From Big Pharma to Cannabis Advocacy: Whistleblower Victoria Starr on Doing the Right Thing

Pharmacists don’t typically advise their patients to utilize the healing properties of cannabis. Testing concerns, lack of federal legalization and a general absence of solid research from the U.S. tend to keep the healing plant outside the realm of prescribed medicine. Enter Victoria Starr. A registered pharmacist, she now acts as a consultant and educator to clients, politicians and doctors through NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southwest Washington, and has partnered with Oregon-based Gesundheit Foods to create an upcoming line of high-end edibles.

The reason she no longer works for Big Pharma? She exposed her former employer’s unethical practices, resulting in one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in American history. Starr was instrumental in taking down Janssen, a subsidiary of pharma giant Johnson & Johnson, and its inaccurate marketing of Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug. The story is soon to be chronicled by George Clooney and the creators of Making a Murderer in an upcoming Netflix documentary.

From Big Pharma to Cannabis Advocacy: Victoria Starr

When I spoke with Starr, she had just returned from a trip to Morocco where she took cooking classes and explored the local cuisine. She adores yoga, cooking, gardening and throwing lavish dinner parties for her friends and family. Cheerful and frankly honest, Starr’s authenticity is hard to deny. She is a woman who knows her own heart.

I asked if she missed working in the pharmaceutical industry. “Oh, I knew it wasn’t for me,” Starr quickly responded. She felt uncomfortable being forced to push Risperdal onto children and the elderly, in part because the drug wasn’t meant to be a “catch-all, cure-all” drug-yet that’s how it was being presented to clients. As of this writing, nearly twenty-thousand lawsuits have been filed against Johnson & Johnson in the U.S. and Canada for the resulting gynecomastia (breast growth in boys) that came from Risperdal use.

These days, Starr advocates for the use of cannabis as part of one’s healing journey through her work with NAMI-if it makes sense for the patient’s symptoms. A sufferer of Chronic Lyme disease, she experienced debilitating pain in her day-to-day life before experimenting with the healing properties of cannabis. “It was very much the type of pain that made me unable to have an active lifestyle, to do the things I love,” she recalls. Her husband suggested they visit a dispensary to see if they could find a product to alleviate her symptoms, but the trial and error of finding the right balance of THC and CBD became an issue. She missed going on hikes with her dogs, doing yoga, paddle boarding.

“I didn’t have the energy to see what was going to work,” Starr says. “It’s unfortunate. What do you try? As a pharmacist, I was interested in looking at specific strains-specific ways I could get a dose, or a specific ratio of CBD to THC, and I kind of experimented with that. It was really difficult.” It took Starr over six months to find her perfect combo: A ratio of 4:1 CBD to THC that mitigated pain, without noticeable psychoactive effects.

Industry standard concerns led Starr to partner with Gesundheit Foods-a Portland-based company focused on high-quality, fresh ingredients-on a line of infused products. Edibles are often the safest option for those who suffer from auto-immune disorders, as they cannot smoke cannabis. “We need another avenue to get this medication into us,” Starr explains. “With the formation of Gesundheit, we’ll be able to have a consistent product, a healthier product, and we can actually directly formulate very specific medicines.”

The Gesundheit Foods cannabis line will stay away from the sugary baked goods that saturate the current edibles market, and instead focus on organic, non-GMO ingredients. “No junk,” emphasizes Starr. Infused beverages, coconut oil, post-workout powders and even spreads such as margarine, peanut butter, jam and hazelnut are all in the works at Gesundheit. Their facility boasts a 5000-square-foot kitchen, and they plan for the space to act as an experimental venue where guests can sample and test new creations. The company also intends to give back to the community and donate to mental health foundation organizations.

Her desire for precision dosing undoubtedly comes from her own struggle to find the correct cannabis prescription, as well as her work with clients at NAMI, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s and use cannabis to self-medicate. She consults with patients and recommends strains she believes will be beneficial to their specific symptoms. “People have always used cannabis for a recreational high, to get stoned,” Starr notes. “But for me, it’s more interesting [to look at] the medical aspects of it, breaking it down, to help with the different problems people might have.”

Doing the right thing seems hardwired into Starr’s DNA. She reflects on her time as a whistleblower and the uncertainty of her decisions: “I honestly felt like a small, insignificant person when the investigation started,” she remarks. “I was so young and naive, but I knew that what was happening was wrong, and I was willing to speak up.”

Whether its globe-trotting, her advocacy work, or experimenting with new edible concoctions, Starr is content with the path her life has taken. “So much of what I do comes from an irrepressible passion to help others live better lives,” she explains. “I feel that each and every person has a unique gift to share. It is held deep inside. The goal is for each of us to tap into that gift. Let your intuition guide you. Just follow it. If it’s for the good of all, you can’t go wrong.” Starr says she has zero regrets about her decision to leave Big Pharma. “Being in the trenches is more exciting to me.”

From Big Pharma to Cannabis Advocacy: Victoria Starr

Katie Conley

Katie Conley is an editor at DOPE Magazine. She enjoys watching schlocky movies, listening to comedy and true crime podcasts, singing karaoke and napping in inopportune places.

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