ASA Activist Newsletter - August 2017
August 14, 2017 | William Dolphin
In the August 2017 Issue
- Senate Committee Passes Measure Protecting Patients
- Veterans Rights Amendment Clears Senate Committee
- ASA and Federal Task Force Urge Respect for State Programs
- PFC Offers Free Services for Laboratories, new webinars, podcasts
- Massachusetts Medical Society Promotes Cannabis Education
- ASA Activist Profile: Jill K. Swing, Charleston, South Carolina
- ACTION ALERT: Contact Your Congressional Reps
Senate Committee Passes Measure Protecting Patients
A key Senate committee has renewed the budget amendment that provides federal protection for those participating in state medical cannabis programs. Despite a personal plea from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reject it, on July 27, the Senate Committee on Appropriations voted to include the amendment in the FY2018 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations bill. The amendment introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) continues the ban on using federal funds to interfere with state medical cannabis programs and participants.
“We have more important things for the Justice Department to do than tracking down physicians or epileptics who are using medical marijuana legally in their state,” said Sen. Leahy when introducing the amendment.
The restriction on federal enforcement was first added to the 2015 budget and has been renewed each year since.
“This shows that Senate support exists for the central elements of the CARERS Act,” said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer. “The CARERS Act would make the protections in the Leahy medical cannabis amendment permanent and create a much-needed framework for further research and federal and state cooperation.”
Veterans Rights Amendment Clears Senate Committee
Veterans scored a win in Congress last month. On July 24, the Senate Committee on Appropriations voted 24-7 to include a bipartisan budget amendment that both protects veterans who use medical cannabis and allows their Veterans Health Administration (VHA) doctors to recommend it to them. Current policy prohibits VHA doctors from providing the documentation veterans need to participate in state medical cannabis programs, and some veterans have lost access to VHA care for using medical cannabis.
The amendment to the FY2018 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill was introduced by Senators Steve Daines (R-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR).
“We often talk about how our soldiers stand up for us, and we need to stand up for them,” said Sen. Merkley when introducing the amendment.
The veterans’ amendment mirrors one from last year that passed the Senate and House but was removed during a special committee meeting before the final 2017 budget bill was approved.
This year’s amendment drew support from three Republican senators who previously voted “no” on the measure: Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and John Hoeven (R-ND).
“The margin of victory on this vote for Veterans demonstrates the growing bipartisan support for this issue,” said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer. “This shows it is time for Congress to pass legislation such as the CARERS Act to provide enduring protections for all of the over two million medical cannabis patients in this country.”
“Veterans suffer from a high rate of conditions that can be mitigated with medical cannabis such as PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and chronic pain,” said Michael Krawitz of Veterans for Medical Cannabis. “The veteran community should be able to participate in state medical cannabis programs without fear of losing their VA benefits or services.”
ASA and Federal Task Force Urge Respect for State Programs
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ramped up the drug war rhetoric on cannabis, but a federal task force and patient advocates have urged a continuation of the current policy of deferring to state enforcement.
Early last month, Americans for Safe Access sent Sessions and the task force a detailed report showing how the various states have complied with Department of Justice guidance. ASA urged that the DOJ continue to allow states to police their own medical cannabis programs.
Shortly after ASA sent its recommendations, the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety completed its report, largely endorsing current DOJ policy. While the report was not released to the public, journalists at the AP obtained a copy and reported the task force did not call for increased enforcement but rather more study.
Specifically, the report suggests more attention to financial regulations that affect medical cannabis businesses and the development of “centralized guidance, tools and data related to marijuana enforcement.” That is the same direction the Government Accountability Office gave DOJ two years ago.
The task force also suggested DOJ officials “should evaluate whether to maintain, revise or rescind” the hands-off guidance given to prosecutors by the Obama administration. Prosecutors in the 93 US Attorney offices around the country operate autonomously but ultimately answer to the Executive branch.
In July, Sessions sent letters to state officials in Colorado, Oregon and Washington asking them to each answer claims that their regulatory approaches were not meeting the enforcement priorities set by the DOJ in what has come to be known as the Cole memo.
In March, Sessions said, "The Cole Memorandum set up some policies under President Obama's Department of Justice about how cases should be selected in those states and what would be appropriate for federal prosecution, much of which I think is valid."
“For the past three years, state officials have worked to keep their medical cannabis programs within DOJ guidelines, balancing the interests of medical cannabis patients and federal enforcement priorities,” said ASA Executive Director Steph Sherer. “With 91 Americans dying each day from opioid overdose, but states with medical cannabis programs seeing a nearly 25% reduction in overdose deaths, the federal government should bolster state programs, not undermine them.”
PFC Offers Free Services for Laboratories
Opportunities are growing for analytic laboratories to help ensure cannabis products are accurately labeled and tested. To help them take advantage of rapidly increasing demand, Patient Focused Certification (PFC) is offering free assessments and certification services for cannabis testing laboratories. Safe, standardized medical products with accurate labeling require consistent testing based on industry best practices.
Concern for product standards has increased as policymakers react to the remarkable decrease in opioid-related deaths in states that have medical cannabis programs. With 25% fewer fatalities in those states, medical cannabis may be an effective tool for combatting the opioid epidemic.
“Laboratories play a vital role in the standardization and quality assurance of medical cannabis products,” said Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D. President of the Association of Commercial Cannabis Labs. “And providing cannabis as a medicine can positively impact the opioid epidemic because you can offer an alternative for patients to manage pain in a physiologically safer manner.”
Cannabis has been shown to reduce pain both alone and in tandem with opiods, allowing patients to reduce their use of dangerous opiods or substitute completely. As more chronic pain patients, many of whom have no experience with cannabis, transition to using medical cannabis, the demand for accurate labeling and product testing has increased.
More states are requiring product testing, but cannabis testing laboratories often lack the financial resources to access third-party assessment and certification services, which are necessary to ensure accurate results.
“Patients have a right to have access to medicine of known purity and quality,” said Jahan Marcu, Ph.D., Director of PFC. “By increasing the number of certified labs, we can increase the availability of accurately tested and labeled medical cannabis, ensuring that this medicine is a viable alternative for patients using opioids.”
To achieve PFC certification, laboratories must pass two assessments each cycle. Assessment involve a facility inspection and audits of method validation reports, employee training records, and other elements as determined by law and expert guidelines.
PFC, a project of Americans for Safe Access, is an international training, education, and certification program recognized by ISO accreditors. PFC partners with accreditation bodies, universities, and standards groups such as the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, and the American Herbal Products Association.
Cannabis laboratories must apply here by August 25 to receive a FREE assessment, to begin in September. Participating labs include industry leaders from California, Colorado, and Australia.
PFC offering more services, free webinars, podcasts
ASA’s Patient Focused Certification program is offering expanded services for the cannabis industry. Fresh on the menu are bi-weekly podcasts featuring PFC staff discussing the latest regulatory developments and other issues affecting industry stakeholders. One of the most popular is the new, free one-hour webinar on “What to Expect when Being Inspected,” which explores the need for regulatory inspection preparedness in the cannabis industry, and the most common violations that result in fines and potentially the denial or loss of an operating license. Check the ASA and PFC youtube channel for more.
PFC has expanded its regulatory compliance services with mock inspections for businesses seeking state licensure. Using three sets of checklists, PFC auditors conduct state-style inspections of facilities in advance of the actual inspections many states and municipalities now require for licensing. Mock inspections are adapted to the specific licensing requirements of the business and can mimic anticipated inspections by OSHA, the fire department, the Department of Health, or other agencies.
New opportunities for online training for industry professionals are coming in September. Check the PFC website for upcoming dates. PFC Director Dr. Marcu will also be speaking on endocannabinoids at the Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, Oregon at the end of August.
Massachusetts Medical Society Promotes Cannabis Education
“These courses significantly expand the Massachusetts Medical Society’s continuing medical education courses in cannabis and its use for medicinal purposes,” the Society noted on its website. “Doctors and healthcare professionals must understand the medical, legal and social issues to best respond to their patients’ questions and attend to their needs.”
TheAnswerPage’s medical cannabis content is a key component in Cannabis Care Certification (CCC), a joint project with Americans for Safe Access. CCC is an online program providing quality information about medical cannabis to individuals who are starting or considering cannabis therapy, and healthcare professionals interested in the endocannabinoid system and medical cannabis. TheAnswerPage has been an international resource for providing accredited continuing medical education since 1998.
“Whether or not doctors or other healthcare professionals have any intention of recommending medical cannabis for patient care, they all need to be well educated in this clinical area because their patients will be seeking their expert advice and guidance for this medication,” said Stephen B. Corn, MD, founder of TheAnswerPage and a specialist with over 30 years of experience in anesthesiology, perioperative, and pain medicine. “Some patients may already be utilizing medical cannabis, and doctors and other healthcare providers will need to be aware of the physiological effects of cannabis as well as potential drug interactions and side effects. Expertise in medical cannabis is necessary for most doctors, pharmacists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.”
View more about the Cannabis Care Certification program here: cannabiscarecertification.org.
ASA Activist Profile: Jill K. Swing, Charleston, South Carolina
Like many parents of children with severe seizure disorders, Jill Swing discovered the potential of medical cannabis through the 2013 CNN special report Weed, in which medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported the near-miraculous effects of CBD extracts for a young girl with Dravets Syndrome.
The story of that little girl’s experience in Colorado was enough to make Jill consider moving her family there. One of Jill’s twins, Mary Louise, now nine, has cerebral palsy and intractable epilepsy so severe that at times she has suffered near continuous seizures, up to 200 an hour, totaling 800-1,000 per day. The potential benefits of cannabis products were compelling, but ultimately the complications of trying to uproot an established family were too much, and the Swing family turned to their state lawmakers for help.
First, Jill reached out to South Carolina state Senator Tom Davis through a mutual friend of her mother-in-law. In early 2014, Davis introduced CBD legislation and encouraged Swing to get involved in support of it. Jill and her mother-in-law testified at hearings at the state capitol until they got it passed.
Part of the bill established a medical cannabis study committee, and Jill’s activism got her selected as the public representative. That became an eye-opening experience, as she traveled the state with the other committee members from state agencies, law enforcement and university medical centers, hearing the stories of other patients in need who were excluded from the narrowly written law, which allows only for possession of CBD extracts for certain types of epilepsy and has no provision for legally producing or acquiring it.
Jill had no experience with cannabis before considering it as a treatment for her daughter, so the stories she heard of its broader therapeutic potential for so many types of medical conditions provided new perspective. Her lack of experience also meant she had a steep learning curve trying to find medicine for her daughter. She networked with other desperate parents to find CBD extracts out of Colorado, but got burned several times, highlighting for her the critical importance of regulated state programs that ensure patients can both obtain cannabis medicines and have confidence that what they obtain is what it says it is.
With a verifying letter from Mary Louise’s physician at the Medical University of South Carolina, Jill was able to take her daughter to Maine, which has a provision for recognizing out-of-state patients. There, she was able to try extracts of various varieties and combinations that included THC. The results were dramatic. Mary Louise started babbling and standing and showed improved motor skills. Her pharmaceutical medications have been substantially reduced or changed as a result.
“After three years of working on this, not knowing if it would make a difference, what happened in Maine last year left me much more motivated,” says Jill. “Now I’m driven.”
After returning from Maine, Jill started an advocacy group, South Carolina Compassionate Care Alliance (SCCCA). First it was just a facebook group, but last fall they held their first big organizing meeting in Columbia, followed by smaller meetings around the state.
“We’re educating folks, talking to lawmakers,” says Jill.
This year, SCCCA is creating special groups for veterans and medical professionals and working with a pair of attorneys on model resolutions municipalities can adopt to show support for a more comprehensive state bill. The 2015 legislative attempt to broaden South Carolina’s narrow law failed, and the 2017 effort, again from Senator Davis, did not pass but will be taken up when the state legislature reconvenes.
For more information on the South Carolina Compassionate Care Alliance, join their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/SCcompassiongrp/. Jill and others are also conducting regular live streaming events at https://www.facebook.com/LIFEStreamSCCCA/.
“When people ask what they can do, I say, ‘just tell your story.’ That’s your role in this,” says Jill.
You can see more of her story on ASA’s blog at http://www.safeaccessnow.org/coming_out_of_the_cannabis_closet/.
ACTION ALERT: Now's the Time to Meet Your Congressional Reps
Your Members of Congress are at home in your state holding town halls, attending Labor Day parades, and visiting state and county fairs. Now is the perfect time to remind them that they represent you and the millions of others who support safe access.
Here’s what you can do:
- Visit The Town Hall Project to see if your Member of Congress is holding a town hall. Plan to attend the town hall if they are having one. Bring a sign, and sign up to ask a question. Have someone video you asking the question, and post on social media. (Sample questions: 1) Do you support protecting state medical cannabis programs from federal interference, such as the CJS Amendment or the Veterans Equal Access Amendment? 2) Do you support the CARERS Act of 2017?
- Make an appointment to meet with them in their district office. Visit this site for contact information and how to make an appointment. Don’t know who who represents you? Click here to find out.
- Make a sign and bring it to your local Labor Day parade if they regularly attend.
Make a plan today and enlist your friends to come along, too. Citizen lobbying makes a difference.