International cannabis-infused edibles company Wana Brands’ mission is “to enhance people’s lives through the power of cannabis.”

Nancy Whiteman, CEO of Wana Brands, says the company is living up to its mission even further through its recently developed $50-million charitable organization, Wana Brands Foundation (WBF).

WBF focuses its funding on initiatives such as research, education, food security, shelter, safety, mental health, sustainability, connection and social justice, Cannabis Business Times previously reported.

In October 2021, Canadian LP Canopy Growth Corporation announced its plan to acquire Wana Brands for $297.5 million in cash, and money from that deal was used to fund WBF, Whiteman says.

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“I really wanted to take a big chunk of that [money from the deal] and put it into something that allowed me to, first of all, give back to the industry, but give back to the world,” Whiteman says.

“We chose a number of issues that we had already been focused on and wanted to intensify our focus on. I call them ‘life essentials’,” she says. “What I mean by that is, it’s hard to enhance your life when you’re hungry, and you don’t have a place to live, and you don’t have the right to vote, and you don’t have social justice, and you don’t have a clean environment. So, we really wanted to focus the foundation [to] donating to nonprofits that were really working in those important areas.”

© Courtesy of Wana

Whiteman “There’s no shortage of people who need help right this minute. And the organization’s mission is to do that, and we want to support that with a lot of direction from our local partners and our local markets,” Nancy Whiteman, CEO, Wana Brands

The foundation is also focused on funding research and education related to cannabis and psychedelics and focused on improving mental health, Whiteman says.

Most recently, the organization donated $3 million to Johns Hopkins University for cannabis and psychedelic research—$2 million was earmarked for Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences to support cannabis and cannabinoid research, and $1 million was donated to the university’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.

“A lot of the issues that we see in the world can be traced back to people having mental health issues,” Whiteman says. “So, I was particularly excited about the opportunity to partner with Johns Hopkins because of their focus in that particular area, both plant medicine and then also the therapeutic use of plant medicine for things related to mental health.”

A Look Inside

Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, says the donation from WBF allows the university to get creative in its research and conduct studies it believes to be the most impactful and beneficial.

“The nice thing about a gift like this is that it’s really unencumbered, and it allows us creativity to do things that we think are most important … and doesn’t force us to tailor proposals to the priorities of funding agencies,” he says. “So, this is essentially a blank slate, and we get to really stop [and] think about what we think would be most important, most interesting, most fascinating.”

While Vandrey says he anticipates the university to conduct multiple studies with the donation, the initial research projects it will be used for include conducting clinical trials to explore the potential use of cannabinoids to treat autism in children and adults and conducting human laboratory research to understand the interactions between THC and select terpenes found naturally in the cannabis plant.

Vandrey says his colleague, Jay Salpekar, Ph.D., director of the Pediatric Neuropsychiatry Center at Kennedy Krieger Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Johns Hopkins, will be the principal investigator for the autism research.

Salpekar also treats children with seizure disorders, children with autism as common co-occurring disorder in kids with epilepsy, as well as children who have autism without seizures, Vandrey says.

“In this work, he has found there is a lot of interest and there’s a lot of promise in potentially using CBD and perhaps CBD in combination with other phytocannabinoids or terpenes as a potential therapeutic to help with autism, so he is going to explore that,” Vandrey says. “I couldn’t give you any details at this point as far as the exact formulation of the product that he’s going to be using. That’s still [to be] determined, but we’re hoping that with the announcement of this gift, to get going on designing that trial and getting it off the ground as quickly as possible.”

While Vandrey says he cannot speak to exactly how the funds will be used within the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, he says he has had some discussions with Frederick Barrett, Ph.D, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins, regarding how cannabis and psychedelics might overlap and how they might be different. “A gift like this might allow us to explore that a little bit further,” Vandrey says.

The university first needs to finalize the ideas and protocols and then, because cannabis and psychedelics are both controlled substances, it needs to receive regulatory approval from the local institutional review board, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Drug Enforcement Administration before it can begin recruiting participants for the studies, he says.

Vandrey says he anticipates the university to begin the first study within six months, which will be the clinical trial on adults with autism since the university already received regulatory approval for that project. “It was a project that we were attempting to fund internally and using other sources, but it was really inadequate funding. So, we’re going to implement that project with the gift … from the Wana Brands Foundation.”

Following the adult autism study will be the clinical trial on looking at the use of cannabinoids to treat children with autism, followed by yet-to-be-determined research that takes place within the psychedelic center, he says.

WBF Key Initiatives

While Whiteman says WBF is initially focused on the Johns Hopkins research, in the future, it’s looking to fund education that helps historically underrepresented groups in the industry get more education and training.

Related to research, WBF gifted a $25,000 grant to Realm of Caring this year, whose mission “is to improve the quality of life through sharing cannabinoid research, educational services, and advocacy,” Whiteman says.

WBF also focuses on social justice within the cannabis industry and gifted nearly $50,000 this year to nonprofits focused on social justice, including the Reentry Initiative, Last Prisoner Project, Expunge Colorado, and National Expungement Works, according to a press release.

The organization also donated $25,000 to the League of Women Voters to support voter education and resources and $500,000 to Out Boulder County, whose “mission is to facilitate connection, advocacy, education, research and programs to ensure LGBTQ+ people and communities thrive in Boulder County and beyond,” according to the release.

In addition, following a tragic shooting at King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo., last year, the organization gifted the Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado for a memorial to the victims and survivors, according to the release.

Moreover, in recognition of 4/20 this year, WBF donated $140,000 to nonprofits within the 13 U.S. states Wana Brands operated in at the time, dedicated to fighting food insecurity.

Whiteman says the foundation seeks a balance of local and national initiatives to fund and listens its local communities to hear what nonprofits they want supported.

“Our goal for 2023 is to do the type of activation that we did for 4/20, four times a year. So, four times a year, we want to choose an issue. For 4/20 we did food insecurity, but we might choose another issue that’s important to us and fund nonprofits in our local markets … and then continue to evaluate larger gifts,” Whiteman says.

“In the short run, there’s no shortage of people who need help right this minute,” she says. “And the organization’s mission is to do that, and we want to support that with a lot of direction from our local partners and our local markets.”