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Published in Economic Development
Leslie Wyman Leslie Wyman Photo by Katy Bandorff

Biomedical researcher applies profession to cannabis advocacy

BY Sunday, August 29, 2021 01:26pm

Leslie Wyman has led the West Michigan Cannabis Guild since May after serving as the organization’s treasurer. Before the Guild officially formed in 2019, its founding members played a role in getting the Proposal 1 ballot initiative in front of voters that was eventually successful in legalizing recreational cannabis in Michigan. Wyman comes to the Guild with a scientific background and seeks to expand biomedical research involving cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system to help medical cannabis patients and their caregivers. She is currently a research associate at the Van Andel Institute, where she recently got her doctoral degree and is studying the molecular mechanisms of neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s disease. Wyman spoke with MiBiz about her research priorities and cannabis advocacy.

What areas would you like to see additional cannabis research?

There is a lot of low-hanging fruit right now for cannabis research in general. What is most frustrating is the lack of understanding of which diseases are responsive to cannabis therapy. We do know that cannabis has the potential for treating children with epilepsy, and that is one of the diseases that is approved by the FDA to be treated by cannabis. But for all of those people taking cannabinoid treatment for other diseases, such as cancer, there are not a whole lot of studies that have been done. 

Patients are taking cannabis treatments of their own accord and not by the direction of medical professionals, which is frustrating for patients who have to figure out things like their own potency. We need to figure out what diseases cannabis can be helpful in treating, and at what dosages patients should be taking.

What are the obstacles in additional cannabis research you see in the industry right now?

Over the past five years, cannabis research has really grown, but it’s what’s being funded federally. The studies that do come out seem to be biased because of funding by the government that really does feed a negative narrative. I don’t expect all cannabis studies to be bright, shiny and to always show cannabis in a positive light, but there could be a better balance in studies that show the harms but also the benefits. We need the government to stop pretending there are no benefits from cannabis.

I’ve met with several researchers who study cannabis locally, and they have blatantly said to me that you have to be crafty when writing research proposals so it appears you don’t want to show cannabis in a positive light to get your research funded.

How do you view the current landscape of the cannabis industry in Grand Rapids and throughout West Michigan?

We’re all part of the same state, but the industry on the east side of the state is so much different than the west side of the state. 

We really are different and have unique needs, and you can see that in the slow growth of the industry here. There are far more provisioning and retail businesses on the east side. The west side has been really slow to grow, and I’d like to put a lot of that weight on Grand Rapids. Many people look to Grand Rapids as being the second-largest city in the state for their leadership, and unfortunately I don’t think Grand Rapids stepped up to the plate.

Is the Guild pushing for any specific cannabis regulatory changes?

When Proposal 1 first passed, Grand Rapids was creating policies that were shutting out local and small businesses, which caused issues with equity and diversity in the industry. The West Michigan Cannabis Guild was created to bring together industry professionals that are dedicated to promoting legal cannabis uses through education and community organizing. We also recently created a social equity committee that is just getting on its feet. 

What are the biggest obstacles in Grand Rapids?

The separation buffers required for cannabis businesses from certain other uses is probably the biggest problem in Grand Rapids. I’m not necessarily against cannabis dispensaries needing a buffer from schools, I understand that, but it’s the churches that are everywhere — staying 1,000 feet away from all churches is virtually impossible.

You also had a lot of people who had purchased property really quickly because they knew they wanted to get into the industry. Then it took months and months for licenses to be reviewed, and then all of the sudden many businesses renting property were told they were no longer able to get a license because of all these restrictions. 

Why are you personally passionate about advocating for cannabis causes?

I grew up in a household where cannabis was really a non-issue. I come from a long line of alcoholics and have severe alcoholism in my family. My mom introduced me to cannabis as a way to deter me from alcohol. 

(West Michigan Cannabis Guild Vice President) Landon Bartley and I have been working on starting up Lakeside Analytical in Grand Rapids, which will be a state-licensed cannabis testing lab. We were pre-qualified in 2020, and right now there is not a single testing lab serving this industry in Grand Rapids, and there are very few in West Michigan. 

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