Andrea Brooks is the founder and CEO of Sava, an online educational cannabis marketplace based in California. In her spare time she fosters senior dogs, cooks amazing vegan meals, and obsesses over the latest cannabis trends and products.
Before my chronic pain I didn’t even like cannabis (marijuana) that much. I thought it was for people who wanted to zone out on their sofas, and that wasn’t me. I was 34 years old and had an active social life and a blossoming career. I spent my spare time advocating for animal welfare and I was in a band.
Then came my injury. In 2010 I experienced a workplace injury that left me with debilitating nerve damage in my spine and arms. As a young, healthy person, I figured I’d recover in a matter of weeks. But weeks turned into months, and instead of improving, I got worse.
It’s hard to explain to other people what nerve damage pain feels like, but it’s all-consuming. Even the sheets on my bed brushing against my skin sent excruciating waves of pain throughout my entire body. For the months and years after my injury, I spent most of my days lying on the floor in a daze from pain medication, with no energy to cook healthy foods or do the gentle stretching and movement my doctors prescribed me (alongside the medication) to help me recover.
Knowing I wasn’t helping myself—that I wasn’t able to help myself—only pushed me further into the pain and, ultimately, a deep depression. I withdrew from the world and settled into a new normal that I never anticipated would be my life.
Throughout those years, I visited a string of doctors who were quick to prescribe me with one pain medication after another. Several told me that I would probably never work again and should pursue permanent disability. Their outlook was that I needed to accept my state, and opioids were my only option to manage this condition.
At first, I did accept it. After all, these were medical professionals who treated pain and debilitating diseases every day. They were the experts. I attempted to wrap my head around this new life. If the pain meds made me depressed, maybe I needed antidepressants. If I couldn’t sleep or didn’t have the energy to function, there was also a pill for that. I saw my future unfolding as an ongoing daily effort to mix the right pharmaceutical cocktail to function just enough to survive. That thought alone was depressing.
While I was homebound, I had a group of friends who would visit me regularly. One of them, let’s call him Fred, had a farm in Humboldt, CA where he was growing medical cannabis. One afternoon as he was listening to me describe what I was doing and how it was making me feel, he suggested I try cannabis. Managing chronic pain is one of the few uses for cannabis that we actually have pretty good data on, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to me.
One thing I learned about pain is that when it is your dominant feeling you’ll do anything to make it stop. The pills were not making my life better, and I was ready to try anything. Fred started making me custom tinctures and topical creams with different cannabinoid ratios— different amounts of THC and CBD—and I started using them. The results, for me, were immediate.
Medical cannabis has been legal in California for over a decade now—since 1996. And, it turns out, there is research to suggest cannabis can help treat chronic pain like mine. In fact, in a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that cannabis has “conclusive or substantial” evidence behind it for treating chronic pain. When it comes to using cannabis specifically for chronic nerve pain, one of the best studies we have is a meta-analysis published in 2015 in the Journal of Pain, in which researchers looked at data for 178 patients from previous studies. Their results showed that inhaled cannabis does have real short-term pain-relieving benefits for those dealing with chronic neuropathic pain, but doesn’t provide many answers about any potential long-term benefits.
I found that cannabis eased my pain, but it also gave me energy, hunger, a desire to move around—things I didn’t have while taking opioids. Within a month, I had totally weaned off prescription pain medication and had started cooking for myself again, going on walks, doing my physical therapy exercises. Using cannabis to manage my pain (as part of a holistic treatment plan) gave me the energy I needed to carry out a self-care routine that allowed me to heal.
One of the most frustrating parts of the process, though, was that I didn’t feel like I could speak to my doctors about it. They would ask what I was doing that led to this sudden improvement, and I’d shrug. I worried I could get into trouble. I worried I could get Fred into trouble. In retrospect, I think I also worried that they would shrug off this medicine and not take my protocol seriously. It felt easier to keep it to myself. So I stayed silent and continued to treat myself.
At least, at first. I experienced life-altering effects from this plant, and I needed to share that with the world. I wanted to find a way to make it easier to access and understand for people who didn’t have their own Fred.
I knew nothing about the cannabis industry, but I knew first-hand that there was a need for a trusted source for high-quality products. A source that also provided information, transparency, and support in figuring out how to use them. That’s why, in 2015, my two co-founders and I launched Sava, a site where people in California can buy cannabis products, have them delivered to their homes, and learn more about using cannabis. On the surface it’s an online marketplace, but at its core it is my way of providing people access to and education about this plant.
Cannabis helped me immensely, and I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to experiment with it. It is an unfortunate truth that while I’m able to have a legitimate business connecting people with the plant, there are still people in prison for trying to do the same. I encourage everyone to check out some of the amazing organizations that are trying to change this, such as the Equity First Alliance and the Last Prisoner Project.
But to be clear, I am not “cured.” I still manage pain from my injury on a daily basis, and I probably always will. Cannabis has, however, granted me my life back—a life that is not dominated by pain; a life in which I am able to lead a growing company, engage with friends, and experience joy. For that I am forever grateful, and I will always work to demystify this plant for people so others can benefit from its powerful medicine.