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By Tom Hymes for MG Magazine
Since 2002, Americans for Safe Access founder Steph Sherer has been advocating for cannabis patients and pushing their issues to the forefront of society with relentless determination. Among myriad other undertakings, ASA is now hard at work building a foundation of product safety protocols intended to hold the industry in good stead for years to come.
The cannabis industry is blessed with some heavyweight advocates whose work over the years has changed the way Americans think about and interact with both the plant and the people who depend upon it, but perhaps no one is as impressive in that regard than Steph Sherer. The founder and executive director of Americans for Safe Access, Sherer’s work over the past 14 years on behalf of cannabis patients has been nothing short of transformative. Ever in need of financial support, and yet resolute in its determination to engage government and industry at the highest levels, ASA not only remains active on the front lines of cannabis law, culture, and science, but also continues to push the boundaries of what is considered achievable.
“Right now. our work is split between local, state, federal, and some international, and that’s on the policy and regulatory side,” Sherer said matter-of-factly. “On the advocacy side, we’re working on doctor education, expanding the coalition of organizations, and really trying to move the issue of medical cannabis beyond those who had used medical cannabis before and then became ill. We’re really reaching out to the larger percentage of the population that can benefit from cannabis therapeutically.”
What quickly becomes clear is the hard work protecting the true interests of patients is never done, especially in as turbulent an atmosphere that comes with a new industry. “We have a saying at ASA that ‘Cannabis is safe; commercialization is not,’” said Sherer. “This is something that is true of all agriculture. If you are growing something for yourself or someone you love, you’re less likely to put pesticides on it and less likely to cut corners in order to reach the volumes you need. There is a lot less you need to do in terms of storing and drying if you just have a few plants. But scale that up to thousands of plants, and it becomes an area of concern.”
There are other concerns at play. “One of the things frustrating us is seeing research and development and cannabis products move from better serving patients to trying to figure out how to produce the most intoxicating product,” she said. The trend only increases her challenges. “It’s hard for us to see people giving up fights around preserving medical cannabis laws or around extending medical conditions. Out of these experiments comes the path that states like Washington State move forward with, which I think are going to negatively impact patients. So a lot of the work we do is to advocate with the legislative and regulatory process, and then we have to monitor those laws so we can bring evidence to legislators and they can fix the law and actually serve the patients they intended to help in the first place.
“It takes a lot of time and resources, to be sure,” she added. “Our mission at Americans for Safe Access is to make sure patients have safe and legal access to medical cannabis. What we’re fighting for is those state programs that exist to be legal for medical cannabis. That also means we want to see doctors recommending medical cannabis as a first treatment option, and not just waiting until someone is losing their kidneys because of the side effects of other medication. We also want to see physicians look at introducing cannabis therapy as a better way to deal with pain. I believe the path forward for medical cannabis and legalization are very different tracks, and my hope is that the legalization industry allows medical to move forward, and fights for legislations and regulations that incentivize people to stay in the medical cannabis industry.”
Sherer wants individual states to maintain laws and programs with separate tracks for medical and adult use, but said that in most areas of the country, that conversation is not taking place. “To be honest,” she said, “it’s a conversation we’re having in some areas of the country, but it’s not the conversation we’rehaving in most areas of the country. It’s happening in some significant states, but only a handful, and in many of the states, legalization is not even a part of the conversation. In most areas, we’re talking about programs that are meeting the needs of patients, incorporating product safety protocols, and things that will allow the state to continue to oversee the distribution of these medicines. The legalization/medical conversation is in four states right now, and there are a handful of initiatives on ballots across the country, but I don’t see the country rushing for every state to legalize cannabis.”
The industry as a whole is rushing headlong toward legalization, however. With a diehard focus on the needs of the medical cannabis patient, ASA finds itself in the necessary position of having to help drag the industry into its own regulated future. “Yes, we definitely have good relations with businesses,” said Sherer. “Working with the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), we helped create a Cannabis Committee, where we undertook a consensus process to create recommendations for regulators for regulating the cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and analysis of cannabis. We did that with 170 companies. It was definitely an exercise in patience—another type of patience. But as those recommendations have come out, we’ve been successful in getting them adopted in sixteen states.
“I think one of the biggest ways we have been successful is that, in addition to drafting the first laws to make distribution legal in this country, in the Bay Area of California, we also took our time in finding the right partner to create product safety regulations and made sure we included the industry in that process so these would be regulations they could meet,” she continued. “So, now our organization works closely in every state with regulators on adopting these regulations and implementing them.”
Regarding the oft-stated claim the industry has no standards, Sherer observed, “There are standards for this industry, and they have come from the Cannabis Monograph, which was built by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, a collection of world experts, which has also been adopted in sixteen states in the United States. And then there are the AHPA standards, which have also been adopted. So, it’s a little confusing to me when people say there aren’t standards, when sixteen states have adopted similar language.”
The AHPA process, she added, is completely transparent. “Regulations are updated all the time, and the industry has an opportunity to be a part of that process. ASA has a certification program that certifies based on the AHPA standards and follows the basic rules for any standards-setting body. First, the rules are known. The AHPA rules are on their website (AHPA.org) and our website (SafeAccessNow.org), and the monograph is available to anyone. The second rule is to make sure those who are affected by these policies have a way to have their voices heard in the process. The best way to do that is by contacting AHPA, joining the Cannabis Committee, and participating on sub-committees that meet on a regular basis to make sure the standards are working and meeting the needs of both regulators and the industry. The final key point for any certifying body is that it applies the rules equally across an industry. To that end, we are going through an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certification process ourselves so our standards will have international accreditation.”
ASA also helped found a research center in Prague—the International Cannabis and Cannabinoid Institute— where “we are working with governments around the world to adopt the standards, which cover from seed to consumption. We have them for cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution, and one for businesses that are completely vertically integrated. Labs, of course, are a completely separate certification.”
She added, “We rolled this project out at the end of 2014, and this far we are licensed with the District of Columbia and have a contract with Maryland to train their auditors on how to inspect sites utilizing the product safety protocols that were passed in regulations. We have forty companies that have already gone through the certification process, and we’ve trained more than 1,000 people working in the industry.”
Protecting the interests of all members of the industry is a tough balancing act, but one ASA appears to take seriously. “What I feel we have tried to do is create a tool that allows farmers that have been in this industry to evolve into the regulated system,” said Sherer. “We made sure the regulations came from the farmers, from the cultivators, and not from people outside the industry guessing what they should look like. It’s our hope that we keep a diversity of businesses in this market. It’s a truth in any industry that regulations can be used to clean out the market, and the way we want to help small business is to implement regulations to they can compete in the marketplace.
“Every piece of legislation, every initiative, talks about product safety protocols,” she added. “We’re working with every government to help them get there. It’s not a question of should they exist. Product safety protocols are a part of every legitimate industry.
With one foot in the present and one in the future, Sherer is clear about what protections need to be prioritized. “A part of the reason we opened the research center in the Czech Republic is so when society starts asking the next big questions, we want to make sure the whole plant is part of that conversation,” she explained. “So, we are doing clinical trials with whole-plant products; looking at diving into plant sciences to be able to answer questions about the unknown compounds in cannabis so extraction is done more safely. And we are looking deeply into political barriers and what are some of the missing research tools to be able to solidify the cannabis space as a medicine.”
To that end, ASA also is working on a global research priority map. Sherer explained, “We’re bringing together experts from around the world to go through very deliberative process of reviewing all known literature, a social media scrub analysis, and also a huge number of interviews with doctors, patients, law enforcement, elected officials to be able to better structure the research questions we have. The result will be a published map of the research we need to do to move cannabis therapeutics forward.”
Well aware of the inability of conventional medicine to look at multi-compound substances as part of a treatment regimen, Sherer is girded to fight the battles that will ensure the type of future many want to see come to pass. “I’m glad there was a pharmaceutical company that created penicillin, and aspirin is great. I’m not anti-science and development in those areas,” she said. “But our society has hit this point where pharmaceutical development has done what it can do for people, and what is really driving the medical cannabis movement is not that people want to smoke pot. What is moving the medical cannabis movement forward is conventional medicine has failed so many of us. We had to turn to alternatives, and what we found was something miraculous.”