Article by High! Canada
High Canada Magazine sat down with Hello Cannabis out in Dundas, Ontario, recently and we were so impressed by the good work they are doing on the front lines of patient care and information in South Western Ontario. First, we sat down with Stephen Verbeek, President, and CEO of Hello Cannabis to find out a little more about this fascinating company’s backstory.
Stephen, can you tell us what you do at Hello Cannabis?
After meeting and working with some extremely talented and dedicated physicians, we saw a crisis happening in our backyard. I’ve seen opiates destroy lives within my own family and almost my own. After using cannabis responsibly to curb the symptoms of my withdrawal it was clear that we have access to other treatments in Canada that in my opinion are far safer and non-addictive. After founding the business with Ryan Caruso, I have been honoured with the role of President at Hello Cannabis. At first, a few of us collaborated to connect with the strategic partners, establish the business model for sustainability, build the brand, and get signatures for contracts. It clearly became far more complicated as this is a relatively new business with the infrastructure often being developed in-house. After about a year of preparation, we are really privileged to have incredible partners and staff helping patients and raise awareness. My role is dominant keeping the ship sailing forward in business development and key partners. Our mandate is to educate physicians and patients about a potentially less harmful medicine with a higher efficacy for numerous ailments like insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety, and opioid addiction along with withdrawal symptoms.
Can you tell us about how Hello Cannabis came into being?
I do have a personal story that motivated me – but as for the business side, I’ve been a Wealth Advisor and Investment banker by trade for over 20 years. I was a wealth advisor and still am a designated Chartered Investment Manager. I started working for ScotiaMcLeod and RBC Dominion Securities. In my experience, if you’re more than decent at that job you get to know a lot of physicians; most physicians over the age of 50 need a personal touch with respect to their personal finances, and I had a very strong professional relationship with a lot of them. We spent some time socially together and they saw my recovery from a rather significant injury and were impressed with how cannabis was one of my treatments after quitting opioids. They started asking a lot of questions and a few mentioned that they had started getting approached by licensed producers to look at prescribing cannabis. Unfortunately, not many physicians had seen too many cases in which it was actually effective. I was now one of those cases, and they saw, believed and trusted me. One of these physicians, who has been practicing for over 40 years and is a close personal friend and business partner of mine said ‘I think there’s a really big opportunity here’. He practices out of 414 Victoria Ave North, which is unfortunately in one of the lower socio-economic areas of Hamilton, which has a disproportionately high opioid addiction rate. He wanted to be able to help the people in his backyard, and the people already visiting his family practice. We decided to utilize our networks and connections in order to start providing better care for his patients and in turn make a material impact on the opioid epidemic in Hamilton.
So out of these discussions and meetings is that how Hello Cannabis was formed?
Correct. From these discussions, my partner and I realized that we needed to bring in someone who understood the medical cannabis landscape on a broader scale. That’s why we brought in my friend Ryan Caruso. He was a great help in getting us up and running but is sadly no longer working with Hello Cannabis, and is instead working at the OCRC. About 4 months into this project he was given this opportunity – it was a very challenging decision for him to make, and I definitely didn’t envy him. He said ‘this is something that I can’t turn down’. He had many relationships with physicians in Toronto and was running a medical clinic that catered to veterans called Spartan. He was pretty familiar with the business model I was looking at where I was more familiar with the pharmaceutical business model and how OHIP billings worked from my work as a financial advisor for physicians. Ryan really showed me how the medical cannabis world worked and I found that unfortunately there were a lot of these services that were billing patients.
This is one of the many challenges that we face in the cannabis industry. It’s yet another hurdle coming from the legal market where physicians or these clinics were billing patients for their services. I found out that the reason was that the vast majority of physicians were not able to bill OHIP for these services and that many were using Skype, which from my knowledge is really discouraged by the College of Physicians. Some of the clinics that were set up prior to this had business models that were set up as ‘fee for service’ as opposed to looking at funding and support from licensed producers in order to facilitate the educational component for patients that we refer to them. I was able to use this knowledge provided and add my relationships with physicians, their knowledge of OHIP and hospital billing, add my relationship with licensed producers and kind of put it into one basket – then put all the pieces together to form a somewhat cohesive puzzle. It did not come easily.
We keep hearing about a very personal story that gave you the motivation for this?
This is really a special one; it’s something that I kept very close to my chest. If you turn back the clock to when I was in my twenties I was one of the youngest chartered investment managers in Canada, captain of the Dundas City Soccer Club that won the HDSSL; I was moonlighting as a DJ on the weekends and it was a pretty fun time in my life. My head couldn’t really it through doors sometimes. So this injury and the story surrounding it is a very humbling experience for me and I only recently just started sharing it publicly. It’s an honour to be able to share this because I’ve found a way to curb my ego in hopes that this instills confidence and motivates people to take things to the next step and start to make some lemonaide.
de. So, at around 28 years old I had been working seven years with Scotia McCloud and then transitioned to RBC Dominion Securities, where I was a portfolio manager and also licensed to trade derivatives. It was a very successful career, quite a bit of fun, and I made lots of connections. I thought I had established enough relationships to go independent. So I eventually did just that and lost all my benefits. Walking away from a bunch of stuff in my life, I took a bit more of a risk than I should have, but I was confident in my ability to do it. Four months into this, I had a really nasty fall. I dropped 22 feet and shattered both of my heels. I was non-weight bearing for months, which means I couldn’t put my feet on the ground with weight, let alone stand, and I was in a wheelchair for about six months. Thankfully, I was in a very privileged situation to heal; I had a decent bank account, I owned my own home, my mother is a wonderful support system as well as a few great friends that I am still close with today, they literally visited me on a daily basis to take me for walks. I was very privileged and I’m not naive to that. My friends made a wheelchair ramp for me, so I was able to sustain life and I was able to take a year off of work and focus on learning how to walk again. It got pretty gruesome when I was prescribed 3 months’ worth of Dilaudid postsurgery. As you can imagine, putting together shattered heels is no easy thing. Orthopedic surgeons jokingly refer to their colleagues as carpenters, it’s screws and drills and bits, hammers and torches – exaggerated but not far off from the truth. A great surgeon and 17 screws were able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
I was prescribed 6mg of Dilaudid every 4 hours, for three months. Now from the information, I have read that is the equivalent of a recreational user being able to shoot up or get high 3 times every 4 hours. I was continually taking this 24 hours a day for a few months straight. I had a 3-month prescription. So long story short I was a complete synthetic heroin addict for about 2 months. I needed it. I strongly believe that I have never suffered from any chronic mental health issues, never had any suicidal tendencies. I get sad, happy, joyful, normal human emotions but never anything chronic. I was in such excruciating pain that if there were a gun with one bullet beside me I genuinely would have used it just so I didn’t have to take one more breath in that pain. I was willing to forgo the rest of my life just so that I didn’t have to have one more moment of the pain that I was in. That’s raw, dark, but also very real and I’m not exaggerating that. Opiates certainly do serve a purpose in some of these cases; it served a purpose for me as well with the extreme nature of the surgery that I had, at least initially. I don’t want to go through that again and see if cannabis would be a better alternative, but maybe we will get that data soon.
So how long ago was this recovery for you?
It was about six years ago; my surgery was August 23rd 2012 I believe. So, five and a half years.
So you did not stay on opiates for the full three- month prescription as you mentioned before?
Correct. About 2 months post-surgery I started realizing that I was able to start tolerating my pain a little bit more. This is sort of an anomaly, as far as I understand. This is where I think the story really does start to get interesting. I was able to differentiate between what was a withdrawal symptom and what was a pain symptom. It’s a very muddy area between the two of those. Typically, most narcotics you take would last about four hours and as you’d start metabolizing them around the three-hour mark your pain begins to increase, at the same time your chemical addiction starts to settle in. It was about a month and a half in where I started realizing that at the three-hour mark I’d start getting cravings. I didn’t know if this was because my pain was increasing and I wanted to take pain medicines or if it was because I was addicted. It was both.
would last about four hours and as you’d start metabolizing them around the three-hour mark your pain begins to increase, at the same time your chemical addiction starts to settle in. It was about a month and a half in where I started realizing that at the three-hour mark I’d start getting cravings. I didn’t know if this was because my pain was increasing and I wanted to take pain medicines or if it was because I was addicted. It was both.
So long story short, I quit cold turkey. I would say it was one of the most grueling things I have ever experienced. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. Two months of Dilaudid use will put you into a synthetic hole of addiction and withdrawal is not for the faint of heart. I didn’t sleep or eat for four days straight, so you could imagine the delirium that set in. You pretty much go clinically insane. I had dropped about 18 pounds. Completely emaciated, my wound care specialist said to me that I was literally on my deathbed.
“Something needs to change. You need to eat,” She told me honestly.
I couldn’t even swallow, my body was just turning inside out and I could feel it. So when she told me that I was slipping away and brought up cannabis, I stopped and I listened. She said ‘Have you thought about using medical cannabis’. I said ‘No, I haven’t’. She said ‘Have you used cannabis before’? I said ‘Yeah I’m a Dutch guy from Vancouver I have definitely tried cannabis before’. She said ‘Great, well you’re not sleeping or eating and guess what cannabis can help with’ She told me to call one of my friends who liked cannabis and I did.
My friend showed up with a water pipe and some cannabis, and I smoked it. Then I slept and I woke up the next day and I ate. Then I smoked it again and I ate and then I slept then I smoked again and slept and ate, I’m sure you see where this is going. For five days all I did was smoke, eat and sleep. I had a big smile on my face and I got my life back, I got my mind back and I almost got my body back. In about the same amount of time, it took me to lose it, too.
I don’t want to get melodramatic and say cannabis saved my life. I don’t want to be one of those people but I genuinely mean this. If you were to ask me what the inflection point of my recovery was – to be able to be where I am now standing tall and proud? I would have to say that the first step was quitting opiates, and then four days later using cannabis to treat the symptoms of quitting opioids. Without any doubt or question in my mind, those were the two pivotal points that allowed me to get my life back on track. It’s still and I hope always will be a work in progress.
Can you speak a bit about what you’ve built here?
I will say, first and foremost: I am completely focused on the medicinal side of this, but I am very pro-legalization. One of the purposes that Hello Cannabis serves is to try to drive a wedge between recreational use and medicinal use. It’s not to look down or frown upon recreational use at all but to be completely candid: if you’re smoking a joint out front of a movie theater don’t pretend that you’re medicating. I’m not trying to say by smoking a joint you’re not extracting medicine out of the product but I don’t know a single doctor that is going to say I want you to roll this into a piece of bleach white paper with glue on it and combust it into your lungs. It’s clearly not a medically viable way of introducing something into your body. We are here to educate people, educate Canada to educate physicians and educate patients on titration plans, how to source medically qualified cannabis and use it responsibly. The patients that we see, the average age is about 54 that treat this as medicine. I think there are many variables that change how you metabolize narcotics; I saw this first hand when I was using Dilaudid. Whether stressed or how much I had slept, how empty my stomach was – all those are very relevant factors that impact how you will metabolize a narcotic. Cannabis is no different than that. I don’t think this is one of those things where you can say take one pill every 4 hours. You do need to look at all the other different variables that are a part of your life when you are medicating. We help the journey these patients go on when they’re either curving an opiate addiction or trying to deal with anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic pain, any of these many ailments that cannabis can treat were essentially the extra duty of care on top of a physician to ensure they are using this product responsibly and it is part of harm reduction instead of harm inducements.
High! Canada Magazine also sat down with Ben Rispin and Bubba Nicholson to discuss the business development, marketing and fundraising that Hello Cannabis is involved with leading into the spring.
So Ben, if you could tell us a bit more about what you’re doing here with Hello Cannabis?
Ben Rispin: I guess we will start at the beginning; I have been working for 25 years within the Canadian independent music landscape. I’ve somehow managed to stay alive in this volatile business this long; it’s taken me around the world, I made a lot of friends and networked a lot. The truth of it is? The Rock and Roll & Punk Rock culture often goes hand in hand with the cannabis culture. Surrounding yourself with that many creative minds over the years, you can’t escape Cannabis. I initially got involved in cannabis at a very young age. At 15 years old my high school history and politics project was based on the legalization of cannabis. It is a subject that I’ve always been passionate about. I began to heavily immerse myself in the cannabis culture through the “grey market” in Ontario, Which we now know has been labeled the “black market” not fully aware of the difference at the time. I began by throwing fundraisers and parties on the dispensary side of the business.
I began working with these “Grey Market” companies, building and nurturing strong relationships. We started to raise upwards of 80 thousand dollars a year across Canada, for various charitable initiatives by throwing various types of events. Once legislation in Ontario came through and the dispensary model was going to be abolished, I had a bit of a panic attack, worrying about my stability and longevity in the market. I had met Stephen from Hello Cannabis through some mutual friends and connections in the business. The day I resigned from my job almost synchronistically, Stephen approached me. He started the conversation by saying “Hey –I know what you’ve been doing if you wanted to leave and come to the legal side of things I have a position for you doing the same thing in the legal medicinal field with Hello Cannabis.” It is that conversation that has brought me before you today.
Simultaneously, The increasing opioid crisis in Hamilton had been staring me in the face. I have lost too many friends in the last 2 years to opiate addiction, and that has driven me to focus on advocacy. Using Cannabis as an “exit drug” or as a supplement for opiates and opioids, to reduce the harm these drugs are doing, is an incredibly powerful option. Cannabis is not the be all cure for everything, but it is proven to help in many cases, and especially when attempting to wean yourself off opiates or other harmful medications. I have really begun this journey from the advocacy role, first and foremost. Stephen has been kind enough to let me run with it and help him build our latest campaign, which stemmed from his vision. called Goodbye Opioids. #GoodbyeOpioids is a call and answer, if you will, to the Hello Cannabis name. As of late, I have been focusing on rolling out this campaign, To help raise awareness in our community, as well as across Canada. The plan as it is right now is series of events from concerts, dinners, auctions, theaters, information centers, and public speaking events where we hope to raise money for Cannabis and opiate research. Raising awareness and money to fund research are our primary goals with this campaign, We hope to continue to build strong, lasting and strategic partnerships in the community. Eventually, we would love to explore taking the project national within the months to come.
Bubba do you think you could tell us about the model you are using here and how it differentiates from other models we may be seeing around the country?
Bubba Nicholson: Looking back at the original models of this type of business, you were required to pay a fee up to $300 or even $500 in some cases to go see a physician. If you qualified for Medicinal Cannabis, that physician would write you a script, In turn, that script would force you down one conduit to purchase your cannabis from a licensed producer that the clinic worked with.
We saw a few holes in that type of practice, one being we don’t feel that a patient should ever have to pay for a prescription to get their medicine. We worked very hard to align ourselves with physicians who felt the same way and had already existing family and specialty practices. We also realized from a very early stage that every patient has different symptoms and different symptoms require different medicine. To put somebody down one conduit, saying you have to purchase your medicine through this one LP we have a relationship with, is almost reckless, when we have so many LP’s making amazing medicine out there. With the rapid growth of LP’s in Canada, It’s opened access to so many strains, different products, and various dosages, making it so much easier to find a medicine that works for our patients’ needs, in the way they need it to. We wanted to make sure we worked with as many LP’s as possible to ensure access to the best Medications for our patients.
So Bubba, I understand that Hello Cannabis has a plethora of LP’s that you work with can you tell us more about that?
Bubba Nicholson: Absolutely, as I was saying earlier we feel that it is very important to be able to source the best medicine for our patient’s needs and symptoms. So, in saying that we have built partnerships with over 16 different LP’s. What that allows us to do is to really take a look at our patient’s symptoms and source out the best medicine for them. We are passionate about follow up, and building patient trust. That’s why the first script for new patients we do for 3 months. The reason we do this is because it allows us to check back in before the 3 months is up and find out how that LP is working for a patient. To see how titration is going for the patient. It allows us to open up that conversation with the patient and continue building that circle of trust between ourselves, our physicians and the patients. At that point, we can direct them to another LP if they are not happy with either the service or product they are getting.
We can also direct them to different methods of ingestion, If they hate the taste of the oil, well let’s take a look at capsules from another LP like Tilray. If they are would like to try different strains, but don’t want to purchase en mass, we can direct them towards the Discovery Pack from Organigram.
For a lot of these patients, it’s their very first time delving into cannabis, they may be very skeptical about cannabis as a medicine. It’s our job to help remove that skepticism and empower our patients with knowledge. It isn’t just a ‘Hey, you’re 78yrs old, and you have your script? Well then, here’s the internet…It’s not just for bathing suits anymore, now go buy your cannabis online and tada’. You need to sit and educate patients, resolve any concerns, & help them take control of their own health. That’s what we really pride ourselves on, the education. We are an education centre first and foremost, and we are here to take care of the patients’ needs. period.