In her first year as a massage therapist, Jennifer Chan became used to her hands aching at the end of a day's work. But one day, one of her clients brought her own massage oils for Chan to use.
Afterward, Chan noticed that her hands, normally sore after eight hours of kneading, didn't hurt as much.
"My hands weren't as swollen or as achy as I expected them to be after a really long day of massage,'" she said. "I was staring at my hands that evening, and my friends were laughing at me. They were like, 'Are you high?'"
It turned out the massage oils contained cannabis.
Chan wasn't actually high. She had just unknowingly used a cannabis health and beauty aid (CHABA). These products, which are used on the skin to treat a variety of ailments including muscle pain, inflammation, and anxiety, contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that causes users to feel high when it crosses the blood brain barrier.
Chan's family, who are Chinese, instilled in her that massage was a necessary means of taking care of the body—not a luxury. In Eastern medicine, massage is medicinal. Using cannabis oil was a natural extension.
After being turned on to the oils by her client, Chan continued her in-home massage work and used CHABA products on clients who supplied them.
In May 2015, reporters with local news station Q13 FOX wanted to interview Chan about using the cannabis-infused oils. But there was one problem: CHABA products were technically illegal.
Chan didn't know about the legal issues until a friend brought it to her attention. When she reached out to the Department of Health, which regulates licenses for massage therapists, Chan was informed that she couldn't dispense drugs for treatment. Even if her clients owned the CHABA products already, Chan could have lost her license due to the state restrictions. She eventually did the interview with Q13, but was blurred out on-screen.
Thankfully, Ah Warner, founder of oil formulary Cannabis Basics, was already spearheading efforts to get CHABA products legalized across the state.
Washington residents approved Initiative 502, which legalized recreational cannabis, in 2012. This new system effectively killed the medical cannabis industry in Washington and forced shop owners to reapply for recreational licenses or close. But the imperfect initiative had other damaging effects, too, said Warner.
Under the state initiative, Cannabis Basics' products, all of which are non-intoxicating topicals containing less than 0.3 percent THC, couldn't be sold on the emerging recreational market. Because of her products' low THC content, Warner couldn't apply for a recreational license, either.
To figure out a work-around, Warner partnered up with then state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles in 2014. The duo worked with activist Kari Boiter and criminal cannabis lawyer Doug Hiatt to draft legislation to legally define cannabis health and beauty aids.
The bill was signed in January 2015, receiving bipartisan support and passed just six months later. As a result, CHABA became defined as "not usable marijuana and [was] effectively removed from the Controlled Substances Act of Washington State," said Warner.
Today, the Department of Health states on its frequently asked questions page that CHABA "are legal for massage practitioners to use in their practice." While this may not seem significant to outsiders, massage therapists like Chan can openly advertise CHABA massage and provide clients with additional treatment options.
That victory is what allows Chan to help educate her clients—who include people with chronic diseases, senior citizens, and veterans—to improve their quality of life.
"A lot of them have issues with sleeping and anxiety. I have amputees [who use CHABA to] help with their muscle relaxation," she said. "A lot of them have PTSD issues, tense muscles, spasms, and depression."
Karie Taylor, 48, has a chronic autoimmune disease that causes severe joint pain and skin inflammation. The pain was debilitating and caused her to retire early from her job as a mental health program administrator. Taylor said that once she began receiving massages from Chan in 2015, she experienced a noticeable improvement in the symptoms of her disease and she significantly cut down the number of pills she took.
"I've had a chronic pain condition for 10 years, and I've tried every type of massage you can imagine," Taylor told The Stranger. "[CHABA] helps me sleep. I notice a deeper sense of relaxation and [fewer] muscle spasms."
Chan said it's patients like Taylor who remind her of the critical role CHABA can play in their lives.
"The legalization of CHABA gave people in my industry and clients access to something they may not have known about otherwise. Wherever we go, it's a big hit," she said.