Bridging Worlds in Medical Cannabis Research: Jessilyn Dolan
“I felt like this little microcosm in this macro, huge cannabis research world,” Jessilyn Dolan said about her experience at CannX 2022. Dolan, a cannabis nurse, researcher and activist, flew to Israel this past March to attend the 6th International Medical Cannabis Conference in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Dolan’s poster presentation was a five-year follow-up study with the University of Vermont’s Center on Behavior and Health, titled, “Human Milk Feeding and Cannabis Use: Recommendations from the Field Post Cannabis Legalization In Vermont.”
Dolan submitted the paper to the American Cannabis Nurses Association conference last year and at Boston University’s science fair with the Center of Excellence. After she presented in Boston, a couple of doctors asked if she would be interested in presenting at CannX 2022. A nurse at the science fair talked her into it, despite Dolan thinking it was a “crazy idea.” She said that she submitted the paper, and “lo and behold, a couple weeks later, I got an invitation to come and present.”
“It reinvigorated my passion for cannabis research, how important it is and how it’s so much bigger than just Vermont.”
“For, you know, a little Vermont research nurse and a person in medical cannabis, this is one of the biggest highlights I could have,” Dolan said. Some of the top researchers in the world from 28 different countries presented at the conference. The conference was run by Raphael Mechoulam, who Dolan called the godfather of THC. Dolan learned about some of the newest cannabis research and said by the second day, she had gained so much valuable information.
“It reinvigorated my passion for cannabis research, how important it is and how it’s so much bigger than just Vermont,” she said.
One of the highlights of her trip was making connections. She is now meeting regularly with the Israeli Medical Cannabis Nurse Association and discussing how international nurse groups can look to create standardized cannabis education.
Dolan decided to repeat the study, “Surveying Lactation Professionals Regarding Marijuana Use and Breastfeeding,” after leaders of the Vermont Lactation Consultants Association asked her to talk about cannabis use in human milk feeding, along with her research on opioid use disorder. The study assessed lactation professionals’ understanding of cannabis and human milk feeding. The study was completed five years after the original and one year after legalization to see the differences in education, recommendations, and information.
What Dolan found in the second study is that professionals are more willing to say they don’t have enough information to give their patients concrete advice.
“We can’t get a lot of human clinical study trials on actual use in pregnancy and milk feeding. But we can get a lot of anecdotal information,” Dolan said. What Dolan found in the second study is that professionals are more willing to say they don’t have enough information to give their patients concrete advice.
“We are no longer telling people definitively to stop human milk feeding or breastfeeding with cannabis use. Where five years ago, we were more likely to say, no,” Dolan said. “We are acknowledging that we don’t have the information.” Dolan added that professionals will continue to talk to their patients about lowering or stopping their use if that’s an option.
This aligns with the stance that’s been adopted nationally over the last five to ten years. Cannabis was previously rated a five in the lactation risk categories, which meant the drug shouldn’t be used during human milk feeding. Dolan said cannabis is now an L4, “the difference is we don’t say, ‘oh no, that’s harmful.’ We say, ‘well, we’d rather you didn’t. But let’s talk about the benefits versus consequences.’”
“We’re always coming from the safety angle,” Dolan said. “But we also need to meet people where they’re at so that we can help them consume more safely if [they’re] going to continue to consume, and that we’re giving them the comfort and safety of being able to be open and honest.”
The way Dolan sees it, “it’s all about breaking stigma and education.”
Dolan said talking about the need for more research and the importance of education and open conversations will help reduce stigma. There are many stigmas associated with cannabis use, and Dolan feels they’re exacerbated during pregnancy and human milk feeding because of concern for the child.
The way Dolan sees it, “it’s all about breaking stigma and education.” She admits that she has had to confront her own stigmas as well. Dolan started her career as an herbalist before she became involved in birth work. She was a doula, childbirth educator, and infant massage instructor, and she is currently an RN, CMT, and CLD. As she continued her career in birth work, she began specializing in opioid use disorder in pregnancies and infants.
“Connecting those dots, for me, that was some of the most beautiful parts of this.”
“I was trying very hard to keep my cannabis, plant medicine, herbalist side away from my pregnancy, human milk feeding work because I was already working specifically with opioid use disorder, and already in a very stigmatized area, and in an area where, for many people with substance use disorder, cannabis is not the right option,” Dolan said. When more people started to ask her to talk about cannabis use and birth work, she began asking herself what she was doing.
Going to Israel and combining the two worlds has played a large role in breaking her stigma. Dolan said she doesn’t have stigmas with cannabis, rather, she has them with professional roles. She questioned how blending the two worlds would affect her career because she knew there would be pushback. Dolan chose to change her full-time nursing role to be more comfortable advocating for this research. “I don’t think every place I’ve worked at would have kept me on payroll,” she said. However, now she works at a doctor’s offer that’s supportive of her work in cannabis.
“Connecting those dots, for me, that was some of the most beautiful parts of this,” she said. “Now I feel way more comfortable, and I’m meeting it head-on and talking about it more openly.”
The importance of removing these stigmas is they lead to more transparency. The last thing Dolan wants is for a patient to say their providers don’t know they’re using cannabis. Not only that, but Dolan hopes that people will start to understand the need for more research. To do that, Dolan said that cannabis needs to be descheduled.
As Dolan is colliding these two worlds, she is also joining research studies at the Cannabis Center for Excellence in Boston and working monthly with the Israeli Medical Cannabis Nurse Association. She is also a director of the American Cannabis Nurse Association and the director of CannaMommy, which is an online resource that allows patients and providers to have an open dialogue about natural medicine.
In Vermont, Dolan has her own nurse-grown organic CBD and hemp company. While she wants to get into the adult-use market, she is more focused on education.
“My goal and plan for the near future is to start a cannabis nurse hotline,” Dolan said. The hotline would be free for all consumers, patients and retail staff at dispensaries to ask questions. “I want the adult-use community to rally with me and support this hotline.”
“My goal and plan for the near future is to start a cannabis nurse hotline. I want the adult-use community to rally with me and support this hotline.”
Along with that, Dolan wants to turn the free phone calls into publishable data to show how important education is. If this happens, she also wants to start monthly webinars and weekly live-support groups. She said, “I’m trying to push the education.”
She said her drive for more education is also in response to the pushback from the Vermont Medical Association and physicians. Dolan hasn’t been able to publish the study in the state of Vermont, which she assumes is for a few different reasons, one of them being the continuous stigma around cannabis. While the adult-use community wants this education, she said, the medical program in Vermont hasn’t offered this level of support or education for patients.
“I’m hoping this can be something supported and presented and sponsored by the adult-use community to show that adult-use can be responsible, it can have educated medical professionals supporting it, guiding it,” Dolan said. “We’re going to show the medical dispensaries the way it should be.”