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By Zack Ruskin for SFWeekly
“If the hair isn’t standing up on the back of your neck, then you’re not paying attention," says Steph Sherer, head of Americans for Safe Access.
Steph Sherer, founder and executive director of Americans for Safe Access, doesn’t mince words when she’s asked how concerned we should be about the risks cannabis policy faces under Donald Trump’s administration.
“If the hair isn’t standing up on the back of your neck,” she says, “then you’re not paying attention.”
Americans for Safe Access has been advocating on behalf of medical marijuana patients for nearly 15 years. Now, with Congress engaged in confirmation hearings for Trump’s proposed Cabinet members, Sherer warns that nothing should be taken for granted.
In order to understand why, a short history lesson is required.
The medical marijuana industry, as we know it today, operates largely in part because of the protections of two things: the so-called “Cole Memo” and the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment.
The Cole Memo, issued by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole, colloquially refers to three memos he issued in 2011, 2013, and 2014. It was the 2013 memo specifically — an elaboration on a different memo issued by Deputy Attorney David Ogden in 2009 — that instructed the feds to more or less leave regulation of medical cannabis to individual states.
“It is completely at the discretion of the Department of Justice to uphold the Cole Memo,” Sherer explains, which means should the attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, be appointed to his post, all bets are off.
The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, introduced by U.S. Representatives Sam Farr, Dana Rohrabacher, and Maurice Hinchey, prohibits the Department of Justice from spending any funds to
go after medical cannabis laws. It first passed the House in 2014, and again passed in 2015. The amendment was part of budgeting legislation, which means that when Congress didn’t vote on a budget in 2016, the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment was not renewed. It is now in effect until April 28, the current extended deadline for Congress to vote on a new federal budget.
Sherer says her main worry about Rohrabacher-Farr being renewed concerns former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
“She retired last year, and she was really the champion behind passing that amendment in both the Senate and the conference committee over the last few years,” she says.
The ASA has, however, identified a potential successor.
“We’re definitely hoping that Sen. Patrick Leahy [of Vermont] will become a champion on this,” Sherer says. “He’s always been a supporter, and he’s definitely a champion for criminal justice reform, so we’re hoping he will fight as hard as Mikulski did for us, although he’s not going to have as much in his arsenal.”
As Sherer explains it, the reason for Leahy’s depleted ammunition is that when Mikulski went to battle for Rohrabacher-Farr, she had the history of a GOP-controlled House previously
voting in favor of the amendment. Now that the 2016 Congress failed to vote on the budget, it leaves less of a precedent to cite in the amendment’s favor.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Sherer and the ASA are idly standing by.
“We’re organizing,” she says. “We have our annual conference this year from April 7 to 11, and we’ll be bringing hundreds of patients to D.C. to lobby on that amendment as well as other legislation.”
While the ASA takes an aggressive stance on patients’ behalf at the steps of Capitol Hill, the question remains: What can everyday citizens and supporters of medical cannabis do to help ensure that the movement isn’t forced to step backward?
“My advice is to be critical of anything you hear about medical cannabis,” she says. “What I would suggest is that everyone look at organizations like Americans for Safe Access and other patient advocacy organizations, and see how they’re interpreting these laws. Also, you should read the memos yourself. If there’s a letter from the Drug Enforcement Administration, don’t just read whatever Facebook post you see and take their word for it.”
By way of example, Sherer tells a story about the time she was doing raid preparedness training in Billings, Montana, in 2010.
In the wake of the nation’s economic downfall in 2008, many folks in hard-hit industries like real estate and construction heard news of the Cole Memo and saw it as a way to salvage their finances.
“People were cashing in their life savings and their kids’ college funds and opening up dispensaries left and right.”
When Sherer visited Billings, there were 97 dispensaries that had recently opened, a disproportionately high number for a small community.
“I started off the training by asking how many people in the room had opened up a business because of the Cole Memo,” Sherer recalls, “and everyone raised their hands. Then I asked how many people had actually read the Cole Memo, and no one raised their hands.”
When she told the crowd that everything they were doing was still illegal on a federal level, “there was just a blank look on everyone’s face.” On the final day of Sherer’s tour of Montana, the DEA came in and began raiding dispensaries. The lesson Sherer hopes to impart has merit beyond cannabis-specific issues, but is something all advocates and patients should carefully consider.
“If you’re not a patient … then by all means just skim over the reports about what the federal government is saying. However, if you are in any way touching the cannabis plant, then you need to know what the laws says, and there’s no better way to do that then to read the memos,” Sherer says. “These are like two-page memos. I would say to anyone: Use some critical thinking skills, especially if it’s your life, your freedom, in the balance.”