Local Activist Launching Colorado Chapter of Americans for Safe Access

By Thomas Mitchell for Westword

"Established in 2002 with over 100,000 active members in all fifty states, ASA is the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research. It's time that Colorado had a chapter of ASA, and my intent with Safe Access Colorado is to strengthen and unite Colorado's patient and medical cannabis community!"
- Melanie Rodgers, ASA Colorado

Adult-use cannabis sales have been legal in Colorado for nearly five years, but the fight isn't over yet. Just ask medical marijuana patients and caregivers, who continue to see their rights and access to medicine compromised by regulations and red tape.

Denver MMJ activist Melanie Rodgers has been working on behalf of patients since 2012, using her experiences at the Colorado State Capitol and public-health hearings to help start a Colorado chapter of Americans for Safe Access, one of the nation's largest nonprofits for medical marijuana patients. To learn more, Westword chatted with Rodgers about ASA's newest chapter.

Westword: How did you get involved in cannabis activism?

Melanie Rodgers: To pinpoint the exact time is challenging, and looking back, it's been a series of events and interactions that fuel my passion for cannabis activism today! In January 2012, I had the chance to meet and speak with one of the last two surviving federal medical marijuana patients, Irvine Rosenfeld, at a Prohibition-era-themed party called the Ganja Ball. We had an intimate conversation, and he shared his story of how cannabis has helped his rare bone-tumor disorder. He even showed me his federal medical marijuana prescription, which was a plastic bag of joints issued by the U.S. government! I was shocked and amazed. He also shared that since he began this prescription in the ’80s, he did not have another bone tumor break through his skin, and his quality of life had changed for the better.

In March 2012, I became involved with cannabis activism with an event called One Love. Kristi Kelly, a co-organizer for the fundraising event, asked my husband's [Westword employee Rob Rodgers] and my band at the time, Muggsy Bogues, to play and support the cause. This benefit concert was to help raise legal funds for Jason Beinor, the first medical marijuana patient to test positive for THC in a random drug test who then got fired from his job, even though he was a legal medical marijuana patient. This was the first time this happened to any patient under Amendment 20, and there was talk about taking this case all the way to the Supreme Court. It was an exciting day in the medical cannabis community, bringing multiple groups — businesses, industry and patient advocates — together. I was very proud to be involved in this benefit, and my interest for patient advocacy was born.

In July 2015, I circled back with Kristi Kelly, and she introduced me to Stacey Linn and her CannAbility Foundation. I learned about her mission with Jack's Amendment, now Jack's Law, which allows medical marijuana at schools and gives kids who take MMJ the opportunity to go to school. I have stood by her side ever since with Jack's Law, adding post-traumatic stress disorder to the state's list of MMJ conditions at the Capitol and throughout issues that face the medical-patient cannabis community.

Last but not least, I was nominated for Advocate of the Year at the 2017 Cannabis Business Awards last year. My name was sandwiched in between Joe Rogan and Montell Williams on the ballot, with additional heavy hitters and notable advocates. It was a turning point for me to be recognized among my peers for my work in cannabis advocacy. I try to be a living example to others in being a positive influence in the community, promoting cannabis education, advocacy and social responsibility. It really helped pivot my passion, drive and voice to focus and promote cannabis advocacy in everything I do at my company, Influential X.

How did this new ASA chapter come to fruition?

I received a scholarship to attend the Americans for Safe Access Unity Conference in May 2018. I first learned about ASA in 2016 and was very intrigued and interested in meeting the folks behind the nation’s largest nonprofit that represents medical marijuana patients and researchers in the U.S. I had the honor to be at a conference that focused on patient rights, and met with like-minded people who were promoting medical cannabis, research and patient advocacy. I got to learn about the exciting news in other states like Pennsylvania that have opiate use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. As a group, we lobbied in Washington, D.C., and I got to meet my congresswoman, Diana DeGette, to speak to her directly about keeping Colorado's medical marijuana program alive. There's been some fear in the community that Colorado might turn out like Washington state, and our current medical marijuana program would in some way be washed out.

I mentioned this concern to a few of the Colorado attendees at the Unity Conference, and decided there that I was going to spearhead a new chapter of ASA in Colorado. I came back to Denver, and immediately brought in my core group of advocates to join me in starting this.

Why choose ASA instead of a different organization, or starting your own organization?

Established in 2002 with over 100,000 active members in all fifty states, ASA is the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research. It's time that Colorado had a chapter of ASA, and my intent with Safe Access Colorado is to strengthen and unite Colorado's patient and medical cannabis community!

I was very active at the Capitol in support for adding autism as a qualifying MMJ condition. On Governor Hickenlooper's last day to sign a bill that would have [done that], there were a few hours where my team heard from his staff that he needed to hear from more doctors who were in support of the autism bill. I contacted a few doctors, and managed to get three of them to provide an urgent email to Hickenlooper just before before he ultimately vetoed the bill. It proved that we need to be a stronger medical cannabis community. With ASA here in Colorado, we can leverage and tap into that network and resources moving forward, and have a stronger presence for the medical marijuana community!

The founders of this new chapter are well-known activists throughout Colorado. What do these members bring to the table?

I am so inspired and proud to be co-leading ASA Colorado with these fellow activists! We are stronger together and bring new, empowered energy to the medical cannabis community. We have a powerhouse collective that consists of activists, nurses, mothers with children who are MMJ patients, patients, researchers, dispensary leaders and a CBD company on board to be founding members. To highlight my core team of leaders, we have Michelle Walker, who has worked with Mothers Advocating for Medical Marijuana for Autism and led the Autism Bill effort earlier this year. Stacey Linn, executive director of CannAbility Foundation, and Amber Wann — mothers who continue to advocate for MMJ in their respective state districts and across the nation. Cindy Sovine brings her experience as a lobbyist and cannabis activist. We also have early support from recognized nonprofits and organizations such as Cannabis Clinicians Colorado, Canna-Patient Resource Connection, American Medical Refugees, Cannabis Consumers Coalition, NuVolution, KindColorado and Bluebird Botanicals as we launch Safe Access Colorado.

What are some of the initial objectives of the Denver chapter?

Strengthen and unite Colorado's medical cannabis community. We want to learn more about the pressing issues that face Colorado's medical cannabis community and help be a resource to them. We want to establish monthly meetings and quarterly events focused on uplifting the medical cannabis community and curate experiences and campaigns that grow the medical community. We also want to maintain and advocate for medical marijuana patients' rights and access.

I want to uplift and strengthen our medical community. I have goals for a campaign that speaks to the benefits of being an MMJ patient, and how to get your medical marijuana card. I want educational programs where patients and families can come together in a safe place and learn what's working with others.

We are going to have a seat at the table in early discussions that impact child welfare and state-funded cannabis research. With ASA's help, we've already been able to weigh in on the new proposed rules on how to petition for qualifying MMJ conditions with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment earlier this month. We are in early stages of mobilizing on our initiatives for 2019, but will have strategic goals leading into 2019's legislative session.

If you could change one thing about federal cannabis policy (other than overall prohibition), what would you change?

I would change how we conduct federal research on cannabis and give immediate access to veterans. I would open up cannabis research at the federal level and do whatever I could to accelerate the process of getting published research studies for cancer and for addiction/opiate use. It's 2018 and we still don't have a cure for cancer; over 22 veterans a day are dying due to suicide or overdose on prescription drugs.

Overdosing on opiates is the number-one killer in my age group and for Americans under the age of fifty. This has impacted countless families in my time. We need to open up cannabis research at the federal level, give access to veterans and take urgent action to address the nation's opioid epidemic. Cannabis is known to be helpful; now let's prove it with research. I hear too often that there's not enough research. It's time we changed that so that more doctors and medical professionals can get on board!