In 1976 John Easterling went to South America looking for the legendary lost city of gold. He found it. It just didn’t look like he thought it would.
During his travels he contracted hepatitis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever which sapped him of his energy, but not his drive. That drive took him to a Shipibo tribal village where a life changing event happened. A combination of botanicals boiled into a tea administered by tribe members remedied him of his debilitating conditions. In that moment, Easterling realized that the real South American treasure was the very trees he’d been chopping down looking for El Dorado.
From that encounter, Easterling founded Amazon Herb Company and began extracting the centuries of knowledge from tribal medicine men and formulating the curative power of the jungle. Amazon Herb Company merged with TriVita in 2012. Over the years, Easterling’s attention has turned to the healing powers of a plant more familiar to North Americans – cannabis.
Amazon John maintains a research garden in California and is co-owner of a cup winning commercial farm in Oregon. He continues to formulate and experiment with cannabinoid formulations by incorporating some of the Amazonian botanicals.
“The plants found [in the Amazon] have some of the most power analgesic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxifying properties available,” he said in a release announcing his work. “I believe cannabinoids are making equally powerful contributions to our general health and wellness.”
Some of Easterling’s passion and belief in the healing power of cannabis is professional. His research into botanicals has spanned more than 30 years. In fact, he started growing cannabis in 1970 and he admits he thought society would embrace the plant a lot sooner than it did.
“As I became familiar with cannabis and realized what it can do, I thought this is something that will go mainstream,” he said, then noted with a chuckle, “I didn’t think it would take 50 years.”
Easterling said the perception that there are two main reasons to use cannabis – medicinal and recreational – is short sighted.
“I don’t draw a line between recreational and medicinal,” he explained. “There’s a reason people take it. If you are anxious and you take cannabis and you feel less anxious, then its both. If you are depressed and you use cannabis and you feel better, it’s both.”
But Easterling’s attitude to the plant is not only personal, beyond his own beneficial use. Easterling’s number one interest is his wife, musical icon Olivia Newton-John. The four-time Grammy award winner is in her third engagement with cancer which she now supplements with variety of Easterling’s herbal preparations.
“The mind-body connection is so critical,” Easterling explained. “If you separate the mind and body, neither does very well. The way you think can and does drive the metabolic processes.”
Newton-John’s cancer journey began in 1992 when she discovered a lump in her breast. What followed was traditional treatments of surgery, chemotherapy and morphine for pain management. She was eventually cleared but the cancer returned in 2013, this time metastasizing to her lower spine. Now, at the age of 71, the star of Grease is in her third go with this familiar foe. Today, her treatment includes cannabis oil to manage pain.
“In ’92 I was really terrified of traditional treatments, but I did it,” she recalled, noting however her luck in having a doctor who embraced alternate and organic options. “I did all the things I could think of back then. I was always aware of the mind-body connection. I was a little afraid of marijuana. I had a couple of experiments in my 30s and didn’t enjoy it very much. Now I have a completely new appreciation of the plant.”
Supporting wellness is part of the reason why Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia opened in 2012. One of the centre’s patients was Olivia Newton-John herself.
“If I put my name on a cancer centre, I would only do it if it included a wellness centre,” she explained. “The patients show its been something that’s been very good. When I ended up in my own cancer centre the art therapy part, for example, was a big part of my experience.”
Easterling now grows more than 20 strains of cannabis from which he extracts the full range of cannabinoids and terpenes, seeking what he calls the entourage effect. He believes that, rather than isolating a single cannabinoid, using cannabis in its natural state can generate better results. He argues the body’s endocannabinoid system exists to create a homeostasis. For that reason, Easterling endorses using the whole plant rather than isolated elements, as research has identified more than 140 different cannabinoids and other compounds that can work together.
“There are elements that don’t even have names yet, only numbers,” he said. “It’s a very special plant. It’s another plant in the medicine chest. There are 100,000 species of plants but most don’t have the scope and magnitude of cannabis, and the way that cannabis is sweeping the world is unprecedented. Not only is it being talked about, but it’s inspiring governments to have meetings and look at bringing it in to current treatment protocols more often.”
Newton-John is living proof of Easterling’s claims. In 2018, she fractured her sacrum, a side effect of the cancer. She was in excruciating pain and could not walk. She managed the pain with morphine and other opiods. But since then, the Australian singer has gradually weaned herself completely off the opioids, and now manages her pain entirely with cannabis.
“The cannabis really took over for the morphine,” she explained, explaining that it did much more than control pain effectively. “Fear is a part of every cancer journey. Anxiety is a part of it. [Cannabis] really take the edge off the anxiety and fear.”
Easterling views his research and investigations not as breaking new ground but going back to the basics, of turning back the clock to how medicine used to be done.
“Up until the 1920s, everything was based on botanicals,” he pointed out. “The whole reductionist pharmacological approach has been about isolating compounds and refining them. Plants are dynamic organisms as are our bodies and full spectrum extracts are a better choice for therapeutic benefit.”
Plans at Newton-John’s Melbourne research centre include starting human trials for cannabis in the next few months. Critics and naysayers argue the plant has not undergone sufficient testing and trials to be considered a viable alternative. To that Easterling says that attitude is based in either honest or willful ignorance.
“For the most part its honest ignorance and the cure for ignorance is education,” he noted. “There are hundreds of studies out there. Are there enough human studies? No, but there are a lot of animal studies, and some human trials. There are even some cannabis related drugs that have already been approved in Europe, Australia and the United States.”
Recent events have hit the couple hard as last year’s fires in the Amazon jungle and this year’s Australian wildfires destroyed areas each love. And as the search for botanical treatments continues, the loss of Amazonian jungle could affect the availability of plants and knowledge.
“Every time one of the indigenous medicine men dies it’s like a library burned to the ground,” Easterling said. “When fire burns the plants, you lose the medicinals. That’s just lost.”
Easterling and Newton-John will be involved in an exclusive keynote conversation during the 2020 O’Cannabiz Conference and Expo in at Toronto’s International Centre.
Their presentation, ‘Plant Medicine Discoveries : Our Intimate And Personal Journey To Wellness’ will be held on April 23rd as part of the expo’s Business Conference, which features guest speakers and industry experts. Conference goers need to register for this event separately, but that comes with a pass to the Expo itself. The O’Cannabiz Conference and runs from April 23-25.