United Patients Group has been leading the way over the past few years as an unparalleled resource and trusted leader in the medical cannabis industry, helping patients, doctors and organizations become better informed. On the heels of its second annual conference, I reached out to founder John Malanca to learn more about United Patient Group’s mission and how it goes about delivering its essential services. His story is one that like many of ours was inspired by a personal challenge that introduced him to the potential benefits of medical cannabis. John used his own experience as a springboard to create an organization that now offers product reviews, continuing medical education and personalized consulting to help patients facing significant medical needs to navigate what can be a very confusing process.
AB: John, thanks for taking the time to talk about United Patients Group (UPG). When did you form it and what were the circumstances that led you to do so?
JM: We actually formed UPG back in 2011 after my father-in-law, Stan Rutner, at age 77, had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. He was going through all the traditional treatments, chemo, etc. – but began really taking a turn for the worse. His physicians decided he needed to be put on oxygen around the clock. He also was in the wasting stages of this horrible disease. At that point, his doctors told the family he had less than a month to live. My wife Corinne and I had been hearing about cannabis, but knew very little about its medical benefits. We asked his team if we could give it a try – essentially to see if it would stimulate his appetite and make him comfortable so he could pass peacefully – his oncologist said, “I know nothing about Cannabis but yes, go ahead”. The improvement in him was almost instantaneous. I’ve never seen anything like it. He was off of oxygen completely within two weeks and was eating like a teenager. Long story short, Stan is now age 82, completely lung and brain cancer free (and thriving) today.
AB: What are the services that UPG offers?
JM: We often say that UPG acts as a “virtual hand” for patients, by helping them navigate through the ever-changing medical cannabis climate. Education has been a core component of who we are – and we focused almost solely on delivering reliable information to patients and individuals for the first couple of years. But then we began to see the major lack of opportunities for professional-level education in cannabinoid therapy. So we worked on developing our own accredited cannabis education program that is based on up-to-the-minute cannabinoid research. We launched it officially last month during our conference. We also provide one-on-one consulting to consumers, patients and others who need that kind of individualized information or referrals. Our licensed medical professional consulting staff speak to people from all over the world every day.
AB: So, what is the void in the market that UPG is addressing?
JM: Well, as I mentioned earlier, we found there to be a huge gap between the availability of medical cannabis in the US, and a severe lack of information or formal education. From the doctor to the pharmacist, to the budtender in the dispensary – education is going to be essential, especially as the US continues to legalize in more and more states. Another area where we feel we’re meeting a different need, is in providing the true element of compassion, not just the “get rich quick” emphasis that seems to be sweeping our industry. Sure, there are profits to be made, but we’re trying to keep our standards high and our integrity intact. That’s why you don’t see us selling “UPG CBD Oil” or other types of products. We just don’t feel comfortable blurring those lines.
AB: Can you explain your business model? You are set up, if I understand correctly, as two entities, including a non-profit and a for-profit division.
JM: Yes that’s right – we formally launched our non-profit in July 2015. We felt strongly that much of the work we wanted to achieve would be best served via a not-for-profit arm of UPG. We really saw an increasing need to expand our services and take a leadership position in spearheading funding for research and clinical trials, and advocating formally for more truth and transparency in the industry, particularly as our government continues to shape and develop medical cannabis legislation. As I mentioned earlier, we saw a critical need to fund and build out cannabinoid education programs and training for healthcare providers, mental health professionals, nurse practitioners and others in the medical cannabis field. We’re incredibly proud to say that that particular goal is squarely on course, and others are moving forward.
AB: UPG offers a “seal of approval”. How does a company go about earning this, and how does this help patients?
JM: Almost immediately upon forming UPG, we were approached by all kinds of businesses and service providers that were interested in aligning themselves with us. We saw a huge discrepancy between organizations that were truly attempting to offer quality products or services in the cannabis industry and those that were simply trying to cash in on it. We felt we needed to establish a barometer to better gauge the level of quality and integrity associated with those companies. For example, if you are seeking the Seal of Approval for a product, we look for products that have been lab-tested (where applicable), are convenient to use, that are fairly priced – that’s a huge issue – and of high quality and ultimately patient-friendly. As the industry matures, having a benchmark to measure quality is going to have a huge impact, particularly for patients. For example, we will not endorse or grant the seal to a company that is blatantly overcharging for cannabis oil. When we hear of patients being gouged for thousands of dollars, when the cost of medical cannabis oil should really not be more than a few hundred dollars, that’s a problem. We feel passionately about patients being given access to quality, affordable medication and they shouldn’t be taken to the cleaners to obtain it. On a different note, packaging is also an area that we assess carefully. For instance, if an edibles company has a quality-tasting product, but the packaging doesn’t clearly state dosing, formulations, and warnings then that wouldn’t pass muster with us. Companies can go to our site and inquire about our Seal of Approval and we’ll send them the criteria questionnaire and requirements.
AB: How many patients does UPG help each month?
JM: The numbers are endless and vary month to month but we are a 24/7 organization and get inquiries from all over the world daily. While patients are a core focus for us, we also work regularly with their families or loved ones, medical institutions, governments, physicians, etc. It’s been exciting, and a little overwhelming, to have the level of interest and need be as intense as it is. We only see that growing exponentially as the legalization of cannabis continues to gain momentum. We’re working on scaling our business to accommodate the growing demand.
AB: You just hosted your second medical cannabis conference. What were some of the highlights?
JM: Oh wow – this was only our second conference, and the last one was for one day only. This year, we had three days where we took over Dominican University here in San Rafael, CA and essentially became a “campus-within-a campus”. It felt less like a conference, and more like an incubator-environment for people from all over the world. There were so many highlights, but I think a comment we received from one of our attendees sums it up best. He said “I feel like I’ve spent the weekend with all of the ‘A students’” – I loved that! Additionally, our pre-conference workshop for nurses was amazing. We offered a full day of CE approved courses and it was standing room only. We had nurses from as far away as Australia and China. That really made us realize that this movement that is medical cannabis, is truly remarkable. Our speakers ran the gamut from, what I call ‘medical cannabis pioneers’ like Coltyn Turner – a teenager who spoke about his longtime battle with Crohn’s Disease, and the life-saving impact that medical cannabis has had on him and his family – to professional athletes speaking out on the devastating effects that opioids had on them, and their discovery of the true medicinal benefits of medical cannabis. We had a former police vet, 7 years on the force, who suffered a devastating brain injury while in pursuit of a criminal. After 5 years of ineffective, and harmful, traditional treatment options, he turned to medical cannabis. The big message there was how the stigma of marijuana is interfering with people’s healing, health and wellness. No matter how many times I hear these stories, they only embolden me to keep on doing what we do at United Patients Group. It was a great weekend and we’re already making plans for next year.
AB: California is finally regulating medical cannabis twenty years after it was legalized, and the state may approve legalization recreationally for adults later this year. How does the changing landscape impact UPG?
JM: At its core, it really doesn’t affect us because we don’t sell products, but we do steer patients to the right resources. However, we do see an opportunity for California to essentially lead the rest of the nation in how we deal with the myriad of issues that come along with medical (or recreational) access to cannabis. However, while we definitely celebrate the efforts of the California legislature to bring new regulations to its 1996 medical cannabis law, there are several areas where we feel they fall short. Let’s tackle that in a separate interview!
AB: What are some of the initiatives that UPG is currently working on?
JM: Obviously, continuing to build out specific areas of instruction via our curriculum for medical and healthcare professionals is paramount. But one initiative we’re working on that is very exciting is within the pharmacist industry. We’re working very closely with the leading pharmacists advocacy organization, Pharmacy Planning Services, Inc. (PPSI), to focus on the vital role of educating this key sector of healthcare professionals on all elements involved with medical cannabis. We’re really pushing to see education expand on proper dosing, lab-tested products, and patient prescriptions down to the level of the personnel who is advising a patient in a dispensary. We would love to see a trained pharmacist in every dispensary someday. We can’t say enough how important the role of the pharmacist, and his or her knowledge of cannabinoid therapy is going to be as demand for, and access to medical cannabis expands.
AB: Thanks, John, for sharing your story with the New Cannabis Ventures community. We look forward to more success in the years ahead from UPG.
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