OAKLAND — After Alex Lee had surgery for brain cancer in 2013, he had to take a chemotherapy capsule that made him nauseous. Ron Gershoni, a college buddy who was just getting into the cannabis extraction business, brought him a big jar of cannabis oil.
“As soon as I took the the pill I would feel nauseous,” said Lee, a 37-year-old San Francisco resident who works in technology sales. “I would immediately do a dab (a marijuana oil extract that users vaporize and inhale) or several dabs to make me feel better. The relief from the nausea was instantaneous.”
Since then, Gershoni’s Oakland-based Jetty Extracts has gone on to create the Shelter Project, a program that provides free cannabis oils to cancer patients and those in remission. Lee, who completed a year of chemo in March of 2015, and is now cancer-free, was the first recipient. Since its launch in two years ago, the Shelter Project has served 400 patients across California, Gershoni said.
He and partners Matthew Lee and Nate Ferguson wanted to find a way to give back to the medical marijuana community, which had led the fight for legalization.
“At first we were just giving free product to Alex,” Gershoni said. “Then Matt went on a surfing trip and had a Zen moment coming out of the water. He said we should start an actual nonprofit where we’re registering people and put it on our website. It took off from there.”
At the time, he said, Jetty Extracts was one of only five companies in the state with compassionate cannabis oil donation programs. You must have a valid California medical marijuana identification card and a cancer diagnosis to sign up. A few people who didn’t have cancer slipped through, but the company said that hasn’t happened often.
Oakland resident Kathy Chambliss had breast cancer surgery in September, followed by chemotherapy in January. She discovered the Shelter Project through co-workers who also had gone through cancer treatment. She got a medical marijuana card and signed up.
“What I do is email them and let them know which one works best for me,” Chambliss said. “It relaxes me and helps me rest better. Everything doesn’t have to be a pharmaceutical.”
The Shelter Project is run out of Jetty Extracts’ plant, tucked away in an industrial area in East Oakland. The company uses CO2 to extract cannabis oil from plant buds and used in vaporizers, among other methods. The plant buds can later be ingested.
Workers hand pack small packets bearing the Shelter Project logo with pre-filled vape cartridges and other items, which are then delivered to patients.
Shelter Project manager Lindsey Friedman said the patients decide what type of cannabis they want. Some have done research or gotten advice from health professionals.
“We provide them with the resources to get educated on what types of cannabis there are and the different ways to consume it,” she said. “After they decide what’s right for them, then we make a plan for medicine.”
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The company recently began making suppositories exclusively for its Shelter Project patients because there were so many requests for them. When people use suppositories, 80 percent of the cannabinoids get absorbed into the body, far more than when vaping or ingesting cannabis, Friedman said.
“It goes straight to the affected area and doesn’t get you psychoactively high,” Friedman said. “So a lot of people who never used cannabis and were always against it feel comfortable with the suppositories.”
Harborside Health Center in Oakland, the largest dispensary in the country, has its own compassionate care program for low-income patients. The company recently donated some flowers high in CBD — one of the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant that doesn’t make a person high — to the Shelter Project and refers its cancer patients there.
“It’s more product and it’s also different because theirs is cannabis oil and we provide flowers,” said Harborside ombuds manager Danielle Barber.
Gershoni said he wants to expand the Shelter Project program and will be looking to ask more businesses to donate. But for now, Jetty Extracts is covering the costs of a program that many cancer patients have come to rely on.
Titania Numa, 76, a business owner in unincorporated Contra Costa County, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008. She suffers from numbness in her left fingers and an irreversible condition where her right eye has swollen in its socket. She signed up for the Shelter Project six months ago.
Numa said sometimes her (oil) cartridges get stuck, but whenever she has problems the Shelter Project staff are always responsive.
“I wake up and I can’t go back to sleep,” Numa said. “That’s when the vapor comes in handy. I feel so grateful I can’t even begin to tell you, that this exists.”