Healing from the Heart: An Interview With Awakened CEO & Founder, Levi Strom
In the ever-expanding cannabis landscape, Awakened has managed to remain true to its roots as a by-patients, for-patients company. That is in large part due to the ethos put forth by CEO and founder, Levi Strom, who describes Awakened as a “mission driven brand that has one goal in mind: to produce high quality herbal wellness products in a way that is eco-friendly and supports our local economies.”
As of this week, the breadth of those ambitions just got a little wider—the company is seeking to expand its presence nationwide via the launch of their new hemp line called Awakened Everyday. The product lineup currently consists of the Everyday Hemp Drops, a raw hemp sublingual rich in CBDA, with plans to offer a hemp balm soon.
In a candid interview, Levi sits down to discuss the company’s origins, his thoughts on the cannabis industry, and his vision for the future.
Why did you start Awakened?
In large part it was out of a personal need. In 2011, I broke my neck in a surfing accident and discovered in the ER that I was allergic to opioid-based pain medications. During my recovery I developed the formula for our balm and now over five years later, I'm really proud of the company I’ve built and thankful everyday for the ability to make products that provide relief to those in need.
How did you decide what types of products to make?
The ability of a product to be absorbed rapidly by the body dictated my decision to pursue topicals and tinctures to an extent. When you’re a chronic pain sufferer, having to wait an hour or sometimes even longer for an edible to kick in isn’t super effective. Especially when you can apply cannabis topically, or ingest it sublingually, and start experiencing relief within minutes, if not seconds. But I also didn’t want to make a psychoactive product. If I was going to reach as many people as possible, then I knew I had to create a product that was accessible to everyone, not just people that had a tolerance for THC.
How did you go about sourcing the flower for your products?
Coming from a cultivation background, I knew how important it was to consider the growing conditions when I was sourcing. So it was a long process of visiting the farm, talking to the farmers, handling the plants, and really getting my hands in the dirt. To churn out a really good harvest year after year takes mastery and a little bit of magic. I wanted to ensure that that any flower I used was being grown in a sustainable way that’s healthy not just for the end consumer, but for the plant and the surrounding environment as well.
It’s my understanding that all of your products are single-cultivar. How did you decide which strains you wanted to use?
From personal experience, I’ve found that indica, and in particular kush genetics, are particularly good at pain management. The strains we use in our products are CBD-rich, terpene-rich phenotypes of different kushes.
What distinguishes Awakened from other topicals and tinctures on the market?
Two things. First is the overall formula. We don’t just infuse cannabis into a generic balm base. We have 13 active whole plant ingredients that work synergistically for a maximum reduction in pain and inflammation. Second, the active ingredients are in their raw form—CBDA & THCA. There are very few other products on the market that feature the raw cannabinoids like we do.
So if you aren’t decarbing the plant material, what does your process look like?
We do what’s called a cold lipid-infusion. We take dried and cured cannabis flower tops and infuse them directly into extra virgin olive oil. It’s a very gentle process that is rooted in traditional herbalism. What I love about the lipid infusion is that even though it only requires two ingredients--whole plant cannabis and extra virgin olive oil--it is incredibly effective at extracting the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids from the raw plant material. And it can do all that without any chemical solvents, which is vital to us, because we’re about making medicine and prioritizing patient safety.
What do you think are the main benefits of using the raw cannabinoids rather than CBD & THC?
The benefits are exponentially greater—because the raw cannabinoids are more readily bioavailable, they are more effective and you need far less of them to achieve an effect. And then on the flip side of that, you also can take more of them without having to worry about going overboard. So if you’re trying to shrink a tumor, for example, you can take thousands of milligrams of the raw cannabinoids per day and your body knows what to do with it.
We touched on this a little bit already—but can you elaborate on your personal history with cannabis?
Like pretty much everybody, my history with cannabis started with just trying it for the first time as a teenager. When I really got introduced to the cannabis industry was when I moved to Big Sur in 2005. It was during harvest season, and I lived with a bunch of growers and trimmers. They taught me how to guerrilla grow: cultivating out in the backcountry; setting up gravity-fed drip lines on creeks. It was a lot of work, but it was fun. As the laws started to change, eventually the people I was growing with in Big Sur moved to Mendocino because they had started to allow up to 99 plants in full sun. With guerrilla growing, it was always under forest canopy. So a lot of growers that had good genetics and knowledge moved up there. It’s been amazing to see how cultivation has changed from these super clandestine grows up in the hills and behind locked gates into a fully compliant and budding industry.
So how long did you grow cannabis?
On and off for about 10 years.
What is your favorite thing about working in the cannabis industry?
It’s a privilege to be able to provide healing through the medium that I love. What has continually motivated me more than anything is getting calls and emails from people about how the products had saved their lives—how it has sent their cancer into remission; how it has eased their arthritis, eczema, Parkinson’s, or other condition; how it has given them a new optimistic outlook on life; how it has eased their suffering at the end-of-life. It’s truly humbling to be a part of those individual’s stories in a positive way. And I give full credit to the plant.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the cannabis industry today?
Regulations, number one. I understand that for quality control there has to be some oversight, but sometimes it can feel counterproductive. Why does a product designed for arthritic patients have to come in an extremely difficult-to-open container? Why does a product that contains cannabis need to be child-resistant when alcohol doesn’t? Then there’s the fact that you have to put containers inside of containers just to fit all the warning labels on everything, which has created a super wasteful over-packaging problem.
Number two would be misconceptions about the plant, which happens at both the brand and consumer level. I hear a lot that THC gets you high and CBD is medicinal, or that the more milligrams a product has, the better. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Diluting the cannabinoids to a simple binary does a lot of disservice to how therapeutic and special it really is. There are over 100 cannabinoids that we know of, and science is still working out how they all interact with the body.
What are your hopes for the future of the cannabis industry?
Because the cannabis industry is so new, I think it has the rare opportunity to lead by example and influence the status quo of how businesses operate. If we collectively prioritize sustainable agricultural practices, ethical manufacturing practices, and transparent business practices, cannabis companies can set the bar for other industries. Ultimately that could translate to a reduction in environmental impact, improved working conditions, and raising consumer confidence.
What is one thing that you want your customers to know about Awakened?
Our approach to cannabis manufacturing is as a humble servant of the plant. The Plant is perfect. I’ve always admired French vintners because they feel the same way about the grape. The grape is perfect. Their job as winemakers is to get out of the way, as much as possible, and let the plant speak for itself. So that’s always been my goal in formulation—to remove my fingerprints from the process.
Congratulations on the launch of Awakened Everyday. What prompted you to expand into hemp?
It felt like we had a responsibility to. Even though the CBD market is super saturated, the vast majority of products out there are using isolates and distillates in their formulas. Within the cannabis space we were getting feedback from lots of patients telling us that they had tried this or that hemp CBD product and it didn’t do anything for them, so they kind of lost faith in it altogether. We wanted to be able to offer individuals that are interested in CBD an option that was as high quality as our cannabis brand, and that actually worked. To be able to do that on a national scale is really exciting.
Do you feel like there’s a significant difference between hemp- and cannabis-based products? If so, what?
In terms of the hemp plant and cannabis plant, there isn’t much of a difference other than the fact that hemp has less than .3% THC. That being said, I feel like there’s a huge difference between hemp and cannabis products on the market, specifically when it comes to quality control. The law requires that every cannabis product coming out of California be extensively lab tested. But with hemp, you don’t have those regulations, and so there’s no real way to guarantee that you’re buying matches what’s on the label.
What can we expect from Awakened in the future? Any plans for new products?
Well, in addition to the Everyday hemp line that we just released, we have some really exciting products in development right now that I can’t really talk about yet. But I can say that when they hit the market they will unlike anything the industry has seen up to this point.