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ASA Founder Steph Sherer: Reflection on 20 Years of Advocacy
This year Americans for Safe Access is celebrating our 20-year anniversary, and in the spirit of the occasion we are taking some time to reflect on the impact we have had on bringing safe access to the U.S., explore the challenges still facing us today, and to recommit to the future for everyone who needs safe access to medical cannabis. In preparing for this year’s conference, I had the opportunity to reflect on this organization that I helped co-found and the amazing people that have carried her banner over the years.
ASA began in the wake of the Bush Administration’s heightened attack on medical cannabis collectives in California that included paramilitary style raids. Asa Hutchinson was head of the DEA, leading the fight against cannabis access, so we created our name for the headline ASA vs ASA. (Subsequently, Asa Hutchinson now oversees a medical cannabis program in his home state of Arkansas.)
Our earlier work included hosting raid-preparedness trainings for cannabis providers, organizing advocates around the country to protest during and after raids, monitoring police enforcement, suing state agencies that refused to implement medical cannabis laws, working with city and state governments to legalize medical cannabis distribution, and organizing court support for those being prosecuted. ASA organized over 200 raid responses between 2002-2012. Each of these included alerting media, contacting loved ones of those being detained and coordinating protests through phone trees (early days) and text alerts. Patients took time from their families and healthcare to stand in the streets chanting “Hands off my Medicine!” and “DEA go away!”
But in the background of all this activity, ASA was coordinating a larger strategic plan to create safe access for all Americans. We envisioned a world in which patients would have access to safe and affordable cannabis based therapeutics. A world where patients would talk to knowledgeable doctors about successfully integrating cannabis into their treatments as frontline options, where patients would have the option of using cannabis without fear of arrest, losing their job, their home or their children, where the harms of a drug war built on racism and targeting the poor would subside and create opportunity out of destruction, where a patient would only have to think about their medicine when they were talking to their doctor or taking it, not struggling to afford it.
This vision led us to create product safety standards for cannabis products with the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), to work with doctors to create CME courses on cannabis therapeutics, to work to change the international scheduling of cannabis, to challenge the U.S. scheduling through creative bureaucratic channels and the courts, to challenge misinformation from the DEA and cannabis, to create model legislation at the state and federal level, to pass Federal legislation to stop the raids on medical cannabis, and to train thousands of patient advocates to understand legislation and regulations and lobby for their rights.
For over 20 years, ASA has worked with hundreds of thousands of advocates who volunteered their time and talents to fight for this vision. Hundreds of our members succumbed to the illnesses that brought them to cannabis, and I can’t tell you how humbling it is to work alongside those who knew as Maya Angelo did that “When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action.” And it is through their eyes and for their sacrifices that I write this letter.
2022 also marks 25 years of implementing medical cannabis laws in the U.S. Unfortunately, medical cannabis remains illegal federally, keeping these treatments out of reach for millions of Americans. The state-by-state compassionate use model leaves out those patients living in states reluctant to pass medical cannabis laws, federal employees and contractors, and veterans utilizing VA medical services. In states with medical cannabis laws, this model does not address many medical or logistical needs for patients, only serving a privileged class of Americans. And in both regulated and unregulated markets, patients and their caregivers can’t depend on the quality of the cannabis products: free of contaminates, accurate labels or standardized products.
We get many accolades at ASA for how far we have moved the stone up the mountain for cannabis policy, and I am proud of the work we have done. I am always surprised when people ask me “what’s next” as if we have already achieved our mission. I always want to respond our name isn’t “Privileged Americans for Safe Access” because if we were to stop today, that would be what we have accomplished, worthy for those we have helped but far short of our mission.
When I became a medical cannabis patient over 22 years ago, I could have sat on the sidelines of the medical cannabis fight. I could have continued to buy cannabis from the illicit market and turned my back on the millions of people who could have found relief from medical cannabis or the individuals finding themselves in the crosshairs of state and federal law enforcement for providing medical cannabis to patients like me. The truth is my privilege allows me to make the choice to fight for safe access every day.
But I have a deep belief in justice and a faith in core principles of democracy which means my rights only really exist if I exercise them and that laws that are subject to change and should be broken if they are unjust. There is no denying that there are two Americas when it comes to the judicial system and the same is true when it comes to health care in America, from a bifurcated food source to access to vitamins, supplements and prescription drugs. I do not want this to be true for medical cannabis.
Because of the work of this very special organization, it’s members and the brave patient advocates, the world has changed, for many. As of today the DEA has stopped raiding and persecuting medical cannabis patients and their providers, 5 million patients have legal access, DEA has stopped talking about Gateway theory and psychosis, the UN recognizes cannabis as medicine. We have product safety protocols for cannabis, cannabis is being tested, 38 states and 3 territories have medical cannabis programs, CBD is legal, 95% of the population believes medical cannabis should be legal, we have a herbal monograph. The last 3 Presidents have said we should look into the “scheduling of cannabis”, Grassley and Diane Feinstein sponsored and passed a bill on cannabis research, NIDA is looking into the benefits of medical cannabis. We have created nearly 500,000 jobs in the US, people know about other cannabinoids than just THC, over 65 countries have been able to skip state by state model and pass federal legislation, there is accredited continuing medical education, there are over 1,000 registered studies at clinicaltrials.gov, and the President of the United States has said no one should go to jail for cannabis.
But we are not done, and if we stop fighting when we just we have access, when our state program is created, or our medical condition is added to our state law, then we are leaving behind millions of Americans that don’t have access and we risk our rights slipping away.
20 years is a long time, I think is fair to say that the fight to bring a new approach to medicine to the world is my life’s work. It has been hard, heartbreaking and frustrating at times, but it has brought all of you into my life and for that I am truly grateful. From ASA alumni, our staff and members, my mentors and allied organizations, I have gained so much knowledge and am humbled to stand shoulder to shoulder with them all in this struggle.
I hope you will join me this year at Unity as we reflect on these experiences together. It is also my hope that you recommit with me to continue the fight to pass federal medical cannabis legislation once and for all.
Because until there is safe access, WE are Americans for Safe Access!
Watch Celebrating 20 Years of Medical Cannabis Advocacy from Unity 2022
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