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Code Green: Nurse Heather Dispenses More than Compassion

Nurse Heather: Two Decades at the Forefront of the Cannabis Movement

Since the dawn of legalized medical cannabis in America, Nurse Heather Manus has been fighting to expand access, improve products, and further education. Along the way, she’s worked with state governments (and sued them), earned degrees and manufacturing licenses, and founded a nationwide organization that has garnered the respect of some of the country’s most notable medical outfits.

But she’s not done yet.

By Matt Weeks

As access to cannabis increases, “Nurse Heather” wants medical education to grow alongside it. She envisions a future in which every patient who could benefit from cannabis medicine can learn about it from a trusted medical professional. She hopes that one day every dispensary will employ a licensed cannabis nurse. And she’s fighting to ensure that green medicine can take its rightful place among mainstream treatment options.

When historians look back on this time, they will add her name to the list of path-breaking patient advocates. But until that day arrives, she’s spending her days in San Diego at the helm of the Cannabis Nurses Network, helping to raise awareness, build community, and research new therapies.

From Trauma to Triumph

Manus came to both nursing and cannabis-based medicine through a personal tragedy. In 2000, she was assaulted and nearly killed. The incident left her with visible scars and suffering from the nightmare of PTSD.

But if the attack was brutal, the treatment wasn’t much better.

“I followed doctor’s orders for five years and took all of their psychiatric medications, which made me a zombie,” she said. “I couldn’t function as a human or a mother. It was awful. I tried to kill myself several times. I remember looking up one of the medications I was on, and they clearly stated that there was a potential for suicidality as an adverse effect. In that moment, I realized these doctors were making me sick.”

In a last-ditch effort to save herself, Manus threw her prescriptions away and started an all-natural treatment regimen. She spent time in nature, ate a clean diet, and washed it down with herbal tea. As she transitioned out of her pharmaceutical haze and into the world of the living, a friend suggested she supplement her efforts with a different remedy.

“When I was off of those pharmaceuticals, I started utilizing cannabis secretly. I had to keep that a secret because it was not legal at that time, but I had an herbalist friend that told me that I could benefit from just relaxing a little bit,” she said. “I had no idea the actual deep scientific impact that it was having on my endocannabinoid system, but I knew that it helped me feel better.”

The plant worked wonders. Her spirits came roaring back, and her PTSD subsided. Overjoyed, Manus dedicated her life to healing. She went back to school and graduated with honors, earning a degree in psychology and another in nursing.

And it wasn’t long before Nurse Heather found her life again changed by cannabis.

 

I said ‘I’ve got patients who are on oxygen. They’re not going to be smoking. What are we doing for smokeless alternatives?’ And the director of the program said to me, ‘Heather, honestly, we haven’t thought that far. We’re going to need you to figure that out.’ And so I did.

Cannabus Nurse Heather Manus testifies.

A Nurse Fights the Power

As a home healthcare nurse, Manus was accustomed to bonding with her patients. Her generous spirit and positive demeanor helped create bridges of trust. As they fought sickness, many confided they used cannabis to manage their conditions. In return, Nurse Heather searched for ways to help them.

“New Mexico had just passed its medical cannabis in 2007, so I started helping the patients who I knew used cannabis to get into the program,” she said. “This was the old days, so I would keep photocopies of the application form with me, and I would tell my patients they would be able to get cannabis legally and probably get better-quality cannabis, too, by signing up.”

But that’s not what happened.

Although the state had passed a measure to legalize medicinal cannabis, it was a full two years before it issued a single license. Residents could sign up for the program but had nowhere to buy, which left Manus’s patients relying on street deals to find relief.

Determined to make a deeper impact, Manus got more involved. She joined a dispensary as a medical consultant but felt stymied by the slow pace of change. After obtaining the first license in New Mexico, her dispensary began sales. But even that didn’t solve everything. New Mexico only allowed dispensaries to sell a few kinds of cannabis products, all of which required smoking. That wouldn’t cut it for some of Manus’s patients, so she took a meeting with the director of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program and put the issue to them bluntly.

“I said ‘I’ve got patients who are on oxygen. They’re not going to be smoking. What are we doing for smokeless alternatives?’ And the director of the program said to me, ‘Heather, honestly, we haven’t thought that far. We’re going to need you to figure that out.’ And so I did.”

With that, Manus became the first licensed manufacturer in the state to create smokeless cannabis products like gummies and oils. A short time later, she had another spat with another state government. This time, she took on Arizona’s list of qualifying conditions for medical cannabis. The state didn’t recognize PTSD treatment as a legitimate use of green medicine. Manus disagreed—and took them to the court.

After a legal battle, the court sided with Manus and forced Arizona to amend its law. The ruling caused sweeping changes across the country. In rapid succession, three more states—Hawaii, Washington state, and Nevada—altered their laws to recognize medical cannabis as an effective treatment for PTSD.

Physician, Heal Thyself

Having effected change in five states, Manus realized she could be more effective as an educator and organizer than as a nurse. Thus was the Cannabis Nurses Network born.

Since its founding in 2015, the organization has achieved immense success. With thousands of members nationwide, the network advocates for cannabis nursing by educating healthcare providers, recognizing excellence in cannabis nursing, and advocating for cannabis nursing within the community. It achieved an important victory in September, when the American Nursing Association announced it now formally recognizes cannabis nursing as a specialty.

“What I see for the future is more of an integration of cannabis and cannabinoid therapeutics within the healthcare setting,” Manus said. “I believe that cannabis as a nursing specialty is really going to help drive that further. We’re already seeing some shifts where nursing associations are asking the speakers’ bureau members from our network to come and teach and educate them about cannabis.”

With her eyes firmly trained toward the future, Nurse Heather’s journey has, amazingly, come full circle.

“Ironically, after 2020, many nurses wound up with PTSD after doing what they call their ‘tours of COVID duty.’ And it just so happens that I have quite a bit of experience with PTSD, so I’ve been doing a lot of work in helping to support and empower nurses to heal themselves through their post-traumatic stress,” she said. “The healthcare system itself has really jacked up our nurses and they’re hurting. A lot of them are coming to cannabis for treatment. Once they realize what it can do, now they feel very motivated to help other people and they want to do some kind of work in cannabis because it feels really good to do something where patients actually feel better afterward.”

Armed with degrees in both psychology and nursing, “Nurse Heather” Manus has spent nearly two decades at the forefront of the medical cannabis movement, doing more to legitimize plant medicine than nearly anyone else in the space.

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