” With education and by setting appropriate expectations she adds, “we’re really very happy to report that the majority of our patients find some benefit and some improvement.”
Challenges in the industry
As long as cannabis is considered a Schedule I drug in the US, this will continue to be a challenging industry for finding success, in part because there is no federally funded research on the substance while it holds this classification. For now, Dubbé shares: “we look extensively at Israel and Canada because their programs precede ours [in the US], and there is substantial research and data from those two countries.”
Though even that aspect of current cannabis research can present a challenge to breaking into the mainstream medical scene in the US, since as Dr. Apgar relates, “US trained medical doctors often look down on research not done in the United States because we know what it takes to get published in a reputable journal here, but we don’t always have that same knowledge about other countries.” However, she continues, “the tide is really shifting and the attitude toward research is shifting from a lot of my doctor friends that I’ve talked to.”
Frustrations have risen in the past few years among many US doctors due to the role Big Pharma has in the state of prevalent research – potentially being part of the underlying issues that have led to the opioid epidemic through discouraging research into less-addictive opioid alternatives like cannabis.
“I think that what we’re going to find is that doctors are going to be more accepting and receptive to research that’s presented to them from all over the world,” says Dr. Apgar. She and Dubbé feel strongly about “moving the needle, and making this industry the most sophisticated that it can be, about making this medicine and not a recreational market pretending to be medical.”
As Dubbé relates, “there are 39 states at this time that have some form of a cannabis program whether that’s medical, recreational or CBD only, and it’s morphing dramatically.” Both women believe that with understanding and education, much of the existing stigma around cannabis will fall away in society at large.
Expanding on success
Dubbé and Dr. Apgar have found success in this industry, but being women, their path is not common. When they were bidding in Maryland in 2015, out of the 1000 bids competing, less than 5% came from women. As Dubbé shares, “the boys club is real.”
With a verticalized industry like this one, processors, dispensaries and growers all work together, so forming relationships with partners they can trust has been a crucial part of their business growth and success – which has included overcoming any gender-related discrimination thrown their way. It’s usually not a direct situation, as Dr. Apgar puts it. “They’re not necessarily trying to edge us out; it’s just that it’s never occurred to them that we would be at the table as their equals.”
She brings up a company they met with recently discussing their desire to develop a female-focused product line – with no women involved in the development. For Dubbé and Dr. Apgar, this was a non-starter.
In this realm, the duo is innovating in their own way with their new cannabis product line Blissiva. With this line, they hope to help women find treatment for common conditions like endometriosis, which affects as much as 10% of the female population. Dr. Apgar shares that treating female reproductive system-focused issues like this could be a breakthrough area for cannabis as a medical treatment to be used as a “targeted drug delivery system and modality that is completely outside of Western medicine.” Cannabis has also been shown to help naturally elevate the female sex drive and libido through increasing women’s enjoyment of sex. There are many different and innovative ways for the drug to be utilized that the Blissiva line will help women explore safely.
For both of these founders, the most important part of their work and their success has been the positive impact that they have seen in the lives of their patients. One of the most significant results has been helping patients overcome opioid addictions. As this is still a significant problem in the US, it’s promising to see the results that cannabis can have in this area.
For more of their story, check out the book “High Heals,” where they tell their story in their own words. Their journey thus far is inspiring to anyone looking to break into a new field, seeking to help others or hoping to find success in their ideas. These inspirational founders are on the path to change the world around them, and it will be fascinating to see what they do next.
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