Debbie Barlow: “We had big shipping containers in our backyard and started making our own THC oil. … I put it in cheesecloth, and (my husband) would put just a blob under his tongue and let it dissolve.”

Here’s the thing about Debbie Barlow: She looks, to me, like a kid. My mind conjures a bright-eyed little girl on a too-tall stool, ankles crossed, legs swinging, completely engrossed in whatever is being said.

Of course, that’s not true. She’s a grown woman of a certain age—but she is an engaged and enthusiastic listener. I’d met her a few times, in group settings; we’d never before had an in-depth conversation, so I was today years old when I learned my kid on a stool not only invented a kickass product; she also has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from CalTech, and once had her own firm.

She was born in the mid-1950s in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles, as Debbie Brotsky. Her dad owned Al and Ed’s Autosound, a chain of 50 stores in California.

“He’s a brilliant man,” Debbie says. “Even at 94, I still ask him for advice.” Mom, who’s since passed, raised the kids and handled the household.

By the time she was 30, Debbie had an architectural design partnership, Brotsky and Krul; that’s when Bill Barlow swept into her life. Bill was a bit “fast and furious,” a competitive motorcycle racer she met while playing tipsy golf with friends, something they did every Wednesday.

“Bill and I were terrible golfers, so we were always lagging behind,” Debbie says.

What drew her to him? “Well, he was just … he’s really cute.” Her face lights up when she says it, and I can see that little girl again. “And most importantly,” she says, “I loved that he was an entrepreneur.” Like her dad.

Bill owned a successful cycle shop in West Los Angeles; he was also a builder. He’d tricked out his mom’s garage into his own little paradise.

“I loved it,” Debbie says. “I could have lived there if it hadn’t been on the highway.”

They married a year later, and soon had a daughter, then a son. Debbie spent more and more time at home.

After a big fire in Malibu, Debbie’s parents helped the young family secure loans for a distressed property, with the idea to flip it. Debbie designed; Bill did the construction. After five years, they were eager to do it again. Bill sold his business; they bought another property in Malibu, and got to work.

She has acquired a business partner for what’s now called Zuma Topicals, and together, they are expanding the product’s reach throughout California. If federal legalization passes, they are poised to go national.

Malibu was perfect for the couple, because Debbie had grown up by the beach, and Bill had a love of deep-sea fishing. “He had a 24-foot skipjack that he would take out as often as he could. He taught the love of the ocean to my daughter and my son; my daughter ended up getting a degree in marine biology.”

Bill was also a cannabis enthusiast—he smoked every day. Debbie had quit in her 20s, but she was fine with Bill using it. In fact, she says, “If he didn’t have his smoke, I would go find it for him. He was very hyper. He needed some way to be more even-keeled and mellow. He just was so much better when he was smoking weed.”

They’d started another successful business together—floating billboards—when Bill received a colon-cancer diagnosis. Stage 4.

“One round of chemo, just one time, and it almost killed him,” Debbie says. “He had a seizure that night, and I had to call 911. After that, he told his doctor he wasn’t doing (chemotherapy) again, and decided cannabis was the way to go.”

They learned how to make Rick Simpson oil, which was formulated by Simpson in 2003 when he was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma.

“We had big shipping containers in our backyard and started making our own THC oil,” Debbie says. “… I put it in cheesecloth, and he’d put just a blob under his tongue and let it dissolve. If he swallowed the whole thing at once, he’d get so whack; dissolving it under his tongue made him feel better, and he improved.”

The doctors gave Bill 4 to 6 weeks. He lived for two years.

While the THC oil was helping with the cancer, Bill also had muscle and joint pain from old racing injuries, so Debbie had the idea to make a salve out of the distillate. She developed a topical, now called Wild Bill’s Miracle Rub, in her kitchen. There was no high, just relief. She gave what Bill wasn’t using to friends who used it for muscle pain; some reported back that it also worked for headaches and menstrual cramps. The list of uses grows even today.

A mutual friend, Lynne Daniels (who is also in the cannabis industry), brought me a jar of Wild Bill’s when I broke my shoulder. It had helped her dog with an ACL tear, and Lynne was positive it would help the nearly unbearable pain in my elbow, a side effect of the break. Without waiving any pom poms, but only because I don’t have any, my testimonial is: “Hallelujah!”

After Bill passed away, Debbie rented out the Airstream she and Bill had renovated. Right off Zuma Beach, their property was often used for film shoots, but she recently sold it—and moved to La Quinta, with her two dogs and her bird.

She is now on a bigger adventure, even more kickass than the last. She has acquired a business partner for what’s called Zuma Topicals, and together, they are expanding the product’s reach throughout California. If federal legalization passes, they are poised to go national. She is the architect of her own world, and she’s currently adding on another story.

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Kay Kudukis

Kay Kudukis is a former lead singer in a disco cover band who then became a Gaslight girl, then an actress, and then the author of two produced and wildly unacclaimed plays—as well as one likely unseen...

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