By age 4, Janel Ralph’s youngest daughter had already been on five different anti-epileptic medications, not to mention several other treatments, including steroid injections. The recurring seizures Harmony experienced because of a rare genetic condition called lissencephaly, also known as “smooth brain,” took a toll on her young body.
Ralph, who lives in South Carolina, was desperate to find a way to improve her child’s quality of life. She’d already left behind a job managing a real estate investment company to spend more time with Harmony. The family even bought an RV and volunteered at campgrounds around the state.
Janel Ralph of Palmetto Harmony
She had no idea at the time, but her daughter’s illness would not only change their lives but the lives of countless others throughout the nation.
Parents helping parents
While Ralph waited to find out what Harmony’s doctors would do next, she reached out to friends in California whose children live with epilepsy.
The severely epileptic daughter of an old friend in California appeared to experience some relief after half her brain was surgically removed. Ralph wondered if the same procedure, a hemispherectomy, could be a viable option for Harmony.
Children, like Harmony, with severe lissencephaly have a life expectancy of about 10 years, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Harmony was born in 2009.
As her daughter lay in a hospital bed, Ralph asked her friend for the contact information of the surgeon who performed the hemispherectomy. (Eventually, she learned that Harmony was not a candidate for the procedure.) He shared the doctor’s information but he also mentioned another option: He’d heard about a woman in California who was using CBD oil to treat her son who also has lissencephaly.
It was 2014, long before CBD, or cannabidiol, was as trendy as it is today. Research has since found that the cannabis compound is effective in treating childhood epilepsy syndromes, anxiety and different types of chronic pain.
“When he told me that, it struck a nerve,” Ralph recalls.
Her brother had shared an article two years earlier about another guy in California fighting to give cannabis to his son to treat his epilepsy. “Back then, I responded, ‘I’d never give my kid pot — why would you send me this?’”
She chuckles now at the memory.
“All I’ve wanted to do is make people realize … this is not something to be demonized”
Launched in 2015, and based in Conway, S.C., the company’s signature product line of CBD products, which includes oils, topicals and capsules, is named Palmetto Harmony, inspired by Ralph’s daughter and their home state.
Today, Palmetto Harmony is available online and in retail locations across the South.
According to a disclaimer on the company’s website, the products have not been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Each batch, however, is independently tested by a third-party lab for safety and consistency.
Just two years after its launch, Palmetto became the first company in the country to run a national advertising campaign featuring products derived from cannabis.
“All I’ve wanted to do is make people realize … this is not something to be demonized,” Ralph told one local media outlet.
The media company approached the commercial’s content cautiously, but, Ralph wasn’t worried. As she told another publication: “I’ve never felt like I have an illegal business because I don’t.”
CBD in S.C.
Ralph’s company is one of the first to grow, manufacture and distribute industrial hemp in South Carolina as part of the 2018 SC Industrial Hemp Pilot Program.
According to a state law passed last year, hemp products with a profile of 0.3 percent or less of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the molecule responsible for the “high” feeling — are considered legal in South Carolina.
“What I tell people is that we’re in the cannabis industry, but we do the O’Doul’s of the cannabis industry,” Ralph says. O’Doul’s is a non-alcoholic malt beverage that looks and tastes like beer.
Ralph’s husband, three adult children and their significant others also work at Palmetto Harmony.
“What we create and produce is not psychoactive, and it’s meant to improve people’s quality of life,” says Ralph.
Ralph’s South Carolina industrial hemp farm.
Momma makes CBD
Within two weeks of her first CBD oil treatment, which they obtained from Colorado, Ralph says they saw “a drastic change” in not only Harmony’s cognitive ability but also in her seizure disorder.
“She went 12 days without any seizures, which was nothing we had seen since she was a year old,” Ralph says. “We knew it was what she needed, but we didn’t know how we were going to get more of it.”
Palmetto Harmony hemp plants
“That’s when I knew I was getting into this industry,” she says.
“In my mind, the only way I was going to be able to get her something consistent that I knew was safe was if I did it myself. Now that we’ve found this wonderful sweet spot and have been able to remove 90 percent of her pharmaceuticals and we’ve got about a 95 percent seizure control, we’ve been able to go back to work and try to help as many others as we can in a similar situation.”
S.C. Compassionate Care Act
In addition to her day job as CEO of Palmetto Synergistic Research, Ralph is also working to help South Carolina patients get access to medical marijuana.
She founded patient advocacy group Compassionate South Carolina and has spent the last few years advocating for a comprehensive medicinal cannabis bill known as the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act.
“If you know you have something that is less harmful for you, that is less addictive and gives you more benefit than 99 percent of the pharmaceuticals on the market, depending on the condition you’re trying to treat, why shouldn’t we have access to it?” Ralph says.
“We’re not asking the government to pay for our access. We’re strictly asking for the government to allow us to have that as an option.”
Earlier this year, the Compassionate Care Act failed to move forward in an important state House of Representatives committee, marking four years since the bill was first introduced. Ralph, however, remains dedicated to the political process, however slow-moving it may be.
“It takes time,” she says, “and if you don’t go into that knowing that on the front end, you’re going to put yourself out there for a lot of heartache and hurt.”
Kimberly Lawson is a former editor of Creative Loafing, Charlotte, North Carolina’s alt-weekly. She now lives in Georgia where she continues to practice journalism. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times and VICE Broadly.
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