One of the biggest reasons that scattered discussion about legalization has turned into focused and organized action resulting in legislative changes is the work of citizen lobbying and non-profit advocacy groups.
Most of these efforts so far have concerned medical cannabis. But while some see that as a separate issue from recreational use, the citizen efforts to shed more light on the good that cannabis can do, and the untenable federal position on cannabis in general, spills over and affects all aspects of cannabis use.
The effectiveness of these groups has picked up steam this year, seen in the breaking news nearly every week, from more states legalizing medical marijuana to the Democratic party amending their platform to include rights of states to decriminalize marijuana as states become “laboratories of democracy” on the legalization issue.
One of the biggest advocacy groups that has gained traction since 2002 is Americans for Safe Access (ASA). Working out of their national office in Washington, D.C. on the details of why medical cannabis should be legalized, ASA brings together scientists from esteemed institutions—Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins among others—with advocates and citizen lobbyists, who then use their combined power to pitch findings to legislators.
“Citizen lobbying is really the only thing that has pushed the agenda on the Hill,” Steph Sherer, founder and executive director of ASA, expressed. 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.
ASA also created a text and video-based online advocates training center, and a 300-page companion workbook to help ensure that grassroots advocates share knowledge, skills and tools they need to discuss medical cannabis.
Sherer says that ASA has been training people to become their own advocates for 14 years. “What we are seeing with this advocacy work is the building blocks for social change,” she says.
One example of the success of their efforts is the bipartisan amendment to the Commerce Justice Science appropriations bill that was passed first in 2014 and then again in 2015. The amendment stops the Department of Justice from interfering with states medical cannabis programs. “We brought 300 patients to D.C. two years in a row and it made a huge difference,” Sherer added.
Elected officials and their staff were able to meet with people they could question about medical marijuana. “It helped create a movement where maybe legislators weren’t against it, but just didn’t know enough about it to want to vote,” Sherer shared. “So that is what we have been doing—getting patients the tools and the competence they need to go meet the people who have the power to affect their lives,” she said. “What the ASA has brought to the table is to be able to help people say, ‘I don’t want to say no to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or no to the government,’” she recounted. “But it enabled them to start saying, ‘Yes, I want to see regulated products actually defined.’ That is what elected officials can do,” she said.
Sherer says that the DEA actually helped ASA create a roadmap for a strategic plan. “The DEA said that all of the known compounds in this substance can’t be identified, and that there are no protocols for safe dissemination. So we knew that if we wanted to move forward toward legalization, this documentation and scientific research is what they needed,” she added. “That’s why I created the ASA.”
The ASA is currently fighting to get the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act passed, which is one of the most comprehensive pieces of cannabis legislation ever introduced in Congress. It is now stalled in committee.
One citizen advocate who has weathered the ups and downs of medical cannabis legalization efforts in a very personal way is Beth Collins. Collins began seeking cannabis as treatment for her daughter Jennifer, who suffers from epilepsy.
In 2013, she had to leave her husband and other daughter in their home in Virginia, and move to Colorado to get treatment for Jennifer. From Colorado, she began lobbying the Virginia Assembly, working with other parents to get legislation passed that allows her to use THC oil without fear of prosecution in Virginia.
She moved back home, and helped form and lead the Parents Coalition for Rescheduling Medical Cannabis, a national parent group with the mission of removing cannabis from its current Schedule I status.
“I think it’s really been the patient stories that have been moving this issue along,” Collins shared. “Almost everyone knows someone who has died from cancer. So if a cancer patient goes in and talks about medical cannabis as a treatment option, legislators listen more.”
She says that there is a propensity for congressmen to want to wait on the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to declare cannabis as medicine. “But I think that the FDA doesn’t really want it because it’s such a complicated plant,” Collins added. “It doesn’t fit into the construct that they have. I talked to one official at the FDA who said that they are going to reschedule it one cannabinoid at a time. That just doesn’t make sense.”
Collins believes that the goal of a citizen advocate is to find that spark of commonality—that human empathy—that legislators can relate to. “It’s asking them, ‘What would you do if this was your child and you found one thing that worked that happened to have a bad reputation. What would you do?’”
The day after the ASA National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference in D.C. in March, the ASA held a press conference in front of the Capitol to urge passage of the bi-partisan CARERS Act before advocates fanned out to lobby.