Asara Tsehai, a holistic health educator and wellness coach in Oakland, was mystified when she reached menopause and suddenly began experiencing insomnia.

“I’d never had a problem sleeping before, but then all of a sudden, I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep no matter what I tried,” she said.

Finally, a friend suggested an edible cannabis product called Gummi Cares. Tsehai, 59, was at her wit’s end, she said, so she agreed to try the marijuana-infused product, known as an edible.

But, because she was unsure of the correct dosage, that backfired and left her wired instead of sleepy. Then Tsehai remembered Sue Taylor.

A retired Catholic school principal, Taylor isn’t your typical marijuana expert. But that works in her favor, she said, as she strives to remove the stigmatization surrounding medical marijuana.

Sue Taylor is photographed at what will soon be the iCann Health Center, the fourth permitted cannabis dispensary in Berkeley, Calif., on Friday, May 4, 2018. At the age of 70, Taylor is the first African American senior to own a medical cannabis dispensary in the Bay Area. Her focus will be educating seniors and minorities on the medical benefits of cannabis. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

The 70-year-old plans to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Berkeley in September. Her focus will be on informing seniors and minorities about what advocates say are the medical benefits cannabis.

The new dispensary, called iCANN Berkeley, will be the fourth permitted cannabis club in Berkeley out of six total licenses. Taylor, an Oakland resident, beat out three other finalists to be awarded the cannabis shop permit in Berkeley. She is the first African-American senior to own a medical cannabis dispensary in the Bay Area, she said.

iCANN will focus on serving seniors and people of color, two demographics that are sometimes overlooked by other dispensaries.

This year, California opened the doors to adult recreational marijuana use. Last November, voters approved Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana in January for adults 21 and older.

‘Reefer Madness’ generation

Taylor’s mission to educate others about the medicinal benefits she says cannabis offers began a decade ago when one of her three sons, Jamaal, who was 28 at the time, told her he had been taking courses at the first marijuana industry trade school. At Oaksterdam University in Oakland, students learn to grow, sell and advocate for medicinal marijuana.

“I had always thought of opening a metaphysical, holistic health center, and Jamaal said he thought I could offer acupuncture, yoga and meditation, along with medical cannabis,” Taylor said.

As someone who was raised in the “Reefer Madness” generation, and taught that drugs were unsafe and dangerous, Taylor was skeptical. She admits she thought of cannabis as being in the same class of drugs as crack cocaine and wanted nothing to do with it.

“My sons all went to Catholic schools, and now Jamaal wanted me to sell weed?” Taylor recalled with a laugh. But when her son persisted and told her cannabis provides medical benefits, she told him she would hear him out.

Sue Taylor, owner of the soon to be iCann Health Center, second from right, with Juan DeMarco, second from left, and Brian McMahon, right, both managing partners and Laura Herrera, media consultant, look at plans for the cannabis dispensary soon to be built in Berkeley, Calif., on Friday, May 4, 2018. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

Now, Taylor speaks to senior groups to try to destigmatize medical marijuana and change perceived misconceptions. She is also certified to teach California health providers about medical cannabis and serves on Alameda County’s Advisory Commission on Aging.

Cannabis is used to treat some health problems that are common among the elderly, including chronic pain, insomnia, strokes and arthritis.

“Seniors are using medical cannabis to help alleviate serious symptoms that often get in the way of daily life,” Taylor said.

Taylor herself uses a topical cannabis cream on her knees and back and marijuana-infused edibles to help her sleep. However, the substance is not without side effects, which can include anxiety, fatigue or cloudy thinking.

“I always tell people that medical cannabis is an alternative medicine, like acupuncture,” Taylor said. “You don’t go on the medical cannabis journey without your primary care doctor. Whether they agree with your decision to use cannabis or not, they need to be in the loop and let you know whether it’s safe to reduce or discontinue any medications you’re taking.”

‘Willing to Give Them a Try’

Reuben Hill, 69, of Castro Valley, has fought agonizing back pain and sciatica for the past three years. He didn’t like taking opioids for the pain, because of the potential side effects or the possibility that he could become dependent on the drugs.

When his wife, Tommi, told him about topical cannabis cream and edibles that could reduce pain, he was “willing to give them a try,” he said.

Hill and Tommi first met with Taylor to discuss proper dosage, and what products might work best for his back pain. Taylor suggested trying a topical cannabis cream that Hill could apply directly to his back, as well as Gummi Cares.

At Taylor’s suggestion, Hill got a letter from his doctor approving the use of medical cannabis. For the past month, Hill has used medical marijuana.

“I only take it on an as-needed basis and have found it does take the edge off the pain,” he said.

The pain relief lasts up to 10 hours and is a respite, he added.

“I’d like to be totally pain-free,” Hill said, but this helps “keep it under control.”

Taylor was also able to help Tsehai figure out the correct dose of edibles to help her sleep. Once that was corrected, Tsehai found that she was able to sleep through the night uninterrupted, she said.

California Health Report is a news site covering health and health policy throughout the state, dedicated exclusively to covering health in low-income or otherwise vulnerable communities.

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