Why I joined the Board of ASA

September 30, 2012 | Sunil Aggarwal

sunilrevised.jpgOver the years, I have followed Ms. Steph Sherer unparalleled efforts as she worked towards the founding, building, and directing of Americans for Safe Access, which has already had many laudable successes and accrued a wide grassroots base.  When Ms. Sherer asked me to join the board of ASA, I was given an opportunity to help guide and direct a national organization that stands for patient autonomy and health justice, and I simply had to say yes.  The medicinal use of cannabis is a sociomedical phenomenon about which I have spent a number of years researching and writing.  I have seen it in clinical practice in three states, two countries, and dozens of medical settings.  I have developed a deep and abiding passion to work to fully legitimate, expand, and research its use further.  To be able to bring that passion to the board of ASA by joining will only help multiply and focus it. 

As a physician-geographer, I am immediately struck by Ms. Sherer’s personal medical narrative about how her tireless activism and organizing on this issue that began as a direct result of her earnest attempt to address and rectify an acutely distressing scenario which she faced in her own quest for a dignified modicum of health, well-being, and life quality.  Her story reflects the truism that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.  She sustained a traumatic injury to her neck when an overly zealous and excessively forceful law enforcement officer struck her and threw her to the ground while she participated in a peaceful Washington, D.C. public rally and demonstration for social and economic justice during an International Monetary Fund meeting approximately a decade ago.  This injury was to alter the course of her life and ability to function and require costly and involved corrective surgeries and specialized maintenance injection therapies.  After the acute traumatic injury healed, perhaps due to the context of the injury or due to other unknown underlying factors, she developed a known post-traumatic complication known as dystonia, in this case cervical dystonia, also called torticollis.  This is a condition in which muscles in the neck maintain an abnormally increased tone which one is unable to release.  She describes entire days on end in which her head and neck were laterally rotated to nearly ninety degrees continuously, during which time she was unable to return to midline.  As expected, due to compensations and resultant strain, she developed secondary widespread muscle spasm and diffuse pain in her neck, arms, and upper body as the rest of frame adjusted to her cervical dystonia.  One of her physicians prescribed her chronic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory treatment with ibuprofen at the maximum dose.  Her use of this treatment allowed her some degree of symptom control.  However, when she began to develop non-specific malaise, she presented to her doctor and found out very soon after that, according to her laboratory bloodwork, she had developed severe acute renal (kidney) failure and the culprit was diagnosed to be the ibuprofen, which she had been taking as directed.  She recalls that her doctor called her in to disclose his findings which he said were dangerously close to needing dialysis, and then he closed the door and asked her in a hushed tone if she could procure any cannabis which he felt would be a suitable anti-inflammatory substitute without the side effect of possible organ failure.  She was shocked at the need for such extreme discretion, his inability to prescribe this treatment, his unwillingness to write a recommendation, and her inability to find consistently safe access to this treatment which indeed worked well for her.  Thankfully, her kidneys recovered without her needing dialysis.  While she was able to find a short-term medical cannabis access solution, given her resourcefulness, Ms. Sherer wanted to make sure that no one else faced what she had to and that safe access to cannabis for all those who need it would be available.

Hence, we now have ASA, which Ms. Sherer is executive director of to this day, which has brought a patient-centered, health care delivery, and health justice oriented voice to the medical cannabis movement.  I am honored to join the board and help see all this come to a successful resolution.

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