Tony Verzura of United Cannabis

PhotoBWTony Verzura of United Cannabis

Back before there were cannabis dispensaries, as far as most enthusiasts were concerned, there were basically two types: “Schwag” and “kind bud.”

It was the latter that helped a young Tony Verzura get off oxycodone and finally recover from a debilitating car accident. His appetite and sleep returned. The opioid side effects were gone, and eventually, so was the pain.

The experience launched a fascination with cannabis as medicine, which 20 years later, has flowered into one of the nation’s most innovative medical cannabis companies. As Chief Technology Officer for Denver-based United Cannabis, today, Verzura is pushing the boundaries of how cannabis can help patients, while at the same time preparing for a time when medical cannabis will come from a pharmacy, not a dispensary.

Selling out? More like buying in.

“If you want to help a massive amount of people and get it in the mainstream, if you want insurance to cover it, you have to develop products and you have to prepare yourself for that next wave and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing,” said Verzura, 38. “A lot of people misunderstand it and think it’s a sellout of some kind. A sellout would be if I sold out to a big pharmaceutical company, which is not the goal.”

“The goal is to create the technology, to create products and get the products into the hands of patients that need it and God willing we can get insurance to cover it and pay for it.”

Three Grow Lights

It started with a shed and three grow lights.

In 2009, thanks to a loosening of state regulations, Colorado’s medical cannabis industry was booming. Verzura was working as a contractor in post-Katrina New Orleans, when he and some friends decided to head west.

“If you want to help a massive amount of people and get it in the mainstream, if you want insurance to cover it, you have to develop products and you have to prepare yourself for that next wave and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing,”

He’d never stopped using cannabis, micro-dosing during the day for pain and inflammation and smoking at night to relax. Here was a way to put his personal experimentations to work for others. He began compiling data and patient reviews for various medical conditions, from epilepsy to cancer. The cannabinoid sequencing protocols developed at RiverRock Colorado would become the foundation for his work at United Cannabis.

“It was like, how do I take this from a flower into some kind of standardized dosing system?” he said. “The industry was evolving and it was amazing. The more people we could help and the more change we could make, that’s why I got into all this.”

Eventually the dispensary had some 3,000 patients, investors and a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse. But after Colorado approved recreational cannabis in 2012, his partners wanted to expand into that market. So Verzura left and settled in California to start what became United Cannabis.

“It was harder to do in Colorado because they really went into a heavily regulated market and people started growing for profit, rather than the patients, in my opinion,” he said.

Holistic Approach

When a patient walks into Harborside Health Clinic in Oakland, they can get much more than an edible or a jar of medical cannabis.

“The industry was evolving and it was amazing. The more people we could help and the more change we could make, that’s why I got into all this.”

That collective was the first to integrate the A.C.T. Now Program, developed by Verzura and United Cannabis, short for Advanced Cannabinoid Therapy. In this program, patients can get free consultations with a nurse and access to an online portal where they can tailor-make every detail of their treatment. The website is open to anyone anywhere, not just California.

The line of products developed by United Cannabis, Prana Bio Nutrient Medicinals, come in capsule, sublingual and topical forms. There are also five types, several of which won’t get you high—THC:THCa; 3:1 CBD; 1:1 CBD; CBD:CBN; and CBD:CBDa. They’re made organically, with no solvents. Dispensary employees are trained in their use.

It’s a holistic approach to medical cannabis, and Californians are taking note, with some 15,000 enrolled since its inception. Verzura hopes to have the products available in Oregon this summer and in Colorado in the near future, as well as at 10 more California collectives.

For Verzura, it’s an ongoing experiment, as each patient’s experience—once they’ve signed necessary privacy waivers—goes into the ever-growing database of what is working for each condition and what’s not.

The company has filed for a patent for its combination of pharmaceutically active cannabinoids to treat disorders of the immune and nervous systems and cancer. The patent application includes a matrix of cannabis strains rich in CBD and THC, terpene profiles and dosed delivery methods for inactive and active cannabinoids.

Verzura sees this work as moving the industry forward for the benefit of all.

“I hope to make a difference in patients’ lives. I hope to make a difference in our communities and our industry. And I hope to help progress and mature our industry in leading by example in the products and programs we offer.”

Questions Ahead

The year 2016 could be a watershed moment for recreational cannabis, with California and several other states poised to approve adult use.

But that makes Verzura worry about the future of cannabis as medicine. He watched as Colorado’s regulatory system created a tax of 25 percent or more on recreational sales, and worries the concept of medical cannabis could someday be lumped in with recreational, forcing patients to pay high taxes.

He also wonders what a rescheduling of cannabis would mean for patients. It’s currently on Schedule 1, meaning the federal government considers it to have no medical value. If that was changed, would patients be required to get it from a pharmacy like other controlled substances? Would large pharmaceutical companies take over medical cannabis?

For his part, cannabis is and always will be medicine first.

He has since been in two more car accidents and blew his knee out playing softball. He credits quick recoveries to cannabis products. He still maintains a daily regime of treatments, a walking testament to the healing power of this plant.

“I use my capsules and my sublinguals and my topicals every day. I use my CBD topical on my heels, my ankles, my knees, anything that’s swollen. I use my THC roll-on for any kind of nerve pain in my back or neck or for migraines I would get. I use my non active capsules, the 3:1 during the day just to kind of control inflammation and to manage anything else that would come up, kind of preventative.”

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