I admittedly do not have a wealth of knowledge about medical cannabis or even cannabis in general, so I’ve had a mild curiosity about our local dispensaries. How does it all work exactly? Are the medical benefits for real? I had the great fortune of chatting with not just one representative from Phoenix Botanical, but literally the entire staff. They are clearly passionate about what they do, and were eager to share their experiences and expertise with me.

The Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act went into effect in 2014, and will be effective through 2020, unless it is extended. The law made it possible for patients in Illinois with a debilitating illness — there are 41 qualifying conditions — to register with the Illinois Department of Public Health and legally use cannabis for medical purposes. Phoenix Botanical opened in 2016. I spoke with Justine and Robert, patient agents; Daniel, operations manager; Bailey, patient coordinator; Peter, assistant manager; and Josh, manager, about what they do and what they want people to know about what they do.

The patients who come through the door, as well as some of the staff, are seeking medical cannabis as a way to alleviate pain and symptoms from various chronic ailments without having to rely on pharmaceutical medications. “I was taking roughly 16 pharmaceutical medications a day, very much an intro to an opioid addiction, and spiraling into depression,” says Daniel. “None of the pharmaceuticals were helping the issue in the first place, and because I was putting all of things in there that were doing a lot of damage to myself, I wasn’t able to heal from the medical issue. So switching over to medical cannabis as  I was able to cut down all of these pharmaceuticals that had negative side effects that were causing a lot of the issues I was then taking more medications for.”

He spoke to the fact that many of us blindly take on the medications we’re prescribed, without much thought to how they are affecting our bodies. We feel safe because they’ve been given to us by our doctors. Peter says that can make the leap into trying cannabis a little scary.

“One of the scariest things for new patients is the freedom to make your own regiment, to choose your dosage. They are so used to having a doctor throw a pill at them and say take it three times a day. Every person is different. And that’s terrifying. But once you get into it you see that you can mix any of these medications together to make my perfect hybrid. I can formulate this to do exactly what I need.”

In order for a patient to begin treatment with medical cannabis, they need to be fingerprinted, provide proof of address, and they need to have a doctor’s permission. The staff has found that the willingness of local medical providers varies. “It’s case by case,” says Bailey. “It depends on how debilitating their case is, if the doctor feels that pharmaceuticals really haven’t worked, if they’re ready to try the cannabis. It also depends on if the doctor is comfortable with cannabis or if they have the education to know if the patient would benefit from this.”

According to Daniel, area hospitals have been instructed not to sign off on these physician’s forms, but since Phoenix has regular patients, it’s obvious that there are still doctors in the area who will. Often that means meeting with patients outside of the office. “That’s not what we’d like to see. We’d like to see you have an open dialogue with your actual doctor. That’s the way the law was written.”

There’s an application online to fill out to be processed by the state, which the staff at Phoenix will walk you through. Once approved, the patient will have a photo i.d. card that indicates they are eligible to purchase cannabis for medical purposes and they can start the process of figuring out what will work best for them.

“We’re going to give you a very personal approach,” says Robert. “We want you to come in with as questions and as many concerns because we will have an answer or a resource for them.” Once a patient has been cleared, patient agents — who call themselves “budtenders” — will work with the person to help them narrow down which products might be good to start with and how they should work. It should be noted, and they are very upfront about this, the “budtenders” and other staff at Phoenix are not medical professionals, and they are not allowed to give specific medical advice. They are facilitators, and have a wealth of knowledge about cannabis and how they’ve seen it work, but it really comes down to the patients themselves to make decisions about their course of treatment.

Robert and Justine, as those patient agents, are often the ones who are helping patients navigate the wide array of cannabis products at the dispensary. As Robert says, “We build relationships with our patients.” Based on the patient’s ailment, they are able to offer suggestions based on past experience as well as research of the best course to begin with. New patients often aren’t aware of the various types of consumption methods, say Josh. “There’s the flower, which you smoke, then maybe you’d go onto a vape cartridge, which wouldn’t have as much product that you’re inhaling, and is lighter on the lungs. There are transdermal patches, topical creams, edibles, RSOs, which are concentrated oils.” Once an initial treatment is chosen, patients will then come back within a few days, and they will sit down and discuss what worked, what didn’t, and adjust from there.

When a patient is completely new to cannabis, they are often apprehensive initially, and it’s the job of the patient agent to help ease that nervousness. “We are all in this together, we are all a community,” says Justine. “So when you come to see us we’re going to treat you like family. We’re perfectly comfortable talking about anything and everything under the sun that has to do with cannabis, just to put them at ease and make them feel like ‘okay, I’m not doing something bad and illegal and something my doctor doesn’t know about. I’m here, getting my medicine, from people who know about my medicine, who care about how this is going to affect me.’”

A common fear some patients have when they first get their medical cannabis card is that the whole world know. However, the staff at Phoenix is quite discreet and they operate according to HIPAA guidelines. They won’t acknowledge you outside of the facility unless you do first. Unfortunately there is still that stigma surrounding cannabis, and they recognize that and respect your need for privacy.

While he feels there should be no stigma surrounding the use of any cannabis, whether recreational or medicinal, Daniel says they try to convey to their patients the difference between the two. “On the medicinal side of things you’re trying to consume enough to alleviate the symptoms without interfering with your life. On the recreational side you’re trying to consume as much cannabis and THC as humanly possible.” Even if patients do experience a “high” or feeling of euphoria from the amount that they take, Peter emphasizes that there should be no shame in that. They see folks that have depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep disorders - that feeling might be what they need for some relief.

The staff agrees that the Champaign-Urbana community has been generally accepting of their business. It’s their hope that the acceptance will grow as they continue to educate the community about what they do. Bailey does a lot of the outreach — at the Urbana Market and other community events — to start to reach more people with information about medical cannabis and the benefits it can offer. What seems to matter most to each staff member is that they are making a difference in people’s lives each day, whether it’s providing a full night’s sleep or easing the pain of someone with a terminal illness.

Phoenix Botanical is located at 1704 S Neil Street, Unit C in Champaign. They offer free consultations to anyone. For more information or to contact the staff, you can visit their website. Follow them on Facebook to stay up to date on the latest research and products. 

Photo from Facebook