When it comes to her periods, 41-year-old Katie has always had it rough. She’ll typically suffer intense cramps that leave her shaking and sick enough to vomit.
“The first four days are awful, brutal,” says the San Francisco waitress.
That is, unless she’s medicated.
For many years, Katie, who asked that her last name not be used, only got marginal relief from loading up on high-dose ibuprofen over the course of her seven-day cycle. Recently, she’s found what she considers to be a more natural and much more effective remedy: cannabis-infused tinctures and balms designed to relieve menstrual pain and discomfort.
The products come from a new company, Whoopi and Maya, co-owned by “The View” co-host Whoopi Goldberg and well-known Bay Area medical cannabis producer Maya Elisabeth.
The products, launched in April, also include an Epsom salt bath and raw chocolate for eating or sipping. All contain “healing” herbs and minerals, as well as one or the other of marijuana’s best-known active ingredients: THC, known for its euphoric effects, and CBD, said to offer pot’s pain-relief benefits without getting people high.
The products come packaged in elegant black jars and bottles labeled with self-pampering names like Savor, Soak and Relax. Anyone with a medical marijuana prescription can purchase them at dispensaries in cities around the Bay Area and the state at prices ranging from $11.99 to $59.99.
With this launch, Goldberg and her partner Elisabeth are looking to claim a stake in California’s booming medical marijuana industry. Sales of medical marijuana hit $2.7 billion in the state in 2015 and may double if voters approve recreational use in November. Goldberg and Elisabeth, the owner of the Om Edibles medical marijuana collective, are also joining other entrepreneurial women from around the country who are trying to make the business and culture of cannabis more friendly to women.
But even as cannabis gains mainstream acceptance for its medical potential, many traditional physicians say the jury is still out on whether any of these products is a panacea for much of what ails us.
Goldberg certainly believes in the power of the plant, saying cannabis has offered “literally the only relief” from a lifetime of painful periods.
Based on her own experience, she and Elisabeth specifically wanted to create products for women, notably marijuana neophytes who don’t want to smoke a joint and get high to get relief.
“Smoking a joint is fine, but most people can’t smoke a joint and go to work,” Goldberg told Vanity Fair.
They also hope to challenge the view that products targeted to women constitute what’s waved off as a “niche market.” That view isn’t surprising in an industry most popularly known for its stoner dude movie heroes, from Cheech and Chong to Seth Rogen and his “Pineapple Express” crew. When Goldberg heard the “niche” designation, she says she thought, “a ‘niche’ that includes half the population!”
Other entrepreneurial types, seeing potential in this market, include a California company, Foria, which earlier this year released its own remedy for painful periods: tampon-sized, THC- or CBD-filled cocoa butter vaginal suppositories, which also claim to bring relief to women suffering from endometriosis.
Their business aspirations aside, Goldberg and Elisabeth sound almost messianic in their desire to educate women about marijuana’s potential healing benefits. They point out that cannabis has a long history in medicine and in women’s health.
Its first recorded uses to treat cramps or heavy or irregular periods go as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. It also happens that one of history’s most famous medical marijuana patients was Queen Victoria, who received monthly doses of a cannabis tincture for much of her adult life to reduce menstrual discomfort, according to an article in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics.
“Cannabis is a wonderful remedy, and combined with other superfoods and medicinal herbs, it can provide the type of relief many women need,” says Elisabeth.
But as medical marijuana emerges from its longtime “evil weed” status, traditional doctors aren’t ready to begin prescribing it, including for menstrual discomfort, says Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Mental Health Policy section at Stanford University.
One reason, he notes, is that marijuana is still illegal under federal law — in the same Schedule 1 classification as heroin and LSD. Another is that these federal restrictions mean its medical uses haven’t been subjected to a rigorous FDA testing process.
There certainly is evidence that marijuana is useful for treating nausea, loss of appetite and spasticity in patients with cancer, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis, respectively, he says. But there is no evidence yet that it relieves menstrual symptoms, he adds.
“It falls more into the herbal domain, the health food store domain,” Humphreys says. “That’s an unregulated world, and people can claim all kinds of things.”
And while Humphreys says he means no disrespect to Goldberg, he adds: “No doctor is going to recommend marijuana to a patient based on the endorsement of a celebrity.”
That said, given the plant’s chemical properties, the idea that it potentially offers medical benefits “is not a wacky thing,” Humphreys says. And, more research is certainly justified with a growing number of states legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational purposes. He agrees with the American Medical Association’s call to federal agencies to lift restrictions on funding, research and access to cannabis that hinder well-designed clinical studies.
Michael Backes, author of the “Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana,” says there is plenty of “observational data” supporting claims that marijuana reduces menstrual discomfort. Still, he advises caution, because it hasn’t gone through rigorous scientific testing to determine levels for safe and effective use.
If a woman wants to try these products, he says she should start slowly, at the lowest possible dose, and see how her body reacts.
Katie previously smoked marijuana occasionally and sought out help from Elisabeth three or four years ago to see if cannabis would help with her periods.
“She’s just so beloved in the community,” Katie says. “She believes so much in the power of the plant.”
Since then, Katie has learned a thing or two about what works for her. When her period hits, Katie won’t use the Whoopi and Maya “Relax” tincture during the day. It comes with THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in the plant, which will “put me a little bit out of commission.”
But she loves using it at bedtime because it helps her sleep through the night. “Before I’d wake up in the middle of the night in terrible, terrible pain,” she says.
When she’s at work, where she has to be on her feet, she might bring a jar of the topical rub in her purse and apply it to her lower back and belly. The rub contains CBD, or cannabidiol, which is said to have anti-inflammatory and other healing properties. The rub also contains white willow bark, the active ingredient in aspirin, and St. Johns wort. According to the label, those ingredients increase blood flow and raise mood, while “our signature blend of essential oils make this salve both discreet and intoxicatingly enjoyable.”
Katie is clearly a fan: “Within 10 minutes, I feel the effects.” She says cannabis has transformed her life, bringing her much needed relief for one week out of every month.
“I love these products,” she says. “They have been a godsend.”
This article was first published at MercuryNews.com.