Deb McCauley, Sarasota, Florida

Deb McCauley had been a medical professional for more than two decades, and had juggled her own seizure medications for nearly as long, when a friend approached her in the summer of 2018 with an alternative she’d not considered.

Deb McCauley

“Cannabis can really help,” Deb’s friend told her – with sleep, pain and her peri-menopausal problems.

A former Air Force combat medic from a military family, cannabis had not been part of Deb’s experience.

“’Just say no’ was my life,” Deb says. “But I was just so tired, I was willing to try anything, even though it was illegal then in Virginia.”

As it turns out, her friend was right. It helped with all her conditions, and that gave Deb pause.

“Well, wait… Why does this work so well?” Deb remembers wondering. “It got my nursing brain working.”

After her epilepsy-related discharge from the Air Force, Deb had moved to northern Virginia, where she met her husband, with whom she had two sons, now ages 9 and 11. She worked in acute care and every aspect of hospitalization over the years that followed but retired from bedside nursing due to burnout and physical injury.

At the point where she discovered cannabis could help with all her maladies, Deb was finishing her undergraduate degree and considering graduate nursing programs. She turned to researching cannabis and its mechanisms of action. She found the Cannabis Nurses Network and the Cannabis Nurses Association. And she connected with Virginia NORML, which became her first network of allies.

“My knowledge as medical professional was sought after,” Deb says. “They wanted my clout.”

Deb McCauleyIn January 2019, she attended the Virginia NORML lobby day and discovered she could make a difference. It was intoxicating.

“That advocacy, talking with those legislators everyone is afraid of -- it was amazing,” Deb says. “They just wanted to listen, and they definitely wanted to listen to me, because I was a medical professional.  I know for a fact Tim Hugo, my representative, changed his vote on the MORE Act after that visit.”

Her confidence in confronting lawmakers was bolstered by her prior success negotiating her cannabis use with her doctors. She knew her neurologist not just as a patient but a nurse from working in the same hospital, so she brought him scientific articles and asked is he knew we have an endocannabinoid system. (He didn’t.)

“This is part of my passion--we need education!” Deb says. “He couldn’t fully endorse it because it was still illegal then, but he was really supportive.”

Together, they made a plan for tapering off the prescription drugs she took to control her epilepsy.

“I was off all my pharmaceutical medications by fall 2018,” Deb says. “It really helps with my focus, and I was doing so much better with school.”

That success gave her confidence to talk to lawmakers, and it convinced her to change her path in nursing. She decided to become a nurse practitioner (NP) so she could treat and educate patients directly. There was just one catch.

She had to pass a drug test to enroll in the program.

Secretly, she stopped using cannabis and started reintroducing the pharmaceutical medications. Within 10 days, her husband confronted her.

“You’re acting stupid,” she remembers him saying. “What did you do?”

She had not realized the cognitive side effects of the medications were obvious, or even the extent of them. The conversation with her husband made it clear the trade off was not worth it. So instead of an NP program, Deb is now in law school at Florida State University, pursuing a Juris Masters with focus on health care regulation.

“I want to understand laws and how to change them,” Deb says. “I know the intricacies of our bodily systems; I’d like to know the intricacies of the legal system.”

Her experience with cannabis has been profound. She’s been able to maintain her health and even lost 50 pounds. But it is the advocacy work she finds most compelling, something she realized on Capitol Hill, when she sat in the audience as members of Congress heard testimony on the MORE Act.

“I got bit by the advocacy bug at the Virginia Lobby Day, but sitting in on the first Judiciary Committee hearing -- that was amazing,” Deb says. “The adrenaline came back, like being an EMT. It was an invigorating day.”

Today, Deb is working with the Cannabis Nurses Network as the lead for their political action and advocacy group. Their current project is creating model legislation for a nurses protection act for municipal, state and federal lawmakers that would, among other things, remove pre-employment cannabis screening. She has also recently contracted with Relias to write a course for nurses.

“It’s been remarkable how I’ve been able to reengineer my nursing career and still benefit my community,” says Deborah. “It’s also shown me I have to be better in my self-care. I can’t take care of others if I can’t advocate and care for my most important patient—myself. That’s the nugget of advice I like to leave with everyone.”

This profile was originally published in the August 2021 ASA Activist Newsletter