Cherissa Jackson’s voice radiates confidence and compassion. She’s thoughtful, eloquent, and seems to have a purity of purpose that’s rare in American society. While she spreads her time between numerous projects, she unifies her focus by thinking about her three Ps: passion, purpose, and people.
Jackson applies this theme to every endeavor, and it’s most apparent in her work with We DeCode, a venture she launched in early 2022 to bring precision wellness to its clients.
We Decode is a DNA-testing service specializing in predictive, customized analysis. While Jackson doesn’t market We Decode DNA kits as “cannabis kits,” she is offering a unique insight into the interaction between cannabis and an individual’s endocannabinoid system based on genomic profile.
We Decode uses patented technology to inform clients which cannabinoid formulations are most effective for their specific genetic profile. Do you need more CBD and less THC? We Decode can tell you.
The company also pairs these insights with peer-reviewed research studies about cannabinoids or genomic markers so clients understand what their body needs and how to approach those needs with care providers.
Jackson created the company after a discussion with a fellow veteran who had replaced pharmaceuticals with cannabis. As a veteran who spent 23 years on active duty, including 10 years as a combat nurse in the U.S. Air Force, Jackson struggled with PTSD.
When she realized cannabis could be a gateway to healing for veterans like herself, she embarked on a mission of discovery. She enrolled in the Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics Master’s program at the University of Maryland.
Jackson said the program allowed her to “dive deeper into the history, the science of the plant, and how its efficaciousness is helping and changing the lives of so many people.” In this Innovator of the Year profile, Jackson reveals the science behind her innovation and discusses her hopes for the future of healthcare. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cannabis & Tech Today: What are you hearing from other veterans using medical cannabis?
Cherissa Jackson: Veterans who are taking the We Decode DNA test are discovering that they are not taking the most precise or the best products based on their DNA.
Many of them have shared their stories of entering the cannabis space because they didn’t want to use and have stopped using pharmaceuticals because they didn’t like the way it was making them feel. Some felt numb, some felt like they weren’t able to be present — present for their family, present for themselves, just not even present in the moment because of the way the pharmaceuticals were making them feel.
And then on the flip side, those veterans using opioids, they too started having those side effects that were making them paranoid and many of them cannot cope with those side effects. And as most people would know, there’s a suicide epidemic where 22 veterans take their lives each day based on their PTSD mental health challenges and also opioid and substance abuse.
So to hear these veterans say that they are actively participating in their health by making their own decisions and choosing not to be on pharmaceuticals and choosing plant medicine has been something that I think is happening more readily than the community actually knows.
C&T Today: When did you realize there was a need for a program like We Decode?
CJ: We launched on April 20, 2022. The need came in ’21 after I started my master’s program at the University of Maryland.
I was surrounded by other students that were thinking about entrepreneurship and then constantly facing or being in the same place with veterans sharing their stories. Then I think I read a statistic that said, “It takes on average between three to six months, if not longer, for someone to find that sweet spot, find that secret sauce, if you will, of products that work for them. And by the time they discover the right particular gummy, tincture, or flower, folks have spent upward of five to $7,000 on products.”
So imagine getting a product and it’s not working, and you’re going back trying and trying again to find a product that does work for your pain, your anxiety, your depression — and it’s not working.
It’s not like you can take the products back to the dispensary to try something else. So it was that statistic that I thought, “Hmm, if there’s a way to help the community, to help veterans find their products sooner, we can save them time and we can save them money.” And that was the catalyst that sparked me to create We Decode.
C&T Today: How did you discover which genome sequences would correspond to specific cannabinoids or terpene profiles, and vice versa?
CJ: It’s a matter of finding those particular markers that we’ve discovered for our wellness kit that are going to give us the most health information that we target.
By targeting those particular genomes and those genes that we’re going to sequence using a patented IP algorithm, we’re able to give that precise prediction on which product’s going to work for individuals.
Our test doesn’t provide information on all the cannabinoids because all of the cannabinoids have not been researched. What has been researched in abundance are THC and CBD. So we can predict and give people precise matching based on those two cannabinoids.
Of course, there are a hundred-plus terpenes out here, so we’re focused on those that have been researched.
Every recommendation the report gives a customer has a scientific article or some type of scientific attachment where a person can read about that particular gene and why this is specific to them. We pair the recommendation for a particular cannabinoid or terpene with a peer-reviewed scientific article.
C&T Today: How have you seen your health impacted by understanding your genetic profile?
CJ: The biggest thing is backing away and not using as much THC. When you enter the cannabis space, unless you’re knowledgeable about your health, you can easily take too much THC when your body may not need that.
So for me, having to see that my body doesn’t need the amount of THC I was taking was so helpful because I never needed that euphoric effect.
It confirmed that my body doesn’t need as much THC as possible. With the entourage effect, you want to get the whole plant to be effective, so my body does need some THC, but the amount I was taking prior to my DNA test far surpassed what my body needs.
So the greatest thing I think the reports offer customers is not only autonomy but helping them understand their whole health. We’re branding ourselves not as a cannabis kit, but as a wellness kit because it provides information about your whole health.
It tells you about your metabolism. It tells you if you had an opioid dependency or alcohol dependency, or if there are any concerns about gluten or lactose intolerance.
It provides a framework about their health that they can then take to their provider and their provider can gauge their care plan, they can gauge how they monitor their health by using our reports.
C&T Today: What are the biggest barriers preventing someone from pursuing DNA testing?
CJ: Healthcare is going towards precision medicine, and precision medicine comes from DNA testing. In most hospitals when providers are uncertain of what’s happening with the patient, they tend to steer in the direction of doing a DNA test.
I think the biggest hurdle for most patients and customers is trusting who has their DNA, which is why we have a HIPAA-compliant portal, so I don’t get to see the patient’s results. No one but the patient gets to see those results.
C&T Today: What prevents people from exploring cannabis as a medical treatment option?
CJ: I think the stigma is still out there and it’s going to take folks like myself, the cannabis community as a whole, to help that shift in the community. When we’re talking about it the narrative has to change because the plant has changed over the years.
What the war on drugs did to the persona of cannabis and what the war on drugs propaganda did to change the perspective of what this plant can do has been damaging. Now we’re having to undo that damage to educate the community about the efficacy of the plant and use science as a means to support the efficacy. That is what we’re out here doing as advocates.
So I think that’s the biggest challenge, overcoming that stigma. And when people are wanting to try it, it shouldn’t be a rolling of the eyes or any type of negative comments about someone trying the plant when our bodies were designed for it.
That’s the purpose of the endocannabinoid system, is to uptake plant cannabinoids. So I think it’s just having that narrative be more positive out in the community and having people who are talking about this plant talk about it in a more positive light, sharing the good that this plant is doing, sharing the efficacy of this plant, and showing how it’s saving and changing the lives of customers.
C&T Today: What does innovation mean to you and what inspires you to innovate your space?
CJ: I think my inspiration comes from really thinking about my three Ps. The three Ps that I always look to for being creative, being innovative, is making sure I align myself with my three Ps. My three Ps are passion, purpose, and people. So if anything that I’ve tried to pursue does not align with those, then it’s not something I’m even interested in.
For me, innovation is key to saving and changing the lives of customers or patients. Being in the healthcare field, I’ve seen how innovation has saved lives, coming from seeing veterans on the battlefield, seeing them at Walter Reed, and being at level one trauma centers where you have state-of-the-art technology and seeing how that technology is being used to save lives.
I’ve always been interested in and intrigued by innovation because I know what change it can do in the healthcare system. I’ve seen it firsthand, having seen veterans who have multiple amputations, and seeing them live their best lives now.
Living their best lives, swimming, skiing, and just doing the unthinkable though they don’t have limbs. Innovation is so important for giving people the quality of life they deserve. For me, being an innovator, it’s who I am because it aligns with my three Ps: passion, purpose, and people.
I see and have seen firsthand what innovation can do. I will never forget my encounters with those veterans who were given innovations and they’re living their best lives now. That would be what inspires me to be creative in an innovative space.
C&T Today: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
CJ: What I want readers to know is this technology is the route that healthcare is going. Whether or not you’re using it to figure out your cannabinoid match or your terpene matches, that’s not the overarching goal here.
The overarching goal here is a formula. The formula is early detection (our DNA test), plus treatment (either through holistic means or through cannabis plant medicine), which equals a decrease in healthcare costs, which saves lives.
When you look at that formula, that’s exactly what technology is. That’s exactly what innovation is.
This article first appeared in Volume 4 Issue 4 of Cannabis & Tech Today. Read the full issue here.