“I believe cannabis will free echinacea,” said Angela Harris.
Harris is referring specifically to the cultural and intellectual transformations of the American public that have allowed the proliferation of legal medical cannabis. She hopes that through this cultural awakening, we will also get serious about how the government regulates other plant medicines. Although many are legally accessible, due to the profit-driven nature of research and FDA approval for medical treatments, herbs and other plants are unlikely to ever become prescriptions. And, despite millennia of human experience using them medicinally, most doctors know little about how they work.
Harris is an unlikely advocate for medical cannabis — she is a conservative mother of nine and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often referred to as Mormons). She considers education about plant medicines and natural healing to be a personal health ministry for her and her family.
“If there is something wrong, something out of balance, how can people fulfill their missions on earth if they aren’t well? It became our mission, our health ministry,” she said.
Harris is an herbalist and Nevada medical cannabis advocate who has devoted her life to the education and proliferation of natural healing alternatives. She says using plants to nourish the body to heal itself is a practice as old as time, and one that could save so many lives. She began studying herbs in the early ’90s while pregnant with her fifth child. Six months into the pregnancy she was diagnosed with lymphoma and told she only had three months to live. Her dying wish was to deliver a healthy baby before she passed.
Pregnant and Dying of Cancer
The long-term effects on humans who experience a mother’s cancer treatments in utero are largely unknown. In 1991, at the time of Harris’s diagnosis, even less was known and women were not advised to attempt chemotherapy and radiation during pregnancy. Although some studies suggest the treatments have little or no effect on a fetus in the second and third trimester, there is increased risk of preterm delivery, which is risky. Long-term health risks to the child are still largely unknown.
Harris had already watched other people suffer and die with cancer and always knew pharmaceutical drugs and chemotherapy would not be an option for her anyway.
“I didn’t want my family to have to care for me, so my goal was to have a healthy baby and I would leave my six children and husband behind,” she said.
About a year earlier Harris had started studying herbalism, or the use of plants for wellness, because she couldn’t afford health insurance and was tired of “the pretty pink medicine that seemed contrary to nature.” She started studying everything she could get her hands on and experimenting on her friends and family. She learned from and collected magazines and 19th century apothecary books and created blends for common family ailments that were effective. But, it wasn’t until her own cancer diagnosis that she started taking natural healing more seriously.
Harris doubled down on her studies, changed her diet dramatically and began consuming the herb blends she was creating. After she delivered a healthy daughter, Abbigail, she continued to outlive her prognosis and had three more children.
Twenty-three years later she is still alive and cancer free. Abbigail has since become a mother of one with another on the way.
Through her own experiences healing herself naturally, Harris began helping other friends and family suffering, particularly in Utah, where much of her and her husband’s family lives. One of her closest friends, Kaye, a midwife, was diagnosed with breast cancer and decided she was not going to do chemotherapy or natural remedies because she had already “lived a fabulous life” and was just trying to make it a few more years until her youngest was old enough take care of himself.
By the time Harris was called to help, Kaye had developed large external tumors that had turned black and purple and covered the whole front of her body. She could no longer get up because a tumor was growing on the back of her neck.
“We dropped everything and went up to Utah to be with her, I climbed in bed with her and put my arm around her neck,” Harris says.
She began giving her herb formulas she had created, and then she pulled out an herb that was new to them both — cannabis. She had heard about cannabis but didn’t know much about it. It was mentioned in all of the literature she had on herbal medicines and she had heard stories of patients in other states using it for cancer but had never touched it herself.
“I would never have tried cannabis, ever,” she said. “In fact, I used to joke and say ‘Satan is never gonna tempt me with a joint because I am never gonna smoke marijuana.’ I used to say that to my kids, I was a big lecturer about that.”
Even though she had done her medical research on cannabis and was comfortable with using it as an herb she didn’t know much about how to use it. She made a raw tincture with it like she would with echinacea, goldenseal or myrrh. At the time, she did not know it needed to be heated in order to activate some of the medicines.
It also wasn’t as simple as just trying it. For Kaye, Angela and their families — all Mormons — using cannabis not only challenged their preconceived knowledge about the substance but also their religious convictions.
Mormons hold strong religious beliefs against breaking the law. The Articles of Faith, written by prophet and church founder Joseph Smith, lay out the basic tenets of the religion. Article 12 reads: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
“She wanted to obey the laws and had a spiritual belief. We had all been taught that cannabis is wrong,” Harris said.
They consulted spiritual leaders for advice and came to the conclusion they needed to give it a try. She began giving Kaye the raw tincture and herbs. Within 24 hours Kaye stopped taking her pain medications and within 48 hours she was able to get up and walk a few steps.
They decided to try inhaling. They had never seen or used anything to smoke before and after some internet research decided to buy a water pipe, or “bong,” at a local smoke shop. Kaye started asking for food.
“Kaye could have used this years ago but instead she was here dying and suffering,” Harris said. “It was overwhelming to us that this plant that had been so vilified — and we all bought into it — was her hope, her grasp, and we had to all get on board with her using a Schedule I drug. We had to break the law in Utah.”
Kaye went on to live two more years. Harris believes cannabis could have done more to help her if they had known more then. She describes it as a religious, intellectual and governmental dilemma.
“I believe that there are certain promises you make with your creator and I have made those promises and believe promises are made back,” she said. “When you keep those promises, like a covenant, you get blessings. That is the dilemma, when you promise to obey the laws of the land and you promise you will uphold this freedom you hold so dearly. But, I realize we have been deceived.”
She says if her child was drowning and there were do not swim signs, she would still jump in, she would go swimming.
“That’s where we were,” she said. “Everybody there in that house in Utah had to go swimming and there were ‘do not swim’ signs everywhere. We all jeopardized everything to help her get this medicine and that was life changing for all of us.”
Harris has suffered from neurological problems as well as reoccurrences of cancer throughout her life. After seeing how it eased the pain and suffering of her friend, and prolonged her life in a qualitative way, Harris decided to try cannabis.
“Cannabis for me changed my brain,” she said. “Instead of having 50 conversations going on at the same time I can have one or two. When I first inhaled cannabis, my brain stopped hurting for the first time in my life. I looked around and I looked up and I went ‘God, this is what people feel like and feel normal?’ and it changed me.” (You can watch Angela Harris describe this effect in the video clip below.)
After her personal experience, and her experience with Kaye, she has gone on to advocate for natural remedies — particularly cannabis — in conservative and religious communities.
To Harris, natural remedies aren’t just about physical healing, they are about empowerment. She encourages patients to do their own research and become an herbalist in their own right. She balks at the notion that taking a chemical medicine for a chronic condition could ever actually solve a problem but instead says the focus should be on nourishing the body.
“Your body knows what to do when you put nutrients in it,” she said. “How does a chemical heal the body? It can cause a chemical reaction but it can never heal a body. Your body heals itself when it has the nutrients to do so. This is a lost thing we need to be able to do. As a sick person, you need to be able to take responsibility; no one else can make you well. Some people live in a culture of just accepting sickness; I think we need to give them hope. How debilitating is that for a sick person to think this is as good as it gets? I think people like me can’t live with that anymore.”
Still Not Enough Studies
But Harris’ work is tricky. The promotion of cannabis or other plants to treat or heal any condition is strongly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Herbal remedies are not allowed to have language on their packaging that implies they have medical uses, and only FDA-approved drugs can be prescribed by doctors as treatment for specific conditions. Neither herbalists nor doctors can suggest that any plant medicine not considered a “drug” could heal, cure or provide relief of any condition. Herbalists, instead, are only allowed to use non-definitive statements about the potential healing abilities of the herbs they recommend, making their products more of a novelty barely distinguishable to the public from the sort of fad dieting and junk-nutrient supplements Dr. Oz has been accused of promoting.
The reasoning seems logical — there are few to no conclusive domestic studies specifically linking these plant medicines to the treatments of any medical condition. However, just like with cannabis, researchers in other countries are studying other botanical remedies in earnest, with encouraging results. In the United States, although herbal medicines are acknowledged as having healing potentials, they are unlikely to ever be studied, recommended or prescribed by traditional doctors because there is no monetary incentive to study and approve plants as medical treatments.
Getting a drug studied and approved by the FDA is expensive, totaling an average of $500 million. Any company prepared to make an investment of that size inevitably also expects a sizable return. Botanical medicines, unlike pharmaceutical drugs, have multiple active compounds that would need to be tested individually for the whole plant to be approved. Without the ability to exclusively patent and manufacture a plant the way a pharmaceutical drug would be developed, FDA approval for botanical medicines as treatments for any conditions is improbable.
Herbs have been used by human beings since 60,000 B.C.E. Histories of indigenous cultures on every inhabited continent show extensive use of herbal remedies to treat every symptom a human being could experience. Food and herbs have traditionally been used around the globe to treat and promote both mental and physical wellbeing.
Pharmacologicalism, the prevailing Western medical philosophy, dictates that single compounds treat single-symptoms. Or, often the only option is to mask symptoms rather than determine the cause, and therefore solution, to the chronic illnesses. Millions to billions of dollars are poured into research to find the magic compounds to mask and slow, but in most cases never cure, the symptoms of chronic and deadly diseases. The study and administration of these compounds is complicated and ultimately very expensive.
Herbal medicines, especially cannabis, are largely considered fringe and unscientific, and that stigma deters many traditional physicians from researching herbalism as even a complement to Western medical treatments. Retailers selling herbal medicines live in daily fear that the FDA will shut them down for the wording they use to sell the plant supplements. And, although herbalism has been used since the dawn of man, traditional medical specialists and regulatory bodies continue to view them as ineffective “quack” medicine.
“Herbs aren’t being passed down throughout history because they don’t work; they work,” Harris said. “If we free cannabis, we will free echinacea, goldenseal, myrrh, alfalfa and barley so Americans can use them to get their health back.”
Harris says it is important to look at cannabis legalization as a way to introduce Americans — particularly conservative Americans — back to nature. She says that once they feel the effects and empowerment from healing themselves naturally, more people will have the ability to thrive and make the world a better place.
“The only reason people are anti-cannabis is because they don’t know the truth,” she said. “[Cannabis] will change the way they think about [herbs] because if we can get comfortable with cannabis we are going to get comfortable with herbs that don’t nearly have the bad reputation that cannabis has.”