Spotlight on Women in the Medical Cannabis Sector: Interview with Elisabetta Faenza

by Ella Walsh


Throughout this week we have been spotlighting the women in the medical cannabis sector. We have had the opportunity to catch up with some of our fantastic old friends, as well as get to know some new and inspiring women, who are true trailblazers in the sector.

To conclude this exciting week we got the chance to take a deep dive with the CEO of LeafCann Group, Elisabetta Faenza. In this interview we learnt all about how Elisabetta’s experience of a rare health condition which left her hospitalised for much of her childhood, has played an influencing driver behind the work she does in the sector today.

When and how did you enter the medicinal cannabis space? 

The precursor to me entering the medicinal cannabis space was when I was the general manager of the Mulloon Institute, starting back in early 2012. I was doing a lot of work with soil scientists looking at hemp and did a deep dive into the benefits that it can provide in terms of soil recovery, carbon sequestration, and rehabilitation of land. I kept that interest up and then in 2000— I’d written a few books on natural methodologies for self-care and maximising your own health as a clinical hypnotherapist. 

I had been working as a Clinical Hypnotherapist for 30 years, and a lot of information was starting to be published about how hypnosis works via the endocannabinoid system. I was born with a rare condition that doesn’t have a name because it’s so rare; I think there’s been one other person with this variant in the last 50 years. It’s a form of neurocristopathy where my body fails to migrate neurons to different parts of my body. I had a series of serious non-epileptic convulsions and I had a series of strokes when I was 11. As part of that process, they discovered that I’d also failed to produce the range of enzymes so I don’t have the ability to break certain proteins down. 

From the 90s onwards, with endocannabinoid research really starting to make some breakthroughs, they discovered that one of the groups of enzymes that are missing include the fatty acid amide hydrolase, which break down both endocannabinoids and phytocannabinoids. I have high levels of circulating endogenous cannabinoids, which explains why I recovered from all of the terrible things. I’ve had seven strokes in my life and the reason why I’ve been able to recover from them was that with the production of endocannabinoids and BDNF, my brain could recover. I started to be really interested in learning about the endocannabinoid system, obviously not a lot was being published but I found that more and more was being published because of the research into phytocannabinoids. 

In 2015 I was working on a project to develop a range of terpene-based botanical extracts. I started from a non-cannabis terpene perspective and then, over time, I was looking at some of the terpenes and cannabinoids instead of cannabis. I then put a proposal together to start researching and developing non-cannabis terpene related products at the end of 2015. In February 2016, the Australian Government legalised medicinal cannabis. We spent a year really deep diving into production methodologies to maximise the whole plant profiles and the interaction between all the various parts of the cannabis plant and that led to us applying for licences, buying a facility and then at the beginning of 2020 we were about to start construction before coronavirus hit. The whole funding landscape changed. At that point, we decided, we already have formulations for terpene based products on cannabis, so we went ahead, developed and we’ve just launched those in Australia.

To me, the attraction of cannabis was, my mom died really young—she died at 44, I’m now 57. My parents were told when I was 1,3,5,12, 15, that I was gonna die and I wouldn’t make it to preschool or primary school or high school or make it to an adult, that I’d never have children. My mum fought and advocated for me every day of my life at enormous cost to her and enormous cost from my father’s perspective. He went away and worked in mines and horrible conditions because everything that they had to do for me wasn’t covered by health insurance and I had to do experimental therapy, so everything was out of pocket. And here I am – I turned 57 this week and I have four healthy adult children, and none of that would have been possible without experimental therapies, without my mum and dad doing everything they could to keep me alive and my mum literally just being worn out by that process and dying really young herself from cancer. 

That makes me really passionate about access to therapies like medicinal cannabis where other things are failing, and where there is no alternative, or it’s the best alternative. It doesn’t have to be a drug of last resort and I really feel that one of the reasons I love Hannah Deacon so much is, I see how much parents of ill children sacrifice and wear themselves out and are just on call 24 hours a day.

How do you think that your lived experience has benefited yourself in the professional sector?

I think because I had to take control of my health very early in life. My mother really advocated for me to be informed and to ask as many questions of doctors so when they give a terrible prognosis, to arm myself with information because we moved once I was adults and I no longer had a paediatrician—mind you, I had a paediatrician till I was 20 because there were no specialists that could help me, that treated adults. I waited 10 years to get access to a programme where there was one specialist for these types of metabolic conditions and they cancelled the programme before I ever got to the top of the list. I had to learn to advocate, in fact, most of the more recent understandings I’ve had has actually been talking to people like Raphael Mechoulam, Professor Roger Pertwee and speaking with them because they actually understand my condition more than anyone because they’ve done the research into the endocannabinoid system. I remember Professor Pertwee saying here in Aberdeen “Well, you’re like my mouse model” and my life and the symptoms that I get—because I can’t control my temperature and a number of other things that happened because I have high levels of endocannabinoids circulating—it was matching the things that he predicted in his, you know, mouse model. 

But you speak to most doctors and they don’t have any experience with this and, because it’s such a rare condition, people that have these multiple enzyme pathways—because, for me, it’s not just endocannabinoids, my pathways for breaking down dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin are severely affected and so I can get serotonin syndrome or adrenal surges really easily. The positive is that I can’t sustain a negative emotion for any period of time, I can have, like, a fleeting but because I just have such high levels of happy hormones.

Are there any particular issues within medical cannabis which you are hoping to work towards within the space with any, like, ultimate, penultimate, idealistic goals?

I’m the chair of the standards group for the Cannabis Industry Council in the UK and also for the Medicinal Cannabis Industry Australia. In those roles, what I’m really hoping to do is get sensible and consistent standards. 

The system is really confusing in the UK and is leading to unnecessary complications and bureaucratization—of a space that really needs to sit within agriculture. Industrial hemp and food-based hemp products shouldn’t be sitting in control drugs because they don’t contain any real levels of controlled drugs. Some of the rules that exist in terms of limiting what a farmer can do, they might be able to grow a product under a Home Office hemp office, but the minute they harvest it and they go to move it, they’re up against controlled drug laws because with an acre of hemp, you might actually exceed the tiny tiny threshold for controlled THC or other cannabinoids other than CBD. This makes it unworkable. 

There are lots of farmers who are super interested in becoming part of the hemp revolution—such a fantastic product with so many uses—and, especially as we look to decarbonize our economy. Yet all of these stupid artificial barriers are standing in the way. There is no way that an acre of hemp that’s derived from a registered hemp cultivar that you’re going to find enough THC or controlled drugs to cause anybody to feel anything other than mild amusement. This is standing in the way of common sense of what could be a cultural product for the UK and another fantastic plant to put into the rotational cycle for farmers. 

Hemp could be profitable without subsidisation and has so many uses – in fact, various areas of the UK have a long history of hemp. Up here in the northeast and into the highlands there’s a real history of producing hemp, especially for things like rope and fibre products. 

In terms of hemp-based, hemp-derived foods, I think it’s important to de-confuse, to clarify all of the mixed messages that are coming from the government, because there are people who either think everything is completely legal—it doesn’t matter what you do—or there are people who think it’s all completely illegal and you shouldn’t use it. The message is actually that it depends. CBD products, in general, are legal within the UK – if we can clarify and allow the industry to develop to produce it in the UK, that would be fabulous. At the moment, you’ve got all this demand from people wanting CBD products, and you’re not allowed to produce them in the UK, which is just ridiculous. I think the general public would be shocked.

What is it like being in a sort of male-dominated space? And is there any advice you’d give to other women coming into this space?

I’m really fortunate in that my time in regenerative agriculture put me as a woman leading an organisation in a heavily male-dominated space. I was also there in a point of transition, where more and more women were inheriting farms, or equal partners, which they’ve always actually been, in fact, in terms of doing the work on the farm and actually making the business decisions on the farm; more and more women of my generation were stepping up and really leading the green charge in our farming. I was really fortunate to have had that experience where I found that I just needed to know my stuff and I needed to have good communication skills. There’s always going to be people within an industry who underestimate, and I’ve actually started to enjoy that, I kind of think that’s one of my superpowers. People see a middle-aged woman at the head of a company, and they just immediately underestimate you and that’s a fantastic opportunity for me because I’ve seen so many people come and go. I’ve seen so many—especially male—leaders in our sector who have very little knowledge, who make a big splash, who pay to play at conferences, to have the big keynote, talk. Anyone who has actual knowledge of the industry is sitting there with their head in their hands and then six months later, they’re gone, because they were leading the companies with a philosophy based on fiction and without a real interest, a real passion for the sector, for the clients and patients that we serve, who want to make their lives and the lives of their families better. I think nothing happens quickly and so we see men turnover in these companies, and often it’s because either the company, the shareholders get impatient with them, or they get impatient. Whereas, in medicinal cannabis, you really have to have that long term strategy. Nothing gets done quickly. It takes years to get a real grounding and understanding, and our understanding of medicinal cannabis and cannabinoids is growing every week; the number of your articles that have been published and research papers, you have to understand the regulation. You have to be really prepared to do a lot of work and to be patient and to be able to keep in the forefront of your mind, your investors and your staff, why you’re here, why we’re doing what we’re doing. 

Frankly, money isn’t a very good motivator for people for the long term. People who are motivated by money want to quit. And so what you do is you look for investors who are looking for a bigger, long term result, who can afford to invest and invest in something that’s going to be remarkable but isn’t a flip in 60 days, 90 days, six months, two years. And you’re looking for a team of people who are willing to go on a journey with you where there’s a level of uncertainty constantly because of changing regulations, but where you can assess that risk and then navigate a sensible path through it so that you end up producing, delivering products into the marketplace to help those people who need it most. For me the opportunity to shape an industry, to shape legislation, to contribute to parliamentary submissions or white papers or panels with eminent members is absolutely a gift. If I had dreamt as a little girl who was just living her life in hospital the first few years, who didn’t get to play with other kids and had really bad social skills as a result of, until I was eight or nine, not actually regularly being at school. To think that this is where I am now in my 50s, and I’m not only alive, I’ve got four beautiful children, but I can contribute something to society and I can contribute something to the health sector, and that’s a dream come true. I’m blessed every day that I can continue to participate in this industry, until they get sick of me. 

I’m hoping that we get sensible legislative change on those three areas: industrial hemp, hemp-derived foods, and cannabis-based prescription medicines. I hope we get a framework that supports all the stakeholders, whether that’s the patient, their family—because they have a medicine that they can give to their child that works and that doesn’t bankrupt them—to the adults that have conditions that it works for so that they can actually get up in the morning and function and achieve some of their goals and have better health, to the older person that might have arthritis and finds using a CBD product means that they’re not debilitated when it’s cold or they can actually go and join in their exercise group and not be frightened, to the person with anxiety who’s using it to help them get through the day and cope with things like COVID, to the staff that are impassioned and often work in this industry for much lower pay in order to be part of something amazing, to the regulators who pass the laws that could change millions of people’s lives. The opportunity to just be part of that equation and have some kind of, hopefully, positive influence is amazing and I hope that I can achieve that.

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