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What to know about cannabis-infused massage

Licensed massage therapist Jennifer Chan is at the forefront of a revolution, one that has given access to people seeking relief and comfort from injury and illness with the help of cannabis topicals. CHABA – Cannabis Health and Beauty Aides – became legal for use in Washington State in 2015, and since then, Chan has begun educating massage therapists about their use. Here, Chan shares her story and explains that if you’re suffering from chronic pain, an injury or debilitating stress, massage with the use of CHABA could make a world of difference.

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How and why did you pursue massage therapy as a career?

I’m Chinese-American. At a young age, my parents instilled how important massage is so I was always interested in it. After I’d gotten into my first accident – a car accident – it was chiropractic care and massage therapy that I thought of as being “normal” instead of surgery. So that just made me more intrigued about massage in general.

I used to live on the east coast; I was born on Long Island and moved to the DC metro area where I got my license, and then I moved out here to Seattle because my parents needed help with their company.

I started massaging again and I was going to people’s homes, and they were providing me with their own cannabis-infused topicals – which I came to find out later was illegal for me to use because even though in Washington State there was a medicinal [cannabis] industry at the time, it was still illegal for me to touch a federally-scheduled drug by the people who regulate my license.

That’s where CHABA came into effect; in 2015, I did a news clip on cannabis-infused massage and how important it was, but it was technically illegal. At the time, there was a law that was being written – two months later it was signed and came into effect. It distinguished what CHABAs were, and removed them from the Washington Controlled Substance Act so they’re not technically considered a drug here, and that’s what we’re legally allowed to use as licensed massage therapists in Washington State.
 

Can you explain what CHABA is and what properties they have?

Things that are distinguished as CHABA in Washington State are topicals that have less than 0.3% THC, so any topical that has less than 0.3% THC, we’re allowed to use. I prefer to use whole plant product as it's  better than using a single isolate, meaning the products I use do not solely contain CBD.

The THC in CHABA is so low that the therapeutic properties are there but there’s no psychoactivity – you’re not going to get high from it. The people who come to me, who are just so desperate for relief from chronic pain or inflammation that they’ve been dealing with – they’ve heard from a friend or through the grapevine about CHABA – they start asking questions and start trying the products. They’re interested in something they can get relief from but don’t want to alter their mood or anything like that.

There’s not enough evidence yet to say you can or can’t get high from products that have more THC content. But I know people who have made their own stuff, and they’ve actually become high.

In terms of legalization, topicals are the most under-utilized form of consumption. People think cannabis and they think of smoking; half the people I know out there don’t smoke because they can’t smoke. To me, it’s not only the least utilized option but it’s the easiest form of consumption. It’s the only type of consumption where if you don’t like it, you can wash it off and you’re good to go. The only reason a person would say they didn’t like a topical is because they’re allergic to something in it or not a fan of the scent.
 

What’s changed since the CHABA law went into effect?

When I did that news clip and started telling people about the law, no one believed me. Over the past couple of years, awareness has grown. I teach a continuing education class in Washington State with regards to CHABA and massage, and the same thing has happened in my class – the first one, I asked them, “Why are you here?” and now, every single student says people are asking them about it and they want to know more. They’re bringing me different topicals and saying, “My clients are asking me this question and that question”.

I don’t know if my clients and students are gung-ho about using the topicals, but they at least want the information so they can let their clients know what’s going on, and know what to do and what not to do in certain situations so they do not practice out of scope and they won't create a criminal violation.

It takes time – the law was only signed two years ago and Washington is the birthplace of the CHABA law. There’s no law anywhere else like it. CHABA is now considered mainstream – you can find these products in your local grocery store.

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What do you find in terms of attitude and awareness when it comes to cannabis between people on the east and west coasts?

We have scientists and doctors who are doing so much research here and spreading the knowledge within the cannabis community – that’s how we learn. And they’ve created a safe community for us to ask these questions. That’s how I know what I know, and what I’m trying to do with my class. We need to create these communities because that’s how we all learn and educate each other.

In Washington State, massage therapists are considered health care providers, so it’s a different world coming out here. We’re respected more in the health care field, and more therapists I know are doing more injury-type massage, dealing with insurance and such.

I feel that doctors and nurses, even though they aren’t taught about cannabis in their schooling, they know about it and they’re talking to each other about it. There are conferences left, right and center about the topic. Right now, I’m working with these great nurses – if you haven’t heard of Cannabis Nurses Magazine or the Cannabis Nurses Network, you should check it out – who all around the U.S. are meeting with each other and educating their fellow nurses. They’re spreading the knowledge – it’s there and they know it.
 

In addition to your practice, are you otherwise involved in the cannabis industry or activism?

I’m a member of national NORML and also NORML Women of Washington – I’ve also been a part of the Marijuana Business Association, Vashon Island Marijuana Enthusiasts Alliance, the Cannabis Alliance, and the Women's Cannabis Alliance. We’ve come together and we educate each other, we work on legislation so we go and lobby, and we educate ourselves. We educate people for normalization.

For more information about CHABA and massage, read this story Jennifer wrote for the Washington State Massage Therapy Association.

Interview by Odessa Paloma Parker

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