Leading From the Front: The Legacy of Jim Greig (1951-2014)

Steph Sherer, Huffington Post (Op-Ed)

As the Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), I usually reserve this space for medical cannabis policy, but today I am writing as an organizer, a student, and a friend who is mourning. 

On Monday, cancer took the life of medical cannabis activist Jim Greig. Jim had suffered from Ankylosing Spondylitis, a severe form of arthritis, since the '80s. He was confined to a wheelchair and was bedridden 80 percent of the time. He began using medical cannabis in 1995 and became a tireless advocate shortly after. 

Last month, I had the honor of visiting my friend, colleague, mentor, and my sometimes yogi, Jim, who spent his final days fighting cancer at his home in Eugene, Oregon. It is always a surreal event to go to say goodbye to someone, especially someone who I admire and hold in such high regard. However, in this case, I had a two-hour drive to prepare my thoughts. 

I set the GPS for my drive from Portland and just let my memories of Jim well up inside. To my surprise, under these circumstances I felt as I have always felt in his presence: hopeful, inspired, willful, and a bit righteous. Over the last decade, Jim and I have spent hours strategizing, organizing, and encouraging one another in our work to reform cannabis policy. 

I first met Jim years ago in ASA’s Oakland office. He had been working with some of our California chapters and came in to meet with our staff. Jim was a slight but handsome man with silver hair and usually sported dark glasses while he glided around in his automated wheelchair. As soon as we sat down to talk, Jim’s confident presence made him seem six feet tall. He was thoughtful and shrewd with an amazing grasp of party politics, political strategy, and community organizing. His ability to use all of the tools at his disposal to engage people in this way was unparalleled.  

Jim had two objectives leaving that meeting: 1) to organize his fellow veterans, and 2) to bring safe and legal access to Oregon. When Jim called me in March to tell me about the aggressive cancer he was fighting, he reminded me of that other fight that he’d won. “I always said I would live to see legal dispensaries in Oregon,” Jim told me over the phone, “and we did it, Steph.” 

Jim proved to be one of the most powerful patient advocates the medical cannabis movement has ever seen. Jim was instrumental in getting pro-medical cannabis candidate Ellen Rosenblum elected as Attorney General of Oregon. Rosenblum was a much-needed champion for medical cannabis and there is no doubt that the current distribution laws would never have been enacted had her Republican opponent won in 2012.

By the time I got to Jim’s place, I was prepared for anything, but very excited to see my friend. When I entered the room where he lay bedridden, I instantly made my way over to him for a hug. My slight friend was now even tinier and surrounded by ominous machines that were keeping him alive. He asked me to sit across from him, and in no time, we began talking about the 2014 elections and upcoming votes in Congress. It was like any other conversation we had ever had, except for when timelines entered the conversation, and we knew he would not live to see his strategy play out. 

He asked me to get a notepad. I immediately said, “You’re organizing! You’re giving me work,” and started laughing. He joined me and said, “Oh, like you’re not going to be organizing on your deathbed.”

He proudly played me a voicemail that Attorney General Roseblum left for him when she found out he was ill (as if you could love her even more). He made me promise that I would see her to her rightful place as Governor of Oregon.   

He also made me promise to see to it that hospices, adult living centers, and hospice workers become educated on medical cannabis and to ensure that there are cannabis hospice services in all medical cannabis states.  

And then he asked me to make the most important promise: to continue to lead from the front. “Lead from the front” was something that Jim always said to me. He felt that if, from his wheelchair, he could write letters to the editor (publishing dozens), write press releases, conduct media interviews, participate in candidate debates, organize fundraisers, lobby every level of government, travel to DC, and participate in rallies (to name just a few of Jim’s accomplishments), he could also inspire others to work with him. 

And he did. Jim believed, as I do, that leadership is earned from rolling up your sleeves and getting it done, while showing as many people as possible how to do it too. Jim had an amazing talent in picking out advocates to mentor and encourage, and I know many people, including myself, who came to depend on his support.   

Jim and I got to reminisce during my visit. We got to curse at his cancer. But mostly, we got to say the things we always wanted to say to one another; a wonderful gift that I will always treasure. After a few hours, his pain was taking over and we both knew it was time to say goodbye. Through tears and tubes, we hugged and he told me, “Go do great things, poverty and world hunger could use your help, and I will see you on the other side.” 

In 2013, I had the honor of presenting Jim with ASA’s Patient Advocate of the Year award. He told me that it was a proud moment in his life.  I can’t help but wonder what  our world would look like if we were all more like Jim. So, if you are one of 1 million legal medical cannabis patients in the U.S., or if you are one of the 237 million Americans that support medical cannabis, I hope Jim can inspire you to help us change the laws that continue to prevent patients from gaining safe and legal access to their medicine. After all, one person can change the course of history.  

Thanks, Jim, for your friendship and for reminding us all that we can, and should, “Lead from the Front.”