"When I first started this business and would broach the subject of what I did for a living, I never knew how people were going to respond," Mary Jane's Medicinals founder Dahlia Mertens told me when I sat down with her during the first week of April. "I got a lot of judgmental looks in the beginning," she added, laughing.
Mertens, who grew up in the suburbs of New York City and studied theater at University of Colorado Boulder, never imagined that her future would be in the cannabis industry. Even when her college sweetheart convinced her to put her budding career in film and television on hold and head back to Colorado for a more laid-back ski-bum life, she was very clear about the parameters of the move — "Only one Winter, and only if it's Telluride" — and insisted that they return back to New York so she could continue pursuing what she felt was her life's calling.
As with all of the best-laid plans, that never happened.
Mertens fell in love with Telluride and never left. The "little cultural hub, out there in the middle of nowhere" provided her with ample opportunities to get involved in theater, but not a whole lot of ability to be financially solvent — so she took up a side career in massage.
"I'd always been interested in alternative healing and medicine and energy work," she said, explaining the impetus behind enrolling at a local massage school. "I didn't think I was going to be a massage therapist forever, but I thought it might lead me somewhere."
After six years of the theater-and-massage life in Telluride, Mertens started thinking about launching her own natural and herbal product line for use in the massage therapist business. As the wheels began to turn, she took a trip out to Northern California — a trip that wound up changing her life forever.
"Back then, I had been dating this guy who was in the black market in weed in Colorado, but I had never really been exposed to plants growing outside," she explained.
"We drove in, after this epic 28-hour drive to Northern California, when the sun was setting. It was beautiful; golden and orange and pink light over the pink hills of Trinity County, and when we got there, our friends said, 'Do you guys want to see the garden of the giants?'"
"They walk us out to the hillside and it's harvest time so the plants are massive, and they're just laden with these beautiful colas, covered in resin and the sunset's warm light. I remember being overwhelmed by the beauty of the plants, and I thought, 'Wow, these plants are really special.' Right then, a fan leaf from one of the plants gently caressed my cheek, and I thought, 'Oh, they heard.' And that was a very powerful experience for me."
Mertens laughed while recounting the experience, noting that a much older denizen of the weed industry deemed that the first moment when the plants really spoke to her (she agreed). But the tale of her origins isn't merely this lofty moment at dusk; instead, a very grounded moment that took place a few days later was her true first step in the journey toward becoming a pioneer in the topical cannabis industry.
"A girlfriend of mine had infused some grapeseed oil with cannabis and said, 'Let me massage your neck with this,' and of course I was like, 'That isn't actually going to do anything' — but I'm also not going to say no to a neck massage," Mertens recalled.
"I hadn't smoked any weed that day — at weed camp, you're pretty much infused every day, but that day was a clearheaded day — yet after she finished massaging my neck, I noticed that I didn't feel at all high but surprisingly felt the muscles in my neck release, felt a warmth begin to spread, and noticed an increase in circulation."
It was 2009, and medical marijuana had just begun gaining momentum in Colorado. When Mertens returned home, she started mixing up products right in her kitchen — and using it on her existing massage clients.
"It was before any of the regulations, so dispensaries were popping up left and right — anyone could enter the market," she explained.
"I thought the products were just going to make for a more relaxing massage, but then my clients kept coming back to me with testimonials. Stories of chronic pain issues going away, chronic circulation issues being relieved, skin problems, diabetic neuralgia pain — all these different things; migraines, cold sores, psoriasis. I didn't know how it worked back then — we didn't have that much information at that point — I just knew that it was working."
With $1,500 in her bank account and as many containers and gallons of oil as she could buy, Mertens launched her very own company: Mary Jane's Medicinals. But before we get to the second half of her story, let's quickly run through how these products do, in fact, work — a subject that Mertens is now an expert on.
"The endocannabinoid system is a system in our body that controls homeostasis — appetite, sleep, stress, and the healing response — and it's comprised of two main things: these chemicals that your body creates, called endocannabinoids, and the receptors that are integrated throughout your nervous system," Mertens told me.
"The chemicals bind to those receptors and send messages through your nervous system — that's what promotes your body's response, how you bring your body back to homeostasis."
"The cannabis plant makes phytocannabinoids, which are very similar to endocannabinoids," she continued. "So the THC and CBD take the place of those chemicals that bind to those receptors in your endocannabinoid system and have very much the same response as your own chemicals. So that's why cannabis works in the human body, because we make chemicals that are very, very similar," she noted.
But what Mertens specializes in is the use of these chemicals on the surface of the body: the topical application of cannabis, which takes the process one step further.
"We have these receptors in our peripheral nervous system — they're all throughout our entire nervous system, in our brains, our spinal cords — but there are also a ton of receptors in the layers of your skin as well," she noted.
"If you injure your wrist and you put some salve on it, those phytocannabinoids (the THC, THCA, CBD) in that product will bind to the receptors in the layers of your skin and send a message to your body that says, 'Come and heal this.'"
"Initially, I didn't understand why it was working for so many different things," she added. "But now I understand that it helps your body heal itself."
Back in 2009, though, Mertens didn't know any of what she knows now. She just knew that she had stumbled upon something that was incredibly misunderstood yet really, truly changed lives — and that she had finally found her true calling in life, which wasn't, in fact, theater, but instead centered around using cannabis to heal others. And with that fact pushing her forward, Mertens began the incredibly difficult process of growing her business from the ground up.
"I had never run a business before," she said, reiterating her roots in the arts. "But after I realized there was a lot of potential, I developed the product line a little bit more, got online, started doing research on how to make a salve, how to make a lip balm. It was very much a learning experience, done by trial and error."
Mertens began driving around the state, knocking on dispensary doors and hoping for the best but bracing for the worst. "I'd go into these dispensaries and they'd be like, 'Oh, that's cute, but come on,'" she recalled. "I'd give away a whole lot of little samples, because I knew that the proof was in the pudding. I'd say, 'Just try it out and I think you might call me.'"
And call her they did. While Mertens didn't have any money for PR or marketing, the investment she made in the tiny samples of product paid off in spades. Mary Jane's Medicinals quickly became lauded as a game changer, and words of thanks and individual stories began flooding in, not just from Colorado, but from all across the country as word began to spread.
"When a product works for somebody, they talk about it — and that is the most compelling marketing you can have," Mertens noted, and then shared one of the many testimonials that she's received over the years.
"There was one guy from a city in Michigan who took the time to write me an email despite the fact that he had clearly struggled with the wording and the grammar and that English was not his first language. He had gotten caught up in the crossfire during a shooting, got shot in the back, and lost the use of his legs. He had like 16 different surgeries, doctors had him on like 12 different medications, and he hadn't slept, really, in like two years because he was in so much pain," she told me.
"He hated the way the medications made him feel, but he had gotten this little sample of my salve at a Cannabis Cup way back in the day — and he started using it. He was then able to get off half of the medications and was sleeping for the first time since the incident. Coming back from something like that, you need to sleep; you need to heal. And all the drugs that doctors prescribe these days, they just have so many terrible side effects."
"We get a lot of feedback like that," she added. "Where people have gotten into some horrific accident and there's a nontoxic way to treat it, where your organs don't have to process medicine — it's just sending medicine through your nervous system."
It's not just the customers who have used Mertens's products to heal, though. Mertens herself has a story of her own, one that she punctuated with laughter and charming self-deprecation.
"These guys were playing darts at a local bar, and they were all drunk and I was probably a little buzzed, too," she recalled. "One of them put his hand on top of the dartboard just before his friend threw the dart, and I tackled the guy so that he didn't get his hand impaled. Instead of that guy getting a dart in his hand, I wound up getting a bone contusion in my knee."
"I went to the doctor because it was really painful, and the doctor prescribed me a bunch of Vicodin and said I'd feel better in about six weeks — so I took the Vicodin the first day," she continued. "After 24 hours, I was like, 'Yeah, this isn't right', but I had already started making my products at this time, so I said 'F*ck the Vicodin' and started using the salve and another product called Topical Tincture. It's an alcohol-based liniment with arnica in it, and arnica promotes healing."
"I used those two products and I was healed within a week instead of six weeks — and even though I didn't take Vicodin after that first day, the pain was totally manageable."
Dozens of stories like these have been passed from person to person; if you have any connection to the cannabis industry, chances are you've heard tales along these lines before. That's why Mary Jane's Medicinals today boasts a presence in more than 300 stores, with thousands of repeat customers. But it's only the beginning for Mertens, who says that she plans to broaden her business and bring the healing across the country, and soon, around the world.
"I'm working on some licensing agreements with different groups in other states," Merlens says of expanding her production facilities outside of Colorado. "I want Mary Jane's to become a national brand."
But it isn't as simple as just scouting locations and starting up shop. Mertens points to the fact that newer companies are entering the market she has long dominated, flush with investment capital and resources she never had. There's also the fact that every state has separate regulations and rules around licensing, so it's an active process to find good partners who can work with her to expand her presence — but plans are underway to have a centralized production facility in place by the time federal legalization rolls around in the US, with facilities in other states working in tandem to support the business.
Mertens is also looking to Canada, which will be legalizing marijuana recreationally this Summer. If the US proves too slow to legalize, she'll join the many companies who are considering moving their business up north where they'll be able to ship internationally, something that is currently prohibited in America.
For now, though, Mertens will continue to grow Mary Jane's Medicinals in the way she has over the last eight years: by testing new products, launching new products, and believing in what she creates. In a lot of ways, she's become an evangelist for cannabis, bringing hope to people who may never have had the subject cross their minds.
"The topicals are really exciting because they're a really effective ambassador for the plant," she told me, "especially for older folks who may be more conservative or have been subject to all the propaganda throughout their whole lives."
"It's a far less intimidating way that people can experience the medicinal benefits of cannabis. You're not going to get high, you're not smoking something, you're not eating a brownie — you're just putting something on your skin."
Ultimately, that's a fact that bears repeating: with Mary Jane's Medicinals, Dahlia Mertens created a market for alternative healing that is unlike any other in recent memory, one that is winning over hearts and minds each and every day. The more people tell their stories, the more the brand will continue to grow — and the closer Mertens will come to her goal of giving the gift of healing to the world around her. And we'll be cheering her on every step of the way.