How Cannabis is Helping This Clothing Designer Through His Excruciating Battle With Sickle Cell Disease

“You don’t smoke to get high. You smoke to heal.” 

Imagine taking a stroll in the park when a shift in weather occurs. Suddenly, you feel a sharp, stabbing pain shoot up and down your body, crippling you to the point where you can’t even take another step. That’s a small part of the reality for many of the 3 million African Americans suffering from sickle cell disease. While there is no cure, this clothing line founder created a regimen that includes cannabis to help minimize these attacks. 

ROAM Clothing founder Ade Adegbola, knows this suffering all too well. At the age of five, he had his first sickle cell crisis, which are episodes of pain that occur suddenly and can last several hours to several days. Signs and symptoms of SCD include anemia, where sickle cells break apart easily and die. For an individual without sickle cell, red blood cells can live 120 days before they need to be replaced. For patients, anemia occurs because sickle cells die between 10 and 20 days, leaving a shortage of red blood cells. Without red blood cells, the body doesn’t get enough oxygen, which leads to fatigue. The swelling of the hands and feet happens because of a blockage of blood circulation. Since sickle cells can damage the spleen, this leaves sufferers prone to infections, including life-threatening ones such as pneumonia. The condition can also delay growth and puberty and create vision problems. 

Adegbola tells Canna Culture Connect, “My parents did not know I had sickle cell. I have it, but my middle brother does not. He has the trait, and my younger brother has sickle cell as well. I was five, and he was just born, so we were all discovering that we had it simultaneously. I was playing on the monkey bars, a little too rough, and had a crisis. ” Adegbola continues, “My parents didn’t understand what was going on. They were like, ‘What do you mean you’re arm’s hurting? Did you break it? Did you fall?’ They took me to the doctor, and they were like, ‘Your son has sickle cell anemia, and he’s having a crisis.” 

From then on, Adegbola says he became a frequent hospital patient, with some years worse than others. His condition has robbed him of experiencing life to the fullest, preventing him from doing activities such as swimming because of the stark temperature shift getting in and out of the water. He recalls his last swim, explaining that in the horrific aftermath, “I was severely sick and unconscious outside of the hospital. I just remember waking up a week or two later.” Even in adulthood, Adegbola says, “I had a severe crisis when I would overdrink, get dehydrated, and wake up in horrid pain.” The designer adds that the hardest thing to explain is the recovery time―getting back to a full 100%. Sleeping is uncomfortable because of the pain, and medication doesn’t always work.”

His condition got so severe that in October 2016, Adegbola underwent a hip replacement. Avascular necrosis, a common symptom of SCD, occurs when blood doesn’t travel throughout the body. Because of the life cycle of bones, they die when they don’t receive blood. When the bone starts to die, you feel excruciating amounts of pain. Adegbola explains, “That was happening to me. I had pains, and I didn’t understand it. My brother and I have the same doctor, and they told us we had avascular necrosis. His was much more severe to the point where we used canes. The death of a bone that holds up a large part of your upper body is very painful and difficult to go through.”

Work for individuals who suffer from the symptoms of sickle cell is even harder. Adegbola recalls finding out the hard way that those with SCD need particular types of employment. “Finance is a very rigid environment. You only get a certain number of days off and expectations when you’re there. I find myself falling into crisis a lot more in those moments. Once you run out of days, they don’t pay. I remember once in the hospital, a department supervisor called me and said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know that you exhausted all of your days, and you would not be receiving compensation for the days you’re out.’ It’s just a reminder that there’s no way that I’m going into this rigid environment, explaining to them what I have, what comes with it, and them not seeing me as ‘less than.’ 

Realizing that wasn’t the place for someone with his condition, Adegbola shifted from finance to mental health, working with children with special needs. While the job could sometimes be physically strenuous, Adegbola knows his limits. 

Thanks to a couple of Rastafarians he met while working that unfilling job in finance, Adegbola found some relief in cannabis. 

“I was [initially] turned off as a child because of the stigmas and campaigns. It wasn’t until I got older, probably in college, that I was able to experience it as a young adult. [When] I needed a mental break from the job I was working at the time, it became more clear because I was around individuals who gave me a better understanding of the medicinal purposes and the healing properties. I had a community that poured into the ‘why’ [behind] using cannabis. [The conversations] relaxed me for using this medicinal plant instead of just a ‘drug.’ 

With sickle cell anemia, as time progressed, I realized that I was having less and less crises. I think it could be because of my cannabis consumption.”

Ade Adegbola

Since cannabis is still not federally legal, we must rely on mice research. Studies in mice found that FDA-approved Epidolex, a 99% extract of cannabidiol (CBD), improved acute and chronic pain in SCD-affected mice. Mood disorders are common in people with sickle cell anemia. Adegbola’s mention of the frequency and longevity of hospital stays, losing employment, and sometimes even friends could increase anxiety and depression. While we don’t know the direct scientific relationship between cannabis and sickle cell, a retroactive analysis found that those with a medical marijuana certification were admitted to the hospital way less than those who did not use medical cannabis. That’s worth exploring. 

Adegbola’s Rastafarian colleagues gave him respite from being a Nigerian man in a predominantly white profession. “Hearing the Rastafarians speak about Jah and do what they call ‘church’ was eye-opening. I felt I was attracted to cannabis for a reason. It felt like nature was not something to run from but to embrace. I wanted to roll an L and actually meditate on what is and what isn’t. Sometimes it’s the process of doing things that give you the clarity.

What I’ve grown to appreciate is being able to disconnect from the world and be with my thoughts. You don’t smoke to get high, you smoke to heal.” 

Ade Adegbola

While cannabis does help soothe the pain that comes with sickle cell, Adegbola struggles with the disability label. It took the world to say that sickle cell is a disability for Adegbola to reconcile with the fact that he has one. “I should be able to utilize the benefits of having a disability, but I don’t know how that will work because it’s not a physical disability you can see all the time. It’s hard to explain. In an employment situation, seldom are you talking to someone who understands. In the back of their mind, they might think of me as a liability. Many people in that position think about the business over the person’s life. Coming from a business background, I understand that. So I always felt that I would eventually be my own boss.” 

And bossed up, he has! His clothing line, Revolution of a Monarch or ROAM, is to show that everyone is a king or queen in their own right. Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, Adegbola always dreamed of owning a clothing line. “In college, I would take pictures to Jamaica Avenue, put a phrase next to it, and get it printed on a polo shirt, like Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album cover. Those were my early creative expressions, and I got to the point where I wanted to do something. I had conversations with friends, and they wanted to start something in fashion. What started as a collective shrunk, but I didn’t lose the passion because I was still so uninspired from work. It became an opportunity for me to grow.”

Adegbola continues, “It’s just for people who believe in themselves to the point that they are royalty. I wanted to create a logo with a story, and seeing a crown was missing in the urban community from a visual standpoint. The last time that was around was Basquiat. I thought it would be cool to see little kids running around with crowns on their heads, to feel empowered to do whatever they want. Most people don’t see fashion as having a message. I want to start conversations, I want people to have pieces that evoke emotion because it inspires them to be better. As a community, things will improve if we inspire people to improve. Nepotism would be second nature.”

Adegbola found his queen, Abena Banful, in college, and the two broke the internet with their viral Zoom wedding on April 4th, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Abena and Ade Adegbola, 4/4/2020

These days, Adegbola rolls up whenever he feels like it. Rolling up has become a routine that he’s looking to adjust. “I appreciate what cannabis does, especially that it gives you an opportunity to reset. You can understand [situations] with a newer perspective. I had periods where I would smoke and would have to stop abruptly because I was hospitalized. Coughing can be painful, let alone rolling up, so sometimes I just want to rest.”

Like many other cannabis OGs, Adegbola misses the old days of chronic and nicks. His go-to strain would be Purple Punch, but he quickly realized not all strains are created equally. He dabbles with fronto or grabba a bit for that kick, however, he recognizes the dangers of using tobacco products. “I enjoy cannabis, so I’m not a pretentious smoker. I’ve had a few Reggie highs.” So, if you ever see him with his crown on, don’t be shy to share a sesh.

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