Dawn-Marie Steenstra, Maryland

Dawn-Marie Steenstra, LPN, SDC, IC, QA, SCC, became a medical cannabis advocate by accident. In 2012, she’d just started dating the man who is now her husband, Eric Steenstra, when he invited her to attend the Patients Out of Time Conference with him in Arizona. 

Up to that point, she’d thought he was just a freelance computer specialist. She had no idea he was one of the leading hemp advocates in the U.S.

As a nurse who had run her own assisted-living facility for 21 years, Dawn was already a strong patient advocate who had learned something about state regulatory processes. But she knew little about medical cannabis.  

At the conference, she heard about the latest international research and the experiences of patients, gaining insights about the potential of cannabis to treat the side effects of cancer chemotherapy and a myriad of conditions. She was also introduced to the endocannabinoid system – all things she had not been taught in nursing school.

 “As a nurse, I was just sitting there with my mouth open,” she recalls. “In long term, palliative care and hospice, the four drugs provided as a standard in my nursing bag did not work for everyone for pain, anxiety or nausea. I became an advocate that day, a very determined advocate.”

By that point, Dawn was just a little over a year post her own breast cancer treatment, and she’d sat with countless other patients as they faced their own cancer diagnoses and treatment struggles not only at her job, but in her personal life.

“I thought, how can there be this safe, effective treatment that I can’t use? I knew I needed to fight for this not just for myself, but for the countless patients I saw suffering every day."

The American Cannabis Nurses Association was formed at that conference, and Dawn joined immediately. Within months, she was appointed a member of the original board of directors. In that role, she helped write resolutions and gorged on all kinds of cannabis education. Soon thereafter, she got involved in Americans for Safe Access after being introduced to ASA founder Steph Sherer, who knew her husband. That led her to work with ASA on some of the first educational training programs, first with the Cannabis Training Institute, then with the early development of ASA’s Patient Focused Certification (PFC) program. 

Then, her home state of Maryland came on board with a medical cannabis program, and Dawn went headlong into lobbying state officials with help from ASA staff. 

“They teach you from the ground up how to advocate effectively,” Dawn says. “ASA staff taught me how to write and give testify, how to educate, how to talk to people in a knowledgeable, professional way.”

In 2014, Dawn-Marie worked with members of Maryland’s medical cannabis commission on education for medical professionals and the creation of program regulations. One of her goals was to mandate testing of cannabis products and physician-education standards, so she worked with ASA to organize a meeting about PFC standards for all of the prospective cannabis business applicants to learn. She hoped 100 people might attend, but on the day of the meeting more than 200 showed up, forcing them to change rooms to accommodate the crowd. Based on that meeting and other work for compliance practices, the state commission accepted PFC as the basis for state regulatory oversight and training of the new regulators to come.

Dawn-Marie is now a National Ambassador for United Patients Group and organized their physician-focused Baltimore Conference in 2017. Since 2018, Dawn has also been working as an outreach and engagement coordinator for Mission Dispensaries. Last year, she coproduced with John Malanca the documentary series The Sacred Plant, Season 2, focusing on the East Coast patients and physicians.

“I’m grateful I’m getting to be a force for positive change in all these things, furthering the mission of destigmatizing cannabis,” Dawn says. “At this point, I’m not afraid to debate anyone. They’ll have their tails are between their legs by the time I’m done.”

She has found that cannabis can be the answer to many maladies of her own. After a car accident in 1999 left her with a severe back injury that required cervical fusion, she had been a pain patient for 18 years, treated with a variety of shots, therapy, and pain, antianxiety and muscle-relaxant medications. Because of her nursing license, she was wary of using whole-plant cannabis but asked her doctor if she could try a combination of a full-spectrum CBD oil and Marinol, which is a prescribed synthetic THC drug. He agreed. Within two months, she was completely weaned off all her pharmaceutical medications. 

 “So many people saw cannabis as a threat to humanity, but it’s a savior. For myself, as well as the patients I now meet with every day.” Dawn-Marie says.

Dawn has been married to Eric Steenstra for three years now, so she has a front-row seat for the development of hemp regulations. 

“It’s only a matter of time before the dominoes fall,” she says. “I thought it would be simpler with hemp descheduling, but it’s a mess nationally without regulatory oversight and good manufacturing processes in place.” 

She thinks the answer is to deschedule all cannabis and have all the states get together to establish interstate commerce and proper import and export procedures.

“PFC is the answer to the mismatch of state rules,” she says.

She continues to care for serious homebound patients in private practice, and has seen doctors change their opinion seeing the results in her patients.

“This is the greatest moment of all, when a doctor who was afraid or hesitant, suddenly asks for every educational resource I have,” Dawn says. “Of course, the very first resource I refer them to is Americans For Safe Access!

This profile was originally published in the July 2019 ASA Activist Newsletter