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Alternative wellness clinic in South Philly seeks to overcome the stigma of medical marijuana usage

Desiree Ivey said that after she experienced the benefits of medical marijuana, she felt a sense of duty to help others. She approached her husband, Justin Ivey, about starting a business to help others with their journey.

Internist Kisha Vanterpool (left) and Justin (center) and Desiree Ivey at Medicinally Jointed in Philadelphia.
Internist Kisha Vanterpool (left) and Justin (center) and Desiree Ivey at Medicinally Jointed in Philadelphia.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Desiree Ivey was 16 when her mother took her to a hospital with symptoms that couldn’t be explained: puffy skin, swollen joints, and excruciating pain. After two weeks of various tests and hospital gowns, doctors finally diagnosed her with lupus nephritis — a chronic autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system attacks healthy tissue.

Ivey, now 28, of Philadelphia, had treated her condition with numerous steroids and anti-inflammatory prescription drugs prescribed by her rheumatologist. She made changes in her diet, avoiding foods that are considered “nightshades,” like tomatoes, eggplants, and red peppers.

None of these treatments addressed her pain and nausea. So in 2014, Ivey began to explore alternative medicine for pain relief, which included Rick Simpson Oil, named after the Canadian medical marijuana activist. This cannabis oil is characterized by its high concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana that gets people “high,” but Ivey said it significantly helped with swelling and inflammation.

She approached her husband, Justin, also 28, about starting a business with the goal of educating and assisting others to move to holistic care.

“We need to align ourselves with doctors,” Desiree said to her husband, who was working for a recruiting and staffing agency.

Through networking, the couple met internist Kisha Vanterpool and Valerie Armstead, director of anesthesiology research at Fox Chase Cancer Center. In October 2018, the foursome went into business together by opening Medicinally Jointed, an alternative wellness center and spa in the Constitution Health Plaza at 1930 S. Broad St.

The business helps people with state-approved conditions to obtain Pennsylvania medical marijuana cards. The program marked its one-year anniversary Friday. The staff charges $250 for a medical consultation and offers holistic services and treatments, like massage therapy, and CBD/hemp-based products, such as CBD-infused water and CBD 500mg tincture, a blend of hemp, hemp seed, and MCT oils, which cost $10 and $40, respectively.

CBD, or more formally cannabidiol, is the non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis plants, and doesn’t make its user high. Many people believe that CBD has significant health benefits, including relieving symptoms of anxiety and inflammation. But empirical scientific evidence to support the effectiveness and risks of CBD-infused products is lacking, notes Gary Emmett, a pediatrics professor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

Researchers at Jefferson and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are doing studies on CBD, Emmett said, “but they haven’t finished.” He suggested consumers should be cautious about ingesting CBD products by buying from reputable companies. Emmett also noted that monitoring the quality of CBD products is difficult because they aren’t produced in a controlled environment like prescription drugs.

While the business has been open for only three months, Justin feels that one of the team’s biggest hurdles is overcoming the stigma surrounding cannabis usage.

“Most of what we battle with is miseducation [of cannabis] from the media and propaganda that’s been promoted so well over the years, particularly with patients of color,” Justin said.

The manufactured terror that swarmed marijuana usage dates from the 1930s, when it was instigated in large part by Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, according to a YouTube video produced by Business Insider.

After the Prohibition era ended and alcohol became legal again in 1933, Anslinger focused on marijuana, using racism and xenophobia to fuel outrage, the video reported. Anslinger incorrectly dubbed marijuana a violence-inducing drug and linked it to African Americans and Hispanics. Everything from jazz and swing music to sex between the races, he asserted, stemmed from marijuana use.

Such views have resonated for decades. Cultural anthropologist Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon notes that legislation during the Vietnam War began to harshly punish marijuana offenses as a way to criminalize black and Latino men.

“For many African Americans that either grew up in that era or just after that era, they remember all of the negative attention that was attached to cannabis use,” said Williams-Witherspoon, associate professor of urban theater and community engagement at Temple. “And now they run away from it like the plague, despite the fact that the data shows — particularly for cancer patients — that [medical marijuana] does ease some of the the symptoms,” namely nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy and neuropathic pain, according to the American Cancer Society.

Black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts despite comparable usage by both communities, reported the American Civil Liberties Union in June 2013. The same report stated, “Arrests and convictions for possessing marijuana can negatively impact public housing ... child custody determinations, and immigration status,” showing how black and Latino Americans have disproportionately borne the brunt of marijuana’s demonization.

The peril isn’t merely historical. Last year, the Inquirer found that African Americans were making up an increasing share of those facing pot charges in the suburbs. Black people were an estimated 40 percent of those arrested for marijuana in the region, even though they comprise only 12 percent of the combined population of South Jersey and the city’s Pennsylvania suburbs.

“Black people have seen their children, their grandchildren, their cousins go to jail for this. So the other part of [running this business] is the social justice aspect. Us being advocates,” Desiree said.

“The more black people see advocates that look like them, I believe the stigma will disappear.”