Stories Culture  | Policy

Leave It Better Than You Found It

How Cameron Champion is changing the cannabis industry from the inside out.

The Unsung Hero

Cameron Champion, Executive Director, Surterra Wellness

Cameron Champion, Executive Director, Surterra Wellness

Cameron Champion watches from backstage as his partner, Ty Autry, stands in the spotlight. Ever since he was a child, Ty was told that acting isn’t a real job. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, but that wasn’t the path he wanted to pursue. Ty dreamed of telling stories that move and encourage people.

Now his story, “A Southern Fairytale,” is a sold-out show. Reviews praise the raw and authentic tale of a gay Christian growing up in the Deep South. Ty is living his dream.

Cameron’s eyes shine as he recalls last night’s show. He is elated to support the man he loves. Ty’s dream lives in Cameron’s heart as his own.

As stage manager, Cameron was the unsung hero of the show. He silently weaved through scaffolding, flipping switches on the soundboard and steering the spotlight. Cameron is by no means a professional theater manager or producer, but he’s always been a “get shit done-er.”

Cameron’s education in physics and engineering earned his placement with an international joint military task force as Senior Airman, Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician. In this role, he focused on disarming nuclear, chemical, biological and improvised explosive weapons including years of service in active combat zones, including Iraq.

After the military, Cameron founded two successful technology and management service companies, Over iT and Administrivia. In 2014, Cameron joined Surterra Wellness. He was the fourth employee to sign on. Since then he’s taken on many roles. He advanced the cultivation, extraction and distribution expertise needed to launch a top-quality enterprise. He oversaw the sale of medical cannabis products throughout Florida and Texas. He worked extensively with government bodies like the Florida Department of Health and, recently, the State of New Jersey to integrate and develop best practices.

Now, as Executive Director and President of Strategic Projects, Cameron is always on the ground leading social projects, advocating for legal reform and ensuring that quality permeates every aspect of the company. He bridges the gap to the Executive Board, serving as a voice for Surterra to help shape a better world.

As he watches Ty tell his story, Cameron looks back on his own.

Growing up, Cameron always felt like an outsider in every circle. He always had to hide being gay in the context of his Southern, religious, military upbringing.

..

Cameron’s job in the military was to keep everyone alive by clearing explosive threats. The entire time he served, however, Cameron was frightened of something else. The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was a shadow that followed him everywhere. People were dismissed from the military for being caught in a gay bar or kissing a boy. He had to be hyper-aware of not wearing the wrong t-shit or flirting with another man. Life in the military is about the job. Anything that “looked gay” was a threat to the job and had to be shut down.

One day he slipped. A friend convinced Cameron to go to a drag show. He was called into the Commander’s office, where he found a host of high-ranking internal affairs people waiting for him. He was sweating bullets, believing his military career was over. His Commander asked all of the expected questions and Cameron answered honestly. At first, his Commander was disappointed because Cameron wasn’t upfront from the very beginning (something that would have been impossible under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy). Then he said, “I don’t care if you’re gay.” And nobody in his command would care. What his Commander did care about was that Cameron’s sexuality didn’t get in the way of the job. The conversation boiled down to one well-meant but misguided sentiment: Follow the rules at work, and we will accept who you are – but don’t be yourself.

At first it was confusing, but eventually, Cameron was able to relax within his unit and have some open conversations with the people whose lives he protected every day and who protected him. He came out and found out that they didn’t care. The way of the world is that you have to hide parts of yourself, but the people closest to you never care. Cameron existed in a pocket of security through the end of his military career. He couldn’t have a boyfriend, but he could at least be himself and trust the people closest to him.

After the military, Cameron tried to reconcile being gay in the business world. He felt like business wasn’t very gay-friendly, which was evident by the lack of LGBTQ+ leadership at the top levels. He understood that being a good businessman was never about being gay. Like in the military, it’s two different worlds.

The day Tim Cook, an openly gay man, became the CEO of Apple, Cameron had an epiphany. He remembers thinking at that moment, “Wait a minute. Maybe it is okay to be gay in business.” He could find success in the business world, and work to inspire people the way he was inspired by Tim.

We’re all here to do something great. All of that repression, and anything that takes away from the wellness of a person, inhibits their ability to be themselves.

—Cameron Champion

Today, Cameron aims to create a space for people to be who they are without feeling like they should be someone different. He believes that “We’re all here to do something great. All of that repression, and anything that takes away from the wellness of a person, inhibits their ability to be themselves.”

Surterra, the great disrupter and key to truly personalized medicine.

The choice to join Surterra before the team even had an office was a huge risk. The cannabis industry is turbulent and shrouded in unknowns. But to Cameron, it was a risk worth taking.

Cameron's Grandmother

Cameron’s Grandmother

Cameron’s perception toward cannabis shifted when he watched members of his own family fall ill. His grandmother and grandfather were both diagnosed with cancer. They died in the hospital from opiate complications. Not long after that, Cameron’s mother caught the flu. The flu turned into pneumonia, then acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Soon her lungs failed, and she spent six weeks in a medically-induced coma. How could all of that happen so fast? It was just the flu!

Realizing that she was going to die, Cameron took on the problem as his own. He stood in front of a whiteboard and mapped out every medication that had been used to treat her illness. It became clear that the cocktail of drugs she was prescribed had created a problem on their own, one that she couldn’t recover from.

At that point, Cameron lost faith in Western medicine. It wasn’t until he met the founders of Surterra, Wes Van Dyk and Jake Bergmann, that the dots connected. He saw that the “War on Drugs” was one of the greatest hypocrisies of all time. Cannabis wasn’t hurting people, it was helping them in ways that dangerous and addictive pharmaceuticals couldn’t.

Someone had to change the way we do medicine in America. Cameron decided that he could be that person.

His family always raised him to believe in the idea of doing things that are bigger than himself and leaving the world better than he found it. “That’s the best measure of success,” his mother taught him. He says that this ideal is what motivated him to join the military. He is driven by a desire to go to work every day and leave the world better than he found it.

“What we’re doing here is taking that same concept to the next level,” Cameron says. He could impact a thousand people by disarming a bomb, but by building a quality production facility, he has the ability to impact millions of lives. Providing people with an alternative to pharmaceuticals is a pretty impactful way to change the world.

When Cameron joined Surterra, however, cannabis was (and continues to be) illegal in most southeastern states — and certainly not part of the southern vernacular. That all changed in 2016 when Florida voters approved legislation that allowed for the use of cannabis for medical purposes. At first, Surterra was only allowed to offer cannabis-based medicine to terminal patients. Cannabis was used to improve patients’ quality of life as much as possible. The changes Cameron saw were miraculous. One patient had an invasive brain tumor. Month after month, she saw the tumor visibly fade away. There were people living in wheelchairs with dysfunctional joints. Cameron saw them get up and walk again. Cannabis helped many patients come off the Big Pharma drugs that were wearing their bodies down.

Even with those remarkable stories, some of the biggest wins are the seemingly less impactful anecdotes. Cameron’s mother-in-law recently broke her wrist. She called and told him that she never took a single Oxycodone pill that her doctor prescribed. Cannabis was enough.

The biggest “aha” moment for Cameron was seeing how cannabis could help cancer patients. Chemotherapy, the most common method for treating cancer, kills cancer cells along with healthy cells throughout the body. It also weakens the immune system. Cannabis-based treatments help bring the body back into balance. It gives the immune system time to fight back against the disease. The way Cameron sees it, “You don’t need a chainsaw to hang a picture in the wall, you just need a hammer and a nail.”

The places where it’s tough to be are where you’re needed the most.

Getting cannabis into the hands of those who need it is no easy task. Building an industry around something that’s federally illegal, and bogged-down by decades of stigma is incredibly difficult. It means changing the status quo of what is defined as “medical” and reworking all the systems to make access to products possible – banking, insurance, government and more. Cameron shakes his head. “It’s more difficult that disarming bombs,” he says.

I don’t know how I would get up and face all the adversity if I wasn’t fighting to save other people’s mothers every day

—Cameron Champion

Cameron’s strength in the face of adversity comes in part from his time in the military. In that world, every problem had to be solved. Every barrier had to be overcome, even if the job was to disarm a vehicle IED surrounded by a moat of alligators. “In those situations, you learn that no barrier is insurmountable. Your life depends on it just as much as the lives you’re protecting,” he says.

The rest of his strength? That stems from love.

“I don’t know how I would get up and face all the adversity if I wasn’t fighting to save other people’s mothers every day,” Cameron says.

Surterra is the first place where Cameron feels like his unique experiences are truly valued. He knows what it’s like to watch the people you love suffer through adversity. He understands what it feels like to be marginalized. He’s learned that his superpower is a sum of all these experiences, and that which makes him truly himself.

If everyone had to conform or hide part of what makes them great in order to be here, we wouldn’t be able to have a positive effect”

—Cameron Champion

Cameron strives to create an environment where people not only show who they are, but where everyone benefits from experiencing one another’s authenticity. The way Cameron sees it, the world is a better place when people can be authentic. “If everyone had to conform or hide part of what makes them great in order to be here, we wouldn’t be able to have a positive effect,” he says.

Recently, Cameron sat in a meeting with the rest of the executive leadership team and shared the concept of intersectionality, encouraging them to incorporate it into Surterra’s upcoming programs. Intersectionality, and intersectional justice, essentially mean that there are many different factors that can attribute to a person being a minority or at a socio-economic disadvantage. Those factors are often overlaid.

Consider an Asian immigrant female with a marijuana possession charge on her record. As a female, she is likely to have a lower than average wage. As an Asian immigrant, she is typically at an even further disadvantage. Her criminal record points to the fact that she probably didn’t have financial means to have the marijuana possession charge expunged. All three factors affect and potentially limit her choices in life – job, place to live, how to support a family, and so much more.

Cameron is currently working to build a job-creation plan designed with a specific understanding of intersectionality. Part of that plan includes visiting major cities in New Jersey and hosting expungement events, where people with marijuana charges are invited to come and find out how Surterra can help them clear their records so they can command a higher wage. By sending teams to go around and work these programs, Cameron is creating awareness within every level of the company. The success of these events can be felt everywhere.

Cameron brings a unique perspective and voice to the leadership table and uses his position to push for projects that help empower people. He advocates from the top, explaining why intersectionality is important and how Surterra can be a part of making it happen in the world. One of the cornerstones of this ideal is having a diverse team throughout the company. If you build teams that don’t have a variety of perspectives, you’re missing out on making a big impact.

This past week, Cameron spoke on behalf of Surterra at a public hearing in New Jersey as part of the regulatory process to decide if Surterra will be allowed to operate in the state. When he was asked about the lack of diversity on Surterra’s Board of Directors, Cameron responded to the inquisitive courtroom, “I’m gay.” He went on to share the many programs Surterra has that promote inclusion and diversity both within and outside of the company. “Bringing wellness to people is not just about the individual, but about the community,” he says. Everyone in the room knew those weren’t empty words. Cameron spoke from his heart.

The curtain fell on “A Southern Fairytale” and Cameron watched his husband lead a discussion panel after the show. People from vastly different backgrounds appeared on stage. A lesbian Muslim sat between a gay rabbi and a black transgender Christian. Each one understood the struggle to reconcile their identity with faith. It’s not easy when you don’t fit in with your average church doctrine. The question arose from the audience, “Why even try to be a part of a church community?” The resounding answer from the panel, from people, had known this experience first-hand, was that the places where it’s tough to be are generally where you’re needed the most.

Those communities that believe LGBTQ+ people can’t be successful in life or have an afterlife – that’s where diversity is needed the most. Even in those difficult church communities, others will benefit from your courageous vulnerability and your expression of an authentic self. In that way, you can leave the world better than you found it.

The unique experiences that shaped Cameron’s journey, from hiding his true self to facing adversity to becoming a voice for those who can’t speak, are essential to his success in the world of cannabis today. Everything is against you in this industry. Even so, Cameron is recharged each day by the comfort of knowing that all his efforts are made for the sake of a better world. Breaking the cannabis stigma and helping people find wellness and thrive is his purpose in life. That’s his way of making the world a better place than he found it.