Dr. Chanda Macias believes patient access can be an incredibly potent tool in helping to eradicate the “pipeline to prison” in the South.
Macias isn’t making any grandiose claims, she is simply trying to improve life in the South — one piece of legislation at a time — not just for women, minorities or a specific group of people, but for everyone. Small achievements like adding flower products to Louisiana’s cannabis program and expanding the list of qualifying conditions, she says, lead directly to more people enrolling in medical marijuana programs, fewer people being charged with possession and fewer people going to jail.
“This is what I was born to do. This is my community, my thoughts, my prayers,” says Macias, the CEO of Ilera Holistic Healthcare, one of only two companies allowed to produce and process medical marijuana in Louisiana. “Cannabis is about doing good for your community. The more I change these laws and create open access, the more I am breaking that pipeline to prison.”
But Macias says it’s impossible for her, a wife and mother of four children who runs multiple companies in multiple states, to make these social changes on her own.
“I need more people to join this movement to be able to see it to its full fruition,” she says.
However, few people other than Macias have the resume to enact broad changes across an entire region that has staunchly opposed the liberalization of cannabis laws up until the last few years.
In addition to being chief executive of Ilera Holistic, she’s the CEO and chairwoman of Women Grow, the for-profit networking group, and the CEO of National Holistic Healing Center, a medical dispensary in Washington, D.C.
Macias majored in biology and minored in chemistry at Howard University, graduating with honors, before going on to earn a Ph.D. in cellular biology, also from Howard, and an MBA in supply chain management from Rutgers University.
During her doctorate program, she extensively studied cancer, and later, as Howard’s director of education for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, received a grant from the National Institutes of Health, allowing her to train doctors and medical students to address health care disparities in several global communities, including in Africa.
But for all the academic achievements, legislative wins and business successes Macias has experienced since she joined the industry, she says her biggest milestone was guiding a student with Stage 4 breast cancer on how to use cannabis as a medicine. Three months later, the cancerous tissue had disappeared.
“Can I say, as a scientist, it was 100% attributed to cannabis? I can’t,” Macias says. “But I contributed to saving her life.”
On top her long list of personal accomplishments, Macias was also crowned Queen Zulu for 2020 and 2021 by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a fixture of New Orleans culture and the Mardi Gras parade.
Playing a Long Game
Macias’ foremost concern is being a caregiver on a very, very large scale — and that means simultaneously tackling Louisiana’s problems with mass incarceration, racial disparities in health care and draconian marijuana laws.
The challenge is that there are different dynamics in play in the South compared to most of the rest of the country.
“There is the dynamic of the Confederate flag. There is the dynamic of oppression of women and minorities. And there’s already a multibillion-dollar industry in the South,” she says, referring to the prison industrial complex.
“The real problem isn’t legalization,” she says. “It is stopping the pipeline to prison and therefore how it impacts the prison system and the law enforcement system. That’s the No. 1 money-maker in the South.”
Macias is doing her part by focusing on cannabis advocacy, with the goals of increasing access to the medical marijuana program, decriminalizing the possession of flower and removing financial barriers to joining the legal market as an entrepreneur or consumer.
At its inception, Louisiana had quite possibly the most restrictive medical marijuana program in the nation. State regulations allow only 10 dispensaries, or “marijuana pharmacies” as they’re known in Louisiana, while two universities (Louisiana State University and Southern University) are licensed for all medical marijuana production. Southern, a historically Black college, partnered with Ilera Holistic for its cultivation and processing.
Although the Louisiana medical program continues to lag behind other states, Macias has already been instrumental in helping to add smokable flower to the list of approved products, which also legalized the possession of flower for registered patients. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards signed that bill into law in June, and also signed a bill removing the threat of jail time for low-level marijuana offenses.
Last year, Macias also helped to exponentially expand the state’s list of qualifying conditions.
Doctors can now recommend cannabis for any debilitating condition or ailment, rather than just 14 qualifying conditions in the original legislation.
“That was the first thing that I had to do to open up access for patients so there was no reason they could not use (cannabis) in the state,” she says. “I did the same thing in D.C. and eventually when West Virginia comes on board and in other states where I operate, that will be the first form of legislation because I have to stay true to my core and that is giving patients access.”
But cannabis is just one aspect of health care that has disproportionately impacted the Black community and people of color.
Macias says it’s vital to re-educate people who have learned not to trust the local or federal government, in part because of the way the War on Drugs tore up minority communities.
One example of the staggering racial disparity of health care in the South, Macias says, is Louisiana’s COVID statistics, which clearly demonstrate a lack of faith among Black residents for government-run health care.
At one point this summer, Louisiana had more COVID cases per capita in the previous seven days than any other U.S. state. A study published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that 77% of those hospitalized in New Orleans’ largest health system were Black. Typically, about 31% of those hospitals’ patients are Black.
Meanwhile, according to the CDC, only 25.5% of Black U.S. citizens have been fully vaccinated, the lowest of any ethnic group by a margin of more than 6%.
“When you think about what that actually looks like, it shows a continued health disparity in our community,” Macias says. “How do you change those hearts and minds, especially when the government has locked up their families and systemically impacted their quality of life, and then say, ‘Okay, we’re going to trust them?’”
Until trust is rebuilt and those communities are re-educated, “then it is kind of hard to move forward.” And the path to realize that goal has to be policy reform from a federal perspective all the way down the state and municipal levels, including legislation to expand opportunities to legally use cannabis that help rebuild the trust and clear the records the War on Drugs helped destroy.
“My mission is to pioneer the South for health care reasons, but in doing so I am very conscious of the laws that have been in place that have to be deconstructed,” Macias says, pointing to the laws that effect the population at large, but also, more specifically, those that have been previously incarcerated, those that are currently incarcerated and those that have impending cases for incarceration.
“There are so many policies and rules in place that we have to undo that are specifically for marijuana possession that come with mandated sentences.”