Anna Symonds, Portland, Oregon

At an age when most competitive athletes have called it quits, Anna Symonds is still on the rugby pitch, 20 years after her first scrum. She credits cannabis for that.

Originally a soccer player, Anna switched to rugby in college and continues to play at the elite level in the USA Rugby Women's Premier League. As with most all aging athletes, Anna found her injuries started to accumulate over the years.
“Some things you never completely heal from,” she says. “Recovery takes longer.”

Rugby, like many contact sports, has a big drinking culture, with matches followed by socials with the opposing teams. The alcohol will temporarily numb the pain of playing hard and hitting the ground with no protective gear, but Anna discovered she felt even worse the next day, with alcohol intensifying the inflammation.

As a player on the west coast, Anna had teammates who always used cannabis. She substituted it for alcohol right after a game and experienced immediate pain relief and antiinflammation.

“I was like, Woah! This is medicine!” she remembers. “It was an ‘aha’ moment.”

Starting in 2013, Anna began using cannabis more systematically, honing her use to support her performance and wellness. At the same time, she was training a lot, having added Mixed Martial Arts to the rugby, and she found her drinking tapering off, so she made a decision to cut out the alcohol.

“Drinking wasn’t a problem, but I realized it wasn’t giving me anything beneficial, so I just let it go from my life,” she says. “By contrast, I was seeinΩg the benefits I was getting from cannabis. I knew from my experience using it that cannabis isn’t dangerous, so I didn’t believe the drug war propaganda.”

That was when she began to identify as a medical cannabis user. That fall, she injured her back, herniating a disc with two bulging discs above, creating acute pain that continues today.

“I was prescribed painkillers and muscle relaxants,” Anna says. “But cannabis was by far the best for managing that pain and muscle spasm, and also to continue being an athlete.”

In 2014, Anna saw what cannabis can do for managing even more serious conditions, as she provided support for a good friend with aplastic anemia who needed a bone marrow transplant. As she sat at his side through months of chemotherapy, her friend, who is healthy and thriving now, shared his belief that “medibles” were what allowed him to survive the process.

“My belief in cannabis comes not just from my experience but what I saw at his side,” Anna says. “It was very powerful.”

Since Anna lived in Oregon, where medical use has been allowed since 1998, she had a friend who was an organic medical grower she could trust for access to cannabis. But in early 2016, as Oregon’s new adult-use regulations pushed medical cultivators into the new system, Anna decided she needed to get involved with the medical providers.

“I got my medical card then, which might seem counterintuitive, but I felt it was a political issue,” she says. “I needed to take a stand that I use this medically, that this is a medical issue.”
Anna had been using her English degree and masters in communications working in marketing and admin for an environmental engineering firm, but she started applying those skills to helping medical growers with their paperwork for the transition. In the process, she became concerned with how to make cannabis available for everyone in the face of new costs. Medical users are caught between paying a 17-20% tax in the adult-use market or paying a $200 registration fee for a medical card, on top of the cost of a doctor’s visit for a recommendation.

“I’ve talked with so many people who are not familiar with cannabis but are interested -- elderly women, cancer patients, and the like,” Anna says. “It’s infuriating and heartbreaking helping people with how to navigate dispensaries and how to use when they are on fixed incomes and shouldn’t pay the tax or the fees.”

This made it natural for Anna to begin work in the cannabis industry as an activist. In 2017, she began her current job as a cannabis science educator for Eastfork Cultivars. As cannabis education became her full-time focus, she became aware of more aspects of the issue both in legal states and the nation as a whole.

“I have a soft spot for the underdog,” Anna says. “I don’t like to see the powerful holding down people with less power, so I feel strongly that cannabis is a human rights issue, and there is so much work to do on social justice.”

Anna is also working to make cannabis more available as a treatment in sports. She is part of the organization Athletes for Care that has petitioned the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) to remove THC from its list of banned substances. The petition, which was signed by about 200 former and current pro athletes from variety of sports, argues that cannabis does not fit the three criteria for being banned, as it is not performance enhancing, it is not bad for the athlete’s health, and it does not violate the “spirit of sport.”

“WADA has been moving in right direction, but the problem is social and political stigma that is completely unscientific.” Anna says. “Science has been suppressed, and active disinformation from governments has spilled over into society so much that we still see it as a drug of abuse.”

Anna will be starting her 20th season in women’s rugby this year as openside flanker #7, a demanding position. She’s excited to get back on the pitch and eager for more opportunities to spread the message about how cannabis has helped her.

“How could I not use any chance that I have to share the truth and a message of freedom and rights around health and wellbeing?

This profile was originally published in the March 2020 ASA Activist Newsletter