Normalising the stigma behind Plant-Based medicines with Astrid Dispensary


December 5, 2023

Member Spotlight

We met with Lisa and her team at South Yarra to better understand the benefits of plant-based medicines and why it is so important right now we change the perception of medicinal cannabis use.

We met with Lisa and her team at South Yarra to better understand the benefits of plant-based medicines and why it is so important right now we change the perception of medicinal cannabis use.

Meet Lisa Nguyen – a member at The Commons South Yarra. Lisa is the Founder of the Plant-Based dispensary clinic Astrid.

"The more we change the way we talk about it, the more likely our association or perception towards cannabis will change."

To start, what is the correct wording or preferred when speaking about cannabis, marijuana, plant-based?

Our head of compliance would love that you’re asking me this question.

The correct wording is ‘medicinal cannabis’ or ‘plant-based medicines’. It’s so important for us to use the correct terminology because now that we’re in the legal or medicinal market - we play a huge role in destigmatisation, or as I like to call it, re-education.

Can you educate our audience on medicinal cannabis? Tell us the potential benefits.

Medicinal cannabis is prescribed for patients to help manage symptoms in chronic pain, mood related conditions and sleep. The plant is covered in specialised hairs called trichomes which coat the entire flower structure and secrete these active compounds to give the plant its therapeutic effects.

There are two main species or strains of the cannabis plant that both have their own unique properties. Usually, Cannabis sativa produces an uplifting and energising effect while cannabis indica produces a relaxing and calming effect. Sativa strains are generally taken during the day to increase energy and relieve fatigue, depression and other mood disorders. Indica strains are generally taken at night to help with insomnia and relieve pain.

Where did Astrid start? Where did it begin and how has it transformed over time? How did your interest in Plant-Based medicines develop?

What truly inspired me to start Astrid was the desire to improve patient access to medicinal cannabis, raise awareness and remove the stigma associated with cannabis.

During the early days of medicinal cannabis, there was a limited range of products available, and obtaining access through a general practitioner was quite challenging. The regulatory pathways were complex and navigating them proved to be a daunting task. Plus, there was a significant amount of public stigma surrounding the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

In 2019, I joined a globally listed cannabis company with both a recreational and medicinal arm based in Canada. The team were so passionate about medicinal cannabis, and the job gave me multiple opportunities to travel to Canada where I met amazing global cannabis leaders. It was truly life-changing. I remember walking into a dispensary in Ottawa and saying “wow, this looks like an Apple store, why don’t we have anything that looks like this in Australia?” That was the moment Astrid started to come to fruition.

When I returned to Australia, I started visiting pharmacies to provide educational support.

I saw that patients were picking up medicinal cannabis from traditional pharmacies where they collected other pharmaceutical medicines. But medicinal cannabis is a plant derived medicine that requires a lot more than just dispensing; it requires the people who were supplying it (pharmacists) to be advocates and experts so in turn, they could advocate for their patients.

And that was it - I thought I could do this! I could combine my cannabis experience with my pharmacy degree to open boutique dispensaries that are not only beautiful but thoughtfully designed and dared to be different. But more importantly, focused on plant-based medicines and a safe space for cannabis discussions.

"In 2020 I founded Astrid, with the vision to be Australia’s first female-led dispensary focusing on medicinal cannabis dispensing, education and support"

What obstacles, if any, did you encounter when launching your own business? Reflecting on that experience, what valuable lessons have you learned?

Establishing Astrid presented numerous challenges. From securing funding and navigating the obstacles posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, to operating as a female-run dispensary combating the prevailing stereotype surrounding cannabis in Australia.

In the early days, the market was not mature enough to have defined niches - there were no cannabis clinics, no dispensaries and the very mention of “flower” to a doctor somehow immediately associated me as a “drug dealer”. There was so much taboo and so much work to be done. Cannabis was put into the same category as narcotics, and every day on the road talking to doctors was an uphill battle – add being a woman to the mix of a very male-dominated industry and yes it was challenging.

Another challenge was funding. I decided to try and get a loan from the banks - but after many attempts, they said no. Ultimately, they saw: cannabis, no proof of concept, no cash in the bank, no real prior experience in business - and said no. But from there I learned to never give up.

So, I sold everything. I decided to bootstrap the business. I sold my apartment; I took out my super, took out personal loans, my husband Hansen sold all his nice things - we put everything on the line. But it wasn’t enough.

"Keep hustling. Keep going. Never take no for an answer. There’s always a way and we found a way."

In March 2020 - COVID hit Australia for the first time, and Melbourne went into its very first lockdown. Everyone was freaking out about the global pandemic - but I saw an opportunity to sell clothed face masks. My parents owned a textile factory in Rowville so I drove there and I drew my mum a sketch of a face mask and said - can you sew this? To which my mum said, I haven’t sewed in over 10 years. I said, if you can sew me x 10 of these, and if I can sell all x 10 today - we’re doing this. So my mum sewed me x 10 masks. I launched a website overnight. We sold out after 24 hours. Over a span of two months, we sold over $80,000 worth of face masks. My mum sewed day and night. COVID face masks ended up being part of the seed funding for Astrid.

Fast forward to January 2021, we opened our doors for the very first time- to the empty streets of Chapel St. It was just me and Judy in the dispensary every day, jamming away to tunes - but we had no customers, no foot traffic, no stock - nothing. I’ll never forget my very first sale - it was $5 and I didn’t know how to use the till.

It’s not what you do that matters, it's how you make people feel and the impact you leave on them that matters. I’ve realised how important legacy building is. I love my patients and my team beyond anything else in this world - and I work hard at this brand for them, my people and my patients.

How does Astrid help to fight the stigma against Plant-Based medicines?

We have an incredible team advocating for medicinal cannabis in Australia and working tirelessly to help change the stigma associated with plant-based medicines through government and media relations. But at the end of the day, it’s our patients and their stories that are fighting the stigma and showing Australia first-hand the life-changing benefits of plant-based medicines.

Where do you source the Cannabis you dispense to patients? And how important is the process of sourcing the product prior to dispensing?

In Australia, medicinal cannabis is classified as a Schedule 4 or Schedule 8 prescription medicine. The actual product must be approved by the ODC (Office of Drug Control) and the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) to ensure they meet the strict GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) standards of pharmaceutical medicines in Australia. In short, the product that sponsors (brands) bringing product into the country or grown locally must be safe and meet quality standards. So, in essence, dispensaries in Australia don’t “source” cannabis - because we procure or order from government approved and vetted sponsors. Not only is this a legal requirement but it also protects patients.

What brought you to The Commons, how has this helped your journey with Astrid?

We wanted our team to be around creatives and entrepreneurs to continue inspiring the Astrid journey and The Commons is exactly that. It’s a space where we feel energised and inspired to grow our brand.

"Community is key. Surrounding yourself with passionate people who are on the same path will only help you grow."

How big is the Astrid team now? And where do you see it heading?

Our team has grown from 1 to 15 staff in 2021, then 15 to 30 staff in 2022 and now 30 to 40 staff in 2023 - and we only see Astrid continuing to grow.

How does one get a prescription?

First, potential patients will do a free screening with one of our nurses or pharmacists via telehealth - anyone interested or wanting to learn more can book an appointment via our website – it's super easy! Our team will determine whether you are eligible for a prescription.

From there, you’ll have a consultation with one of our Astrid doctors who will speak about your medical history and discuss your plant-based options.

On rare occasions, some patients might not be suitable for medicinal cannabis due to their preexisting conditions or medication that might interact - but we will let you know this during the initial free discovery consultation. For us, it is about safe and efficacious use of this medicine and we will always be transparent!

This can all be done via Telehealth through Astrid Clinic.

Your stores incorporate both a tranquil colour palette and beautiful greenery, where did the inspiration come from when designing?

The vision for Astrid was always to be a calm and welcoming space which we aimed to achieve through our brand colours and greenery. Each dispensary has its own design vision that represents the location. For example, Astrid Byron Bay is the rugged yet refined sibling of our Melbourne dispensary, offering a tranquil space formed by gentle curves that are grounded by linear lines to enable the seamless interaction between pharmacist and patient.

We didn’t want to create another ‘pharmacy’, we wanted to build a wellness destination... something that was different and stood out in the industry. A modern-day holistic pharmacy.

Both of our dispensaries are designed in collaboration with our wonderful architect Alte. Studio.

Is there anything else you'd like to add? Any new ventures you're working on? What does the future hold?

So many new ventures! I can’t wait to share more about what’s coming for Astrid but our main goal is to elevate the cannabis experience - and get medicinal cannabis into the mainstream! And we do so by continuing educating our community about medicinal cannabis and its potential benefits, whilst also providing a platform for our patients to be heard.

I’d love to build more dispensaries in Australia - with another location on the horizon shortly. For me, holistic health and particularly natural medicine is something I am passionate about. I think that if we can create a really beautiful space for cannabis, maybe one day we can include other living plant medicines into the mix too.

But ultimately, for me, my passion in life is inspiring people. Whether it is my patients, my team or my family - I hope that by doing what I do, I can give others hope to do more with their lives; make them realise there’s always another way, and an opportunity to be better and happier.

And, Astrid, as a brand, symbolises a lot of this - we are not just building dispensaries; we are building safe, creative spaces that instil hope in our people.