Sanctuary Spotlight: Kathleen McKinnon, Alternative Wellness Centers

  • By Jake May
  • Apr 29, 2022

Alternative Wellness Centers is a women-owned, multi-state “company with a conscience” dedicated to expanding access to alternative medicine and promoting total body health and wellness. Their network of medical professionals, alternative care professionals and staffers work individually with patients to mold optimum wellness, self-care and quality of life. Visit their website for more information, peruse its educational materials here and book an appointment with AWC here to access any of their services. 

What was your path to Canna Care Docs? How did your role develop and grow during those years?

I’ve had a few careers in my life, and I feel that they all cumulatively played a role in my path to cannabis medicine and specifically Canna Care Docs. In the early 1990s, I worked for a large healthcare clinic and HMO insurance company in Central MA doing physician’s billing and coding, seeing first hand how our healthcare system works. It wasn’t pretty, and it’s only gotten worse since then.  

After I had my family, I began working in education and the public school system. I worked in special education with the primary grades, and while I was working and raising my family, I was also going to school on nights and weekends working towards a dental hygiene degree. I left the public schools to go to hygiene school full-time, and I graduated with honors. As a hygienist, I was responsible for treating my patient with a focus on total body health and wellness, education, and bringing the patient to a healthy state.  Throughout all this, I was still a cannabis user. I graduated with honors and received awards, but I was still considered a “stoner.”

In early 2013, my life shifted. I got divorced, took a break from hygiene to help my sister with our aging mother and stumbled across a post on Facebook about medical marijuana.  It was Canna Care Docs; they were opening in Worcester and looking for part-time employees. I thought, “Well, I know [the] medical [field], and I know marijuana,” so I sent my resume over. I was hired as an educator and, in the beginning, we talked about vaping flower versus smoking and the differences between strains. At that point in time [in 2013], that was it; there were no vape pens, there were no edibles, there were no dispensaries. One of the most satisfying things for me would be when a patient left saying, “Wow, I really learned something today.”  That became my goal–get each patient to learn something new about cannabis. 

My medical background, educational and hygiene careers all came together and propelled me forward; I held almost every role at CCD as it grew. I was fortunate enough to be a hands-on part of a cannabis company setting the standards and writing many SOPs for other medical professionals to follow.  I saw the good, bad and ugly of working in the cannabis industry from the beginning and, in growing a company from a $0 to $10 million revenue stream in five years, you get to know what works and what doesn’t. When I was project manager, one of my most rewarding accomplishments was building the CCD education program and creating the first patient handbook. This was before dispensaries even opened. It was the first of its kind in New England; a full-color, full-size handbook that educated the patient on medical cannabis, concentrates, edibles, adverse effects and all the up-to-date information needed for a medical patient in any state. The other was the free veteran’s certifications. That was actually started by me in 2015, and CCD certified hundreds of veterans for free across the Northeast over multiple years. 

What prompted the move to Alternative Wellness Centers

CCD was sold, and a couple of Canadian men bought it in hopes of developing and using their proprietary software to streamline the process of cannabis certifications for physicians across the U.S. and Canada by collecting and analyzing data. As with all acquisitions, changes occur, and the focus shifted from patient care and education to data collection. The general feeling of being a family and team was no longer palpable, but I stayed on as VP of Operations for about a year after the sale. When you move to a more corporate setting, things change.

After I left in 2019, I took the summer off. One of the doctors I had worked with since the beginning in 2013 reached out to me and wanted to continue to work with me, and that’s how I decided to start AWC. He had felt some changes as well and was looking to transition, and I decided that I would continue my work in the cannabis industry and continue to focus on patient care, education and outreach. My business partner also worked with me at CCD and was my right-hand manager for years. Her husband had a life-altering accident right after I left, which in turn caused her to leave the company. It was the perfect timing and everything came together for us.  

We work with many of the doctors that worked with us at Canna Care. I developed great relationships with those staff and doctors, and those relationships continue to this day. Many of them have since started their own companies and things like that, but we still all have that foundation and those relationships we built over the years. 

What were some of your early intentions/plans that are still visible or active today?

Our foundation is patient care and education. Those have been my intentions since the beginning, and even after all these years of MA having a medical program, education is still needed. Things evolve and new products hit the shelves every month. For example, even though my entire staff has been doing this for over five years, we just did a Responsible Vendor Training so we can all be up to date with best practices, new methods, etc. We want to be on the cutting edge so we can give that to our patients–that’s really important to us. We are also continuing to educate the community by doing medical cannabis presentations to different audiences such as seniors and MS, Lyme Disease and chronic pain support groups.

Both Rebecca, my business partner, and I feel strongly about veterans and their ability to access safe, affordable cannabis. We have continued the practice of offering free veterans certifications twice a year; once in May for Memorial Day and again in November for Veterans Day. That won’t be going away any time soon. 

One of many ripple effects on cannabis from the pandemic was an uptick in cardholders. How else did the pandemic alter the playing field for medical cannabis in MA and beyond?

First, it placed cannabis medicine in the “Essential” category.  When everything shut down, the medical dispensaries were able to stay open as an essential business. That right there set the benchmark and was a huge victory for medical patients and the cannabis industry in general. 

Second, telemedicine wildly altered the playing field for medical cannabis certifications. People don’t realize it, but telemedicine has always been available for follow-ups; the first visit for patients always had to be in person. Not a lot of people did telemedicine before the pandemic in Massachusetts, so it shifted everything. The CCC extended that [policy] through June 30 of this year, where they will revisit it again. We are hoping they continue allowing new patients to access cannabis through telemedicine. There are many people in remote areas, people who are shut-ins, who don’t have a way to get to the doctor or are too sick–telemedicine definitely helps. 

It also opened the door for many out-of-state companies to provide certifications in MA. One of the problems we have seen is the customer service surrounding the CCC patient registration portal. Out-of-state companies are not familiar with the platform, and many are unable to help patients register. This can be a problem for older patients or patients who are not computer-savvy.  

Aside from the obvious reason, how does the medicinal cannabis infrastructure differ from adult-use dispensaries and sales?

Doses of products for medical patients are higher as well as the amount you can purchase, which is up to 10 oz. or its equivalent in 60 days. Medical patients do not pay tax on their purchases; a lot of people still don’t realize they’re paying a 20-percent-minimum tax as a recreational user, and there are some cities and towns that add on an excise tax as well. Medical patients are able to get discounts on products and accumulate points to use for discounts on cannabis, not just accessories. Medicinal users tend to layer products and will use topicals, edibles and flower or vape interchangeably and together throughout the day, therefore purchasing more. 

One thing we noticed is budtender recommendations in adult-use markets tend to push high THC percentages when, for some medical patients, high THC can be a negative thing. Education around that is paramount. The last thing is, with us at AWC, medical patients have access to the provider all year long, so they can call us and meet with a provider or educator at any time.   

What are some common misconceptions about medical cannabis? What do you wish more people knew?

Some people think they have to smoke it, that they are going to get “stoned” or “high,” that it’s a gateway drug or highly addictive, it kills brain cells. None of that is true. There are many ways to use cannabis that don’t involve smoking or getting high, and there are many products available that are non-combustible such as edibles, tinctures and topicals. Products are available in different strengths and can be used together–like topicals and tinctures–or contain just CBD so you get no stoned feeling. 

Getting CBD through a medical dispensary is so much more beneficial than getting it through a gas station, grocery store or a place where you don’t know the history of the product, where it came from, where it was grown, what the strengths are, etc. Cannabis is not addictive; actually, it is a neuroprotectant for brain cells and is not killing them. Cannabis can also help you reduce prescription medications, so the benefits definitely outweigh the risks when you’re dealing with medical cannabis. 

What markers of progress have you noticed in recent years? What are you seeing that has you excited for the future? 

The growing number of microbusiness licenses results in a lot of good products and choices available at the dispensaries for patients. The social equity program has finally seen licensees open shops, and delivery is now legal! I am excited about terpenes and to see some manufacturers listing the profiles on the label. I think that is the next education wave and look forward to learning so much more about them. I’m also excited about social consumption lounges and being on the forefront of that.  

Consequently, where does the industry still have room to grow? What are you hoping to see or improve? 

I believe one area where growth is needed is in the social acceptance realm. We need to provide safe areas where people can use their medicine if they are traveling, if they are not at home, at events, etc. These places have smoking areas for people using tobacco, and many people use vapes or combustible products for quick, easily titratable dosing and relief. I would like to see public places offer an area for patients to use their medicine easily and conveniently. I would also like to see more testing and terpene profiles listed on the labels of products being sold in the dispensaries. That’s, as I said, something that’s up-and-coming, but it’s all about growing and working together as an industry to continue beating that stigma down and making [cannabis] part of everyday mainstream life. 

What do you enjoy most about your current role? What gives you a sense of gratification or satisfaction? 

It can be a double-edged sword, but making the decisions is what I enjoy. It’s nice to have an idea and be able to run with it or try something out-of-the-box without having to ask permission. I like to take ideas from our employees and implement practices we might not have considered, but consequently, if you make a bad decision, you have to deal with that.

Being able to help people is satisfying and rewarding, and happy employees give me a sense of gratification. Being a strong leader for my team and being able to empower them is important to me. Finally, patients who have good experiences with the staff and let us know really float my boat!

If you could name your own strain, what would it be and why?

I think it would have to be The Big Cheese and it would have to be a sour-skunk combination. Those are my things, and that’s been my nickname for many, many years. It just suits me!