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Meet Joanna Zeiger

Today we’d like to introduce you to Joanna Zeiger.

Joanna, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I am an Olympian and former 70.3 World Champion in the sport of triathlon with a PhD in epidemiology. In 2009 I had a terrible bike accident during my World Championship title defense. I was reaching for a water bottle at an aid station, and the person handing off the bottle didn’t let go when I grabbed the bottle. He essentially pulled me off my bike. I flipped over my handlebars and broke my collar bone and sustained permanent structural and nerve damage to my rib cage.

I have a chronic pain syndrome called intercostal neuralgia which causes intense abdominal pain, muscle spasms, diaphragm dysfunction, and rib pain. I have had nine chest wall surgeries since my accident to correct structural and nerve damage. The surgeries have had varied success.

Traditional pharmaceutical did not alleviate my symptoms, in particular, I was having trouble sleeping due to the pain. My husband, Mark, encouraged me to try cannabis as it was legal in Colorado medically at the time and I had a qualifying condition. There was too much of a stigma for me to even contemplate trying it at that time, though. Cannabis was banned in all forms during my tenure as a professional athlete (the rules are different now). I spent eight years doing drug abuse research in adolescents at CU. And, I was embarrassed to get a medical card. It never occurred to me that cannabis had medicinal potential.

Once cannabis became legal recreationally, it lifted a barrier. I tried cannabis for sleep and daytime pain relief. I was amazed at how well it worked. I finally was able to sleep better, I had pain relief, and it helped with the nausea.

When I started investigating medical cannabis and its efficacy for various conditions, I realized that the research was scant. As an epidemiologist who had already studied the plant, I realized I was in a position to initiate much-needed research. I formed Canna Research Group (CRG), with the focus and mission being “CRG is an accomplished cannabis outcomes research group for industry, the medical profession, and patients. We conduct comprehensive cannabis research from inception through publication to marketable results.

CRG provides evidence-based consulting and education to industry stakeholders, physicians, dispensaries, & patients.” We want to understand how medical cannabis can be used safely and effectively, by maximizing benefits and minimizing harms.

Late last year we conducted a study called The Athlete PEACE (Pain, Exercise, and Cannabis Experience) Study to characterize cannabis use in adult community-based athletes. Our study has two publications and has shed knowledge on how cannabis is being used in adult athletes. Our goals moving forward are to characterize cannabis use (i.e. patterns of use, positive and adverse effects) in a variety of demographic groups.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
As an athlete, I learned that achieving any goal is not a smooth road, so I was well prepared for the bumps and bruises that have occurred over the last 18 months. The biggest obstacle is the stigma around cannabis and trying to educate people about the medical potential for cannabis. Another obstacle is funding. While the need for cannabis research is widely known, finding funds to conduct the research has been difficult.

We are always looking for leads! I would say the biggest obstacle, though, has been navigating my health challenges. I am always open about my health struggles; I want people to understand that the face of chronic illness is not always what we perceive and that a lot can be accomplished even when there is adversity.

We’d love to hear more about your practice.
I am a cannabis epidemiologist. I founded Canna Research Group to focus on cannabis outcomes research. We are a small, but mighty group of researchers with varied backgrounds who have a common goal: how can we help patients with chronic disease suffer less and can medical cannabis play a role? Our aim is to understand how medical cannabis can be used to alleviate the burden of disease by maximizing benefits and minimizing harms. Our three tenets are Integrity, Scientific Rigor, and Patient Focus.

• Integrity

 Our treatment of data, confidentiality, and commitment to the scientific community is unassailable

• Scientific Rigor

 We follow the highest standards of scientific research, statistical analysis, and disclosure practices.

• Patient Focus

 The care and well being of patients who will benefit through pain relief and improved quality of life are the focus of our research and educational programs.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I think timing is more apropos than luck. Cannabis research is in its infancy, which presents with opportunity and roadblocks. The roadblocks are the stigma, federal illegality of THC, and difficulty finding funding. The opportunity is the ability to conduct meaningful studies that can help direct future research.

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Image Credit:
Self and Bill Silvers

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