Cannibus for the cure: Woman's dispensary business spurred by personal story

Mar. 18—HUNTINGTON — Chris Visco knows first-hand the miraculous benefits of cannabis, but not just because she's CEO of TerraLeaf, a medical marijuana dispensary business with an outlet in West Virginia and licenses in other states.

The Philadelphia native opened a dispensary in February 2018, and met with doubters.

"When I decided to apply for licenses, I reached out to my attorney, a man, and my license writer, a man, all essentially said, 'Oh, little girl, this isn't for you. You're going to get hurt, you're going to go bankrupt,'" she said. "Not only did I get my license, I got the highest score on the license application in a male-dominated publicly traded space." She was the first woman to receive a license for a medical marijuana dispensary in Pennsylvania.

Sexism at work

She said some growers didn't want to do business with her, either, because of her gender.

"I sold a company to a man and when I became upset with their unethical business practices, he told me to calm down and get my hair and nails done, and I was bald with cancer at the time," Visco said.

Her diagnosis with stage two breast cancer came in January 2020.

"I already knew how many people used RSO," she said. RSO stands for Rick Simpson Oil, named for its inventor. The oil is derived from cannabis and contains all the cannabinoids, terpenes and additional compounds of the whole cannabis plant. It's a key component in many treatment plans for cancer patients and others with chronic conditions.

"I told my doctor I wanted to try it before chemo because cannabis only kills what it needs to kill, while chemo kills everything," Visco said. "After six weeks, she brought me in for another CT scan and the tumors had retreated by 20% in six weeks."

Care choices

Still, the doctor wanted to do surgery, and Visco refused.

"I thought that was so crazy, so I fired her and changed to a doctor who recommends (RSO)," she said.

Visco ultimately used RSO and took "one shot" of chemo, with a great outcome: The tumor "completely dissolved." She followed up by having a lumpectomy and some cleaning in the area.

"I still have cancer cells in my body because I refused radiation," she said. "I keep working with THC and CBD and every number my test numbers improve."

More research

She said a lesson from her experience is the need for more research into how cannabis can be used to cure cancer.

Part of the problem, she said, is cannabis' classification as a schedule one narcotic, listed as more serious than heroin.

"It has nothing to do with the medicinal properties,": she said. "We need to deschedule the drug. If they do, it's not a narcotic and we can get banking."

Currently, cannabis dispensaries must trade in cash, as banks won't do business with them, making dispensary operators targets for robbers.

But the dispensary itself is loaded with security. Visco said it's required, and it's the single largest expense when opening a dispensary.

"It's required to be that level by the state," she said. "We put $400,000 of security into a store. Our cameras' clarity is so high, it's FBI standards."

Good neighbor

A benefit of the heavy security is neighborhood safety; Visco said the crime rate drops by about 7% in neighborhoods that get dispensaries. She said video from dispensaries she used to own in Pennsylvania helped police solve a burglary and a hit and run.

Visco said the average patient is 58 and struggling with pain management being turned down for medication by a doctor.

Cannabis is sold in West Virginia in the form of flower or oil to be vaped; some states offer capsules, tinchure and other edibles.

Many benefits

While many are skeptical, once they try medical cannabis they realize benefits.

"It's just education," she said. "We give you a small formulation and the CBD counteracts the psycho-activity. You don't have to 'get high' to use cannabis. We can do microdosing. We're really good at it and it saves lives."

She said she's particularly excited to operate in West Virginia, where opioid addiction is high: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found the number of fatal overdoses in West Virginia has tripled in the last 10 years. But various studies have shown cannibus use can play an important role in fighting opioid addiction. Visco said she hopes West Virginia residents will benefit by finding relief from pain without use of addictive opioids.