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House of Harlequin

Pioneering Cannabis Education

By Valerie Costa
House of Harlequin
Brandy Reaves (from left), Wade Laughter, and Monica Senter-Laughter are the House of Harlequin and specialize in cannabis education. Photo by Elias Funez.

Many of our elders are interested in trying cannabis for its medical and pain relieving benefits, but don’t know where to start.  After a lifetime of prohibition and misinformation about cannabis, it is easy to see how they might feel overwhelmed by the choices available and the freedom to try CBD remedies.  That is part of the reason why House of Harlequin is planning on creating a pilot program with Elevation 2477’ to educate those interested in using medical cannabis about the benefits and

Brought to you by House of Harlequin founder and CBD pioneer Wade Laughter and still in the planning stages, the program will offer full blown patient and client engagement and involvement, done via Zoom and recorded videos. “The dream is a form of strategic partnership with House of Harlequin and Elevation 2477’ where we are going to create a fully engaged education model that can be replicated around the country and world,” explained Monica Senter, co-owner and wife of Laughter.  “Right now there are education efforts happening for doctors, budtenders, and business owners, but nothing much at all about informing the end users about how cannabis as medicine works.  We are looking to fill that much needed void.”

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Wade Laughter grew up in the “hippie era,” but didn’t spend those years in the marijuana haze that the era is iconic for.  He did try it once while working as a camp counselor at 17, but decided that it wasn’t for him, since his focus was on swimming competitively, and a few times at parties in college, but it wasn’t something that was a real part of his life.  With a draft number of 35, Laughter dropped out of college and joined the Navy, where he spent time in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean on an aircraft carrier as a machinist.  “Cannabis could be had there, but you could get in all kinds of trouble and it was expensive,” Laughter said.  “My father liked alcohol and gambling quite a bit, and he was a good man but struggled with his addictions.  I had heard cannabis was addictive so I didn’t want to get hooked.”

After he finished his stint in the Navy, in the spring of 1974 Laughter bought 14 acres of land in the mountains of North Carolina, where he wanted to use his passion for biodynamic farming to grow raspberries and strawberries.  He moved his mom and grandmother in with him so that they could tackle the endeavor as a family, and worked at a factory at night to pay the mortgage and tried to farm during the day.  He soon realized it was not something he wanted to keep doing.  “Trying to educate people about what biodynamic and organic meant in 1975 in North Carolina was difficult.  They asked why they should pay more for something not as pretty.  When I got them to taste it they bought, but it didn’t make financial sense to continue,” Laughter said.

Wanting to expand his farming expertise and share what he knew with others, Laughter left the farm, although the family kept working the berries as a hobby, and moved in the fall of 1976 to California to a hippie community teaching center in Berkeley called The Living Love Center.  He originally went intending to do a 25 day class and ended up staying for eight years.   The commune quickly grew out of the five story, 10-bedroom house two blocks away from the UC Berkeley campus, so in 1976 they sold the house and used the proceeds to buy a catholic seminary in St. Mary’s, Kentucky, and changed their name to The Cornucopia Institute.  Anchored by the Buddhist philosophy, the institute had a strict no drug or alcohol policy.  “That is a big part of who I am today, I still follow the practices.  It was about meditation in action, not sitting,” Laughter explained.  “I think of Buddhism not as a religion but an owner’s manual for the mind.”

House of Harlequin
Wade with his kids at the Cornucopia Institute in 1981. Photo courtesy of Wade Laughter

One of the things the community did was organize teams of teachers who would travel around the US teaching workshops based on their guiding book The Handbook of Higher Consciousness.  They used old Greyhound busses that they outfitted as motor homes to travel the nation, and Laughter ended up being the person who bought the busses, converted them, and trained the drivers.  That experience served him well when he left with his wife and twin daughters in 1984 to move to Seattle.  There, he worked some odd jobs but nothing was sticking, so they moved to Portland, OR, where he got a job repairing heavy equipment.  In 1986 he began working at the Green Tortoise, an adventure tour company based in San Francisco.  He moved there and started off as a driver, but when they realized he could fix busses they moved him to the shop, then he was running the shop.  Laughter is proud that in his 11 years working there keeping their fleet of busses compliant with CHP, he got satisfactory ratings on all vehicles. 

In 1995, Laughter was diagnosed with an aggressive case of glaucoma, and his ophthalmologist prescribed eye drops, but they made him violently ill.  He went from working 100 hours a week to less than 40 hours a week.  After a year, he developed bronchitis and it was discovered that the cause of his severe illness was the eye drops, so he stopped taking them.  From 1995-1998, he consulted 10 different doctors who told him that it was those drops, surgery, or other drugs.  He asked about herbs or yoga, and the doctors just rolled their eyes.  Laughter stumbled upon research that was showing positive effects for glaucoma patients using cannabis.  In 1996, California passed Prop 215, and Laughter was a qualified patient.  He began trying different samples and was amazed at how different the taste and quality of each specimen was.  He decided that if he was going to use cannabis as his medicine, he would grow his own using his background in organic biodynamic farming.  He started with three plants in a closet, then a garage, then a bigger garage, then a basement, then started a collective in a larger facility.  All the while he remained in compliance with prop 215.  “I have done my very best to be legal and complaint from the beginning, because going to jail is a total drag,” Laughter said.  “I have bent over backward to comply with the law.” 

In 1999, Laughter became a full time cultivator and provider of medicines.  The earliest patients who were members of the collective had conditions including persistent pain from sports injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer (particularly side effects), and IBS/colitis.  In 2004, the collective moved out of the basement facility into a warehouse in the South Market area, and were vending with dispensaries in the Bay Area as well as Southern California. 

Happy Harlequin

In 2008, one of the members of the collective brought seeds from his native Switzerland, which stood out because in a sea of green plants, this one was purple, orange, red, and green.  Laughter named the plant Harlequin after the colorful jokester in traditional theater.  The jokester part of harlequin came into play when for the first time the patients were returning product because although they loved the smell, taste, and look of it, the bud didn’t get them stoned.  “I thought ‘oh my God, what have I done?!’” Laughter recalled.  “Then a patient with a sports injury said he had been in and out of opioid rehab lots of times because his shoulder never stopped hurting, but a joint of this plant stopped the pain.”

Laughter took some samples of Harlequin to Harborside, who sent it to the one laboratory in the area that could do an analysis, and Wade paid $100 to get the plant tested.  After the test was complete, the people at Harborside were very excited and said that he had something really special and they would like to see more of it.  They put him in contact with Fred Gardener, who along with four other people, partnered with Laughter to start Project CBD.  Among the group were three cultivators who had high CBD plants and wanted to expand from just growing CBD-dominant plants to educating people about their therapeutic benefits.  They began that endeavor in 2010.  “Harlequin introduced me to researchers and clinicians, and a wide array of patients.  I realized, for example, I knew about making edibles and tinctures, but didn’t know how and why cannabis worked.  From late 2009 through today, especially until 2012, I met with doctors and researchers and learned all I could.  The only letters after my name are Jr., but I have come to understand something about how cannabis works.  It’s not magic, it’s science, and the science is starting to catch up with folk wisdom.  There are so many ways in which folk medicine is leading the science,” Laughter said, adding “I think we were successful, because most people know what CBD is now.”

The Road to Nevada County

Newly remarried and wanting to leave the city, Laughter’s wife, Monica Senter, brought him to Nevada City one weekend for the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, and he knew that they had found their place.  “We fell in love with the area.  That weekend, I was looking at the boards at the stores and restaurants and saw all of the performing arts.  We were impressed with the beauty of the area and how much the small towns had to offer,” Laughter recalled.  “We knew that this was it.”

The couple rented a house until they found their perfect property, a late 1800s farmhouse on Banner Mountain.  In summer of 2012, they started welcoming patients in the local area as well as the Bay Area and started growing CBD-rich cannabis on their property, trying to comply with local law.   The couple helped to found the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance and worked with local groups such as Rotary and nonprofits such as SYRCL and Hospice of the Foothills to educate the community and growers about best practices and medical cannabis benefits.  Laughter has also worked to educate the Nevada County Board of Supervisors and other lawmakers, and this has helped to shape current policy regarding the cannabis issue.

Laughter also began growing special breeds of cannabis to help children who suffered from severe epilepsy, like local boy Silas Hurd, and trained other growers to participate in the program, which was known as the Caladrius Network, now defunct due to shifting California laws. 

House of Harlequin

After growing for patients in Nevada County from 2012-2016, the urgency ordinance zoned them out of growing.  That change in law, along with a back injury, was the impetus to stop farming and start teaching.  Laughter and Senter established House of Harlequin, a nonprofit organization named  after the strain that changed everything, that will continue the mission of educating growers, patients, and lawmakers at the local and state level. 

“I realized that my knowledge would be better used to educate other farmers about best practices. I focus on training farmers how to grow green, not just for medicine but for the planet and keeping this place beautiful and clean,” Laughter said.  “I spend a lot of time on the policy conversation at the state level about how to eliminate the illicit market.  By doing dynamic raids on people’s grows, the people who are going to grow no matter what will move onto National Forest land and enact trespass grows where they don’t care about following environmental regulations.  In Nor Cal the opportunities are so limited this for some is an opportunity to feed their family.  Rules are not going to prevent people from doing this.  A lot of my drive at the state level is based on making the rules easier on the people striving to operate within the law.  Prohibition never works, and just drives people back into the forest to grow and Safeway parking lots as the “dispensaries”.”

Wade Laughter talks about the medicinal properties of the other cannabis derived cannabinoids that can be found including CBD, CBN, CBG and CBCs. Photo by Elias Funez

Currently House of Harlequin is working on a compassion program through Elevation 2477’ where families that had been accessing their medicine through the Caladrius Network would be able to access their medicine at no charge through the store. As chair of the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance Board of Directors, Laughter spearheaded the idea of a Nevada County-based Compassion Program. With fellow board member Sebastian Gotla as the lead, the Alliance formed the Compassion Committee and worked with several licensed cannabis businesses to create access to medicine specifically formulated for the families of the Caladrius Network.  

Laughter and Senter have recently brought on Brandy Reaves, formerly of Medicine Box, as a partner in the business.  The organization’s first client was Dragonfly Wellness in Salt Lake City, Utah, the state’s first dispensary, known as “pharmacies” in Utah.  As Director of Cannabis Wellness, Laughter provided the education to help get that going by training and educating their pharmacists and Wellness Associates.  “The work at Dragonfly showed us that there is a need for education,” Senter said.  “It’s not just doctors and clinicians and pharmacists that need education, it’s the consumers, as well.”

Part of that education is individualized approaches that will help people determine what will work for them and the condition they want to treat, as well as using cannabis for general wellness.  Every person is different, and knowing which strain to use, how much, and the delivery method is an individual assessment.  “What I really love is that again and again the research shows that there is no harm but real benefit for cannabis.  A lot of people tried cannabis and got high and didn’t like the feeling, but with proper dosing, the correct cannabis plant, the method of consumption and user sensitivity all play a part in the experience of cannabis medicine,” Laughter explained.  “We have given doctors too much autonomy and authority of our health and wellbeing.  I would like to see people reclaiming that that for themselves.”

To learn more about this exciting new program and how cannabis might be helpful for you, visit houseofharlequin.org.

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