But that's the situation Gina Vensel, publisher of Sensi Pittsburgh, faced when the COVID-19 outbreak became a full-blown crisis for both large and small print media outlets. That Sensi caters to a niche market — medical cannabis users — presented an even larger challenge, as area dispensaries still had to get approval from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to run as an essential business.
“When all of this was happening, I was really unsure of how the government was going to respond,” says Vensel, who also owns and operates the marketing and event company Easy Street Promotions.
With medical cannabis providers in the clear, she wants to continue the mission that drove her to bring the free, monthly magazine to her native city. Sensi is part of a nationwide, pro-cannabis publishing brand operating in 15 cities. As Vensel explains, Pittsburgh was the very first version of Sensi to open in a medical-only state, while others are in markets where cannabis is legal for recreational or adult use.
“It was important to get the magazine launched while we were still a very young cannabis community,” says Vensel, who grew up in Pitcairn and attended the University of Pittsburgh.
She saw Sensi as a way to use her background in marketing, publishing, and event planning (this includes stints at the Pittsburgh City Paper) for good, and views the publication as a way to serve registered medical marijuana patients and CBD users. She also wants to “educate the community around cannabis” as a treatment for anxiety and depression, chronic pain, and other conditions (currently, the state Department of Health lists over 20 medical marijuana-approved conditions).
Besides highlighting local cannabis culture, the lifestyle magazine also focuses on the arts, food, and music scenes, as well as important figures like Leah Lizarondo of 412 Food Rescue and Dr. Jim Withers, the founder and medical director of Pittsburgh Mercyʼs Operation Safety Net.
“We're progressive by nature, and that's around more than just cannabis,” says Vensel. “I love being a part of this community, and to be able to tell those stories and help make a platform for Pittsburgh in a much bigger way is what really drove me to want to be a part of Sensi.”
While Vensel says Sensi Pittsburgh's content stays true to the Department of Health's definition of cannabis as a medical offering, ultimately, she wants to see it fully legalized in Pennsylvania and across the country.
“It's a basic human right and it's medical for everyone,” says Vensel. “Cannabis is an amazing plant, and we're going to do what we can to talk about that, especially during this pandemic when people don't understand why it should be deemed essential.” That designation, she says, is one step toward decriminalizing it. “This is going to make it more difficult, I believe, for the government, post-pandemic to go back on this,” she says.
She believes making it legal for recreational use will create more economic opportunities and give patients more access. She stresses that any changes should include justice for those incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses.
“Now is the time for us to get all of the non-violent cannabis offenders who are in jail right out of prison because it's been deemed essential,” she says.
Her immediate concern, however, is how the pandemic has affected everyone, including those in the cannabis community. She becomes emotional when talking about the recent death of Charlotte Figi, a 13-year-old patient who, along with her family, fought for the right to use CBD oil as a treatment for her severe, constant seizures. Figi died on April 7, with news reports calling her a “likely COVID-19 case.”
“This virus knows no bounds,” says Vensel. “This is going to touch everyone, it's going to touch young people, old people. This virus is spreading and it's up to us to social distance and care for one another.”
Sensi Pittsburgh is helping to care for others as a media partner for Chronic Relief, a day-long telethon happening, appropriately, on April 20. Hosted by the global cannabis marketing company, Farechild, the event will raise money for the nonprofit Feeding America.
“Instead of giving money to the cannabis industry, it's more important for us to make a bigger impact for people suffering right now,” says Vensel.