Q&A with Community Educator Ada Puches
Ada Puches holds a unique position here at CeresMED. She is our Community Educator, and during her six years with us, Ada is yet to meet another individual who performs her role in the Vermont medical cannabis community. Ada provides a free consultation to anyone who wants to know more about The Vermont Marijuana Registry, whether they are a patient, healthcare provider, private individual, someone interested in becoming a patient – or anyone else in between.
Her role includes identifying health care providers, hospital systems, and patient support groups to educate them on the medical program. She helps patients to understand how they can get access through their qualifying conditions, and which products and services await them at the dispensaries once they are registered. Basically, Ada helps people who need access to information.
Even though medical cannabis is legal at the state level here in Vermont, it can still be hard for patients to find information and resources due to the fact that it is federally illegal. In addition, federal scheduling hasn’t caught up to current research that shows extensive therapeutic uses for cannabis and cannabinoids. This has resulted in many healthcare practitioners being ill-prepared to speak to their patients about medical cannabis. We created Ada’s position here at CeresMED to bridge this educational gap because we believe that patients have the best outcomes when their healthcare practitioner is actively involved in this discussion.
Ada is originally from New Jersey but has lived in New York City, Boston, Seattle, D.C. and some international locations. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Harvard University, Ada worked in legal services on civil cases. This led her to go to law school and receive her JD at New York University, where she studied social justice and public service. Her studies got her interested in environmental racism, and she began working for Greenpeace. After moving to Vermont in 1997, Ada started a 10 year career at The University of Vermont, culminating in her position as Assistant Director of Career Services. That was followed in 2008 with her work at the Laura Mann Center for Integrative Health. Here she performed outreach in the medical community, educating providers about the benefits of integrative health. This background made for a seamless transition to her role at CeresMED.
“My role at CeresMED is very similar to what I was doing before. I like to think of cannabis being under the same umbrella as integrative health,” she explains.
In addition to her role as Community Educator, Ada is a cancer survivor and a registered patient with CeresMED. She has first hand experience with the successful use of medical cannabis for symptom relief.
Leading up to the transition of the VMR from the Department of Public Safety to the Cannabis Control Board, we talked to Ada about her role at CeresMED, her experience in the community, and her hope for the future of the medical program. Here’s what she said.
What is the role of a Community Educator like? What are your responsibilities?
My role can be broad. I focus, however, on two primary groups in our communities – healthcare providers who would like more education about the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids and members of the general public who are looking for more information about medical cannabis or the state’s program – the Vermont Marijuana Registry. In terms of the first group, I make educational visits to hospitals, clinics, private providers’ offices, professional associations and conferences. In addition, I do speaking engagements for the general public at public libraries, nonprofit organizations, community organizations, patient support groups, and just about anywhere that I am invited.
Another layer of my work involves answering specific inquiries from healthcare providers about our products. Most healthcare providers do not want their patients smoking – anything. They often don’t realize we offer patients a wide variety of choices, including edibles, capsules, tinctures, topicals and transdermal patches. They are often unaware that our dispensary staff guide patients to “start low and go slow” when consuming cannabis products. The more we familiarize our healthcare providers with the benefits of medical cannabis and the state’s medical cannabis program – the more at ease patients will feel about talking to their provider about therapeutic cannabis use.
Why is your role important? How do you advance the program for new patients?
My role is critical on multiple levels. First, because cannabis is federally illegal, there’s limited public information about it. No newspaper, radio or social media advertising is allowed. Think about it – how does the public generally learn about medicines? I know I sit through countless pharmaceutical ads on the streaming services I watch! Because of this prohibition, outreach like the kind CeresMED offers through my work is sometimes the only way the general public finds out Vermont has a medical cannabis program AND that they may be eligible.
What do you want current patients to know about your role in relationship to them?
One of the challenges, even if you are a current medical cannabis patient, is annually renewing your application with a healthcare provider. We’ve heard from many patients that their healthcare provider retired, especially during this past COVID year! They’re now in the position of having to find a new provider who is willing to sign the paperwork for their application. If they live in a rural area, they may be underserved already with few providers in general. They may also have the challenge of finding a provider but having that person deny them because the provider is uneducated about cannabinoids and doesn’t feel comfortable signing the paperwork. In relation to current patients, part of my work involves constantly offering educational outreach to providers on the benefits of therapeutic cannabinoids. We have had providers directly tell us how much they appreciate having alternatives to opiates and benzodiazepines, especially for aging patients.
I am also constantly seeking new providers to speak to about the program. As we add new providers to our lists, we add access for our patients. I have noticed over the years of doing this work that providers who are new to their professions tend not to have the same resistance to cannabis. Whether they understand the “War On Drugs” was a horrible political calculation that targeted communities of color and was not supported by the science or they have read the current research. Either way, they are much more willing to engage with medical cannabis as the safe, effective plant-based medicine that it is.
What are some of the challenges of doing outreach to healthcare providers?
Cannabis – even medical cannabis – is still Schedule 1 in our federal Controlled Substances Act. That means it is not only a federal felony, but it is considered a drug of abuse and without any medical benefit. Now we know – by our own government’s research and drug approval process – that cannabis has been approved for multiple drug applications. These drugs are available today to many Americans. Over 40 states and territories have approved medical cannabis programs for their citizens. Unfortunately, healthcare providers feel stuck with an old system that does not reflect current scientific and political advances. Originally, President Nixon used the 1970 scheduling exclusively as a political weapon.
What aspects of this role do you enjoy the most? What do you find most rewarding?
Well, my husband teases me that I can’t leave the house without chatting to every person I encounter. I believe he is exaggerating. But I do enjoy interacting with people and sharing sometimes crucial information. Since part of my role involves exposing potential patients to a medicine that can impact everything from their quality of life to their level of pain to their ability to become functional again in their daily lives – the appreciation and relief are rewarding to see. Our patient testimonials are so heartfelt. They can make you cry when you read them.
How do you see your job changing in the next year?
It appears the Cannabis Control Board is taking its role as an advocate for the program very seriously. That is a real game-changer for Vermonters. I hope that this will translate into more publicity for the program and more outreach to prospective patients and health care providers. If this becomes the case, I can see my role expanding to dovetail off the work of the CCB. This may include more in-depth conversations with healthcare providers about the medical cannabis program and the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids and using the CCB’s legitimizing the program to reach more prospective patients in need.
What do you love about living in Vermont?
Vermonters commitment to community. I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place where people are at least trying to listen to one another. We also do a great job responding to folks in need.
What do you hope for the future of medical cannabis?
My enduring hope is that medical cannabis gets rescheduled within the next couple of years. This act would positively impact everything from patient access, to medical research, to the potential for insurance coverage. Of course, I think all cannabis should be legalized – especially in light of its racist history which has led directly to the devastation of so many communities of color in our country. And, we know, legalization without reparative and restorative justice to these communities would just be a perpetuation of our current inequitable system.
Is there anything else that you would like people to know?
If anyone reading this interview knows of someone curious about medical cannabis – whether as a patient or healthcare provider – please invite them to contact me directly at email@example.com. I’d love to discuss the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis with them.