A Nurse Finds a Niche in the Cannabis Industry

Keisha Smith Bolden smiling
Kebra Smith-Bolden, CEO, Canna Health

Nurse-entrepreneur Kebra Smith-Bolden remembers her grandmother as “a jazzy lady who, at eighty-eight years old,” had a boyfriend, drove her own car, and stayed active. But an aneurysm struck down her beloved grandmother a few years ago, she says, drastically altering her personality, mobility, and cognitive abilities.

Gone was the vibrant lover of life. In her place was a wheelchair-bound individual who no longer ate, spoke, or related to her family. Smith-Bolden was devastated. “It was just sad to see the decline,” she told The Network Journal. “I racked my brain for a way to help her.”

She recalled hearing of the potential benefits of marijuana, a derivative of the cannabis plant that was used medically and recreationally, and began to administer it to her grandmother.

“Within a month, my grandmother was walking and engaging with the family,” Smith-Bolden recounted.

Becoming a change agent
The change in her grandmother seemed so miraculous that Smith-Bolden enrolled at the Northeastern Institute of Cannabis in Massachusetts to learn all about using cannabis medicinally.

“Being a nurse and a science geek, I was totally excited and engaged about everything,” she confesses.

As she studied, she saw how the criminalization of marijuana use and sales had hurt Black communities, including New Haven, Conn., where she grew up.

“The thing that struck me the most was learning how it became illegal in the United States after being used as medicine for years. It was used as an excuse to put people in prison,” she said.

Her growing understanding of the role cannabis in medicine and in a discriminatory social order inspired her to become “a change agent.” She was determined to help bring about the legalization of cannabis, and to see to it that communities adversely affected by its criminalization had the opportunity to participate in the emerging industry as business owners.

“It was unfair that millionaires would make millions and billions of dollars from it, but the very community that had embraced this plant had been criminalized,” she laments.

Birth of Canna Health
Using her personal savings, Smith-Bolden launched Canna Health in New Haven in 2017, targeting patients with debilitating medical conditions. She has found a lucrative niche in a market that is exploding in size and value. Today, the cannabis industry reportedly accounts for 243,700 legal full time jobs. Industry statistics project the cannabis market will be worth $72.6 billion by 2027.

Smith-Bolden uses a franchise model to expand her business.

“We offer a licensing program where people are licensed to utilize my brand, mode of operation, and business practices to open their own branch of Canna Health,” she explains, noting that she currently has four partners and six Canna Health locations.

Canna Health centers evaluate and certify patients for medical use of cannabis, as well as prescribe and administer treatment. They educate patients on the proper use of cannabis, particularly for afflictions like anxiety and depression for which patients tend to improperly self-medicate. The centers also teach different consumption methods and the type of indications for which each strain of cannabis is most effective.

“The Indigo strain, for example, causes tiredness, so you wouldn’t want to use that during the day. There are strains that specifically help with alertness, or anxiety, or focus, for instance,” Smith-Bolden says.

Typically located in inner-city communities, Canna Health also teaches about the toll that life in low-income urban areas takes on the health of residents, including mental health conditions that can develop.

“We explain that this is urban trauma,” Smith-Bolden explains.

Canna Health prescribes cannabis for the more-than 30 qualifying conditions in the state of Connecticut, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, colitis and Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy, although its prescriptions often address mental health symptoms.

“Cannabis can help you manage the symptoms, but you’re going to remain symptomatic if you don’t deal with the underlying trauma,” Smith-Bolden cautions.

Smith-Bolden hires certified Advanced Practice Registered Nurses, or APRNs, to certify patients and administer treatment. “I hire the people who can do the actual certification. They just have to have the ability to write prescriptions,” she says.

Cannabis prescriptions are available to any certified medical marijuana user over 18 years old. In order to legally write prescriptions in Connecticut, health care providers must obtain a DEA number assigned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; be a part of the prescription-monitoring program; and must be registered with the Connecticut medical marijuana program.

The franchise model and use of certified APRN administrators means Smith-Bolden does not have to be involved in the day-to-day running of Canna Health. “It runs itself,” she laughs.

That allows her to continue to work as a hospice homecare nurse, which she enjoys, she says, despite the added stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has been good for the medical cannabis business, she admits. “There’s been an uptick in people who are getting their medical marijuana cards.”

Service to the industry
Since Smith-Bolden established Canna Health, the number of Black women exploring opportunities the cannabis industry has been growing.

“Here in Connecticut we are definitely seeing more cannabis certifiers,” she notes.

She welcomes the competition, saying, “I’m happy that more people are now able to access medical cannabis, as opposed to traditional pharmaceuticals that ruin your liver, among other things.”

Smith-Bolden is involved in support organizations and in educating potential entrepreneurs  about accessing the industry. She serves on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of the National Cannabis Industry Association, and on the Policy and Diversity committees of The American Cannabis Nurses Association, and is a leader and a founding member of the Cannabis Nurse Network. She is also active in Women Grow, a national networking organization that caters to women entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry.

Personal growth and advocacy
As the founder and president of Connecticut United for Reform Equity, Smith-Bolden has worked to include the first equity language in a cannabis bill in Connecticut.

“That afforded people from communities that were affected by the war on drugs to have first opportunities to own in the adult-use market here in Connecticut,” she says proudly.

Her organization also advocates for the expungement of records and release from prison of those incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses. Along those lines, Smith-Bolden serves on the Juvenile Review Board.

“Any person between the ages of seven and seventeen in my city and the surrounding areas who is arrested comes before us before they go into the criminal court system. We’re able to intervene and find out what that issue was that caused them to commit an infraction,” she explains.

The mother of four young adults, Smith-Bolden reveals that her involvement in the cannabis industry has taught her that she can do whatever she sets her mind to.

“I just kept my mind focused on being a part of this industry. I sacrificed a lot, but I made sure that I was at every event where I got invited to speak. I just put in the hard work to lay the foundation,” she states. “Being successful in this industry has really birthed an advocate in me.”