I spent the last three years working as an Executive Legislative Assistant to a ranking budget chair in the Washington State Legislature, so it should come as no surprise that a trip to the Nation’s Capitol has always been high on my bucket list. I was this close to fulfilling my dream in 2008, after scrimping and saving for over two years on a relatively low salary. Unfortunately, prohibition happened.
I became a medical cannabis patient in ‘05 while living in Oregon. At that time, I did not know that I had a rare genetic disorder; only that I had long been suffering from chronic joint and muscle pain, extreme nausea and vomiting, disabling migraines and eventual insomnia. After an honest conversation with my doctor about the handfuls of pills I was taking to mask the symptoms – at the ripe ol’ age of 25, mind you – it was suggested that cannabis might relieve what ailed me. I was honestly taken aback when it worked so well and I was able to wean myself off every single pharmaceutical.
Happy ending, right? Not really.
Like many who wind up in court for cannabis, I was pulled over by a traffic cop. It happened on a desolate stretch of Interstate 5 in Southwest Washington. In what has become a recurring nightmare for cannabis consumers nationwide, the State Patrolman asserted that he “smelled a strong odor of marijuana.” The two joints I had were sealed in a glass jar, so it was more likely the peace sticker on my car, identifying me as a beatnik, that aroused the officer’s suspicion. Regardless, I knew better than to consent to his request for a search. In an instant, I was handcuffed and in the back of a patrol car, yelling out the window “you do not have permission to search my vehicle. I do not consent to the search you are performing right now.”
Reality quickly set in. My doctor’s recommendation from Oregon was no good here, even though I was just 50 miles north of Portland. My eyes zeroed in on the bumper sticker on the plexiglass in front of me that proudly proclaimed, “It’s Not JUST Marijuana” and featured a bright red no sign over a pot leaf. I then realized my vocal protests about the search were in vain. The officer obtained probable cause the moment he allegedly smelled cannabis. It would be his word against mine and a determined drug enforcer like him was bound to find my medicine. It was only a matter of time before I found myself in the Cowlitz County Jail with bail of $5,000, payable only in cash. I was facing a felony for Violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, a charging decision left up to the discretion of individual officers. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was cancelling my East Coast vacation and using the funds to bail myself out, literally and figuratively.
Since then, my priorities have shifted greatly. I have become increasingly active in the medical cannabis, legalization and criminal justice reform movements. My life trajectory was forever altered by the horrific death of Richard Flor, Montana’s first registered cannabis caregiver. 68 years old and incredibly ill, Richard died from the neglect he experienced while serving a five-year prison sentence. His widow, Sherry, remains imprisoned even after her husband’s tragic death. The once-happily-married couple of 37 years were named co-conspirators in a federal indictment. The last four months of Richard’s life, they were not only imprisoned apart from one another – separated for the first time in their marriage – but they needed special permission from each of their wardens to communicate just by mail. That permission never came. Instead, Sherry’s final words to her husband were in a call to her daughter, Kristin, who stood helpless over her father’s comatose body, as he lay shackled to a hospital bed. The U.S. Government got its pound of flesh from the Flors, but that wasn’t punishment enough.
Two of Richard’s business partners and two other employees were also indicted. A third business partner accepted a plea bargain that spared him from indictment, but required “significant cooperation” with investigators. One of the co-owners, Chris Williams, courageously took his case to trial. Watching firsthand as Chris’s nightmare unfolded in federal court, my resolve was cemented. I could not rest until the whole world knew what was happening in America’s so-called justice system.
Soon after, I left my Legislative career to work with the November Coalition. Founder Nora Callahan and her husband, Chuck Armsbury, are also casualties of the War on Drugs through separate but equally absurd tales of conspiracy, drugs and guns. Then, just this month, I met another inspiring victim of cannabis prohibition. Jacob Shepherd was four years old when he watched as law enforcement agents gunned down his father in a deadly standoff over a small backyard cannabis garden. His mother was hit by a stray bullet. As an impressionable young child, Jacob was whisked away from the scene in a police cruiser, covered in both of his parents’ blood. That was almost 20 years ago. When will the madness end?
I am incredibly appreciative of the kind-hearted sponsors who donated to the scholarship fund for ASA’s upcoming Unity Conference in Washington D.C. Thanks to their assistance, I will be able to personally tell members of Congress about Richard, Sherry, Kristin, Chris, Nora, Chuck, Jacob and countless other stories of injustice. I will get to learn from world-renowned medical experts who have studied cannabis science in depth. I will get to meet other like-minded advocates from across the country, all because of the generosity of complete strangers! I am forever grateful for this amazing opportunity and plan to make the most of every second I have in the epicenter of democracy! Thank you again to Americans for Safe Access for hosting the conference and every supporter who has made this trip possible.
Americans for Safe Access (ASA) opened the eyes of this thirty-three year law enforcement veteran. Caught in the whirlpool of drug prohibition policy, prohibitionist law enforcement folks as I once was, forget the importance of maintaining an open mind. Unfortunately, “ group-think” is where most of us tend to feel comfortable.
Until roughly four years ago, I knew virtually nothing of medical marijuana. I must say that I was somewhat skeptical of the claim for its medicinal properties. My knowledge of marijuana originated from two places, my experimentation as a teen in 1975 and from an enforcement perspective throughout my lengthy law enforcement career. Neither provided any meaningful insight to the medicinal properties or benefits of marijuana.
One of the first people I met when I assumed the role of LEAP’s executive director was ASA’s executive director, Steph Sherer. People had told me of ASA and Steph, but it wasn’t until I met with Steph that I began to educate myself regarding all there is to learn of medical marijuana (properties, policies and patients). My interaction with ASA encouraged me to visit medical marijuana dispensaries in California where I met dispensary owners like Steve De Angelo and Debby Goldsberry. I toured Oaksterdam University where I met Richard Lee and Dale Sky-Jones. Educationally, I benefitted tremendously from my firsthand experience.
The quality of the dispensaries, the marijuana and the people managing them is exceptional, but it was my interaction with patients that gave me the best insight. Hearing patients speak of the benefits was truly eye opening. They spoke of their weaning from debilitating opiate based prescription drugs and the quality of life returning once again. I heard of marijuana’s effectiveness in combating many illnesses with virtually no side effects. And to this day I continue learning.
This is why I am attending the ASA conference this month in Washington DC. Do you know any law enforcement types in need of an education? Do you know of anyone in need of a medical marijuana education? If so, invite them to the conference and let’s open some minds. Education and public policy changes are so desperately needed in acquiring safe and legal access.
Today in Congress, Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Sam Farr introduced legislation that would reclassify cannabis (marijuana) for medical use and provide federal defendants the right to use state law compliance as evidence in medical marijuana trials, a right that patients are currently denied. These bills, the H.R. 689 ”States’ Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act,” and the H.R. 710 “Truth in Trials Act” have been introduced in previous sessions of Congress, but many are optimistic that the 113th Congress will take the issue more seriously than in years past. One reason for this optimism is the first major federal medical cannabis patient lobbying day, which will be held on February 25th in support of these two bills.
The “States’ Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act” was previously introduced by longtime medical cannabis champion and former Congressman Barney Frank. The new version authored by Rep. Blumenauer maintains all of the original provisions in the Frank-version, requiring the Federal government to move “marijuana” out of Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act to Schedule III or lower. In addition, the bill includes a new provision that will make certain that the arm of the federal government that has hampered medical cannabis research, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) will be completely taken out of the equation, by requiring federal oversight of medical cannabis to be consistent with therapeutic research on the medicinal value of cannabis, and not solely focused on its abuse potential.
Rep. Farr’s Truth in Trials Act remains identical to previously introduced versions of the bill, but the need for such legislation has grown greater since it was last introduced in July 2012. The bill would allow patients, caregivers and providers who are in compliance with state law to offer evidence of the medical necessity for their use of cannabis. At present, patients might as well have their mouths duct taped when facing federal criminal charges. As a result of not being able to discuss their compliance with state law, patients and providers such as Chris Williams, the Duval family, and many others have been convicted and sentenced in federal court. If passed, the Truth in Trials Act would interject common sense and a more robust sense of justice to our legal system, as the defendant can be found guilty only for the portion of conduct outside of what is permitted by state law. While this bill may seem like a no-brainer to those in the safe access movement, Congress will likely only move forward with this bill if patients rally together and have their voice heard. There has never been a better time for patients to demand Congressional hearings on medical cannabis, but for this to happen, patients must speak truthfully and directly engage their members of Congress in both the House and Senate.
ASA has been working with Reps. Farr and Blumenauer, as well as a number of other Congressional offices in a bipartisan effort to introduce these bills in preparation of the lobby day that will conclude the National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference in Washington, D.C. Feb. 22-25. Hundreds of safe access advocates will be coming to D.C. that weekend not only to learn about the latest in medical cannabis research, but to become trained as skilled citizen-lobbyists by ASA’s staff and partners. The conference attendees will take their message and training down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol where they will meet with members of both the House and Senate. What will happen on Feb. 25th is unprecedented; hundreds of Members of Congress will be directly lobbied by patients who are their constituents. Patients will be sharing their struggles to those who control the direction of federal policy.
Today’s introductions by Reps. Blumenauer and Farr set the stage for the first federal lobby day for patients on February 25th, but the upcoming lobby day is only the beginning. Patients will need to continue to engage Congress throughout the 113th Congress, and the work that will take place that Monday will no doubt impact the momentum Congressional safe access action. There is still time to join ASA in for this day of citizen lobbying. I encourage everyone who has not signed up to do so, and even if you are unable to take part collectively with us on the 25th, our Policy Shop is here to help you both with fact sheets on federal legislation and will provide feedback and guidance for working on state and local bills.
Every year during medical marijuana week, I like to sit down and consider what I’m thankful about in the medical cannabis movement. After such a turbulent year fraught with raids, bad court decisions, and friends being sent to federal prison, I find I’m most thankful for the brave medical cannabis warriors who have lost their freedom for our cause. For this reason, the theme of ASA’s MMJ Week activities is “Have a Heart for our POWs.”
Every day this week ASA has a suggested list of advocacy activities you can do to support our POWs and the medical cannabis community. Writing a letters to our POWs , attending a local MMJ week event, and contacting your elected representatives are easy ways to make an impact this week and I urge you to participate in these actions!
I’m also looking forward to seeing many of you at our Unity Conference in DC in just over a week. We have great speakers and trainings lined up for attendees and we’re excited for a fun and educational experience! The thing I’m most looking forward to is storming Capitol Hill with all my fellow activists for a day of face-time with our elected. It’s going to be epic and I can’t wait to share the experience with everyone who can make it.
Earlier in the week, we posted a blog from one of our Board Members, Dr. Karen Munkacy, who is working hard on making sure that implementation of Massachusetts’ medical cannabis program goes smoothly. Of course, Massachusetts scored a huge victory for safe access when they passed their initiative last November, but few people understand that this is only the first step towards ensuring patients get access to legal medicine in a state. The battle we’re fighting now, with the help of advocates like Dr. Munkacy, is making sure that the rules and regulations for the program are composed in a way that most benefits the patients.
The good news is that what has truly been a battle in other states has become a welcome and open dialogue with the MA Department of Public Health (DPH), who is charged with the difficult task of interpreting the initiative while writing the program’s regulations. In fact, DPH is actually looking for public input on a number of issues and are holding Townhall-type meetings called “Listening Sessions” in the next few weeks. This is a great opportunity for MA patients and advocates to submit comments on these seven issues:
If you are planning on testifying in person, make sure your testimony addresses only these listed issues. Also, residents of MA can submit written comments on these issues if they cannot make it to testify at one of the sessions. ASA is encouraged by the amazing example that MA DPH is setting for their colleagues in other states through their transparency and disposition to hear stakeholder input. Through DPH’s willingness to work with the medical cannabis community, MA will soon have a functional and patient-oriented program to serve the needs of their patients. Hopefully this means that suffering patients in the Bay State won’t have to wait as long as their brothers and sisters in New Jersey (over 2 years) to receive legal medicine!
In a highly-publicized and widely-watched medical marijuana case, the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday on whether municipalities should be able to ban local medical marijuana distribution, an activity deemed legal under state law. For all of the controversy and strenuous arguments made on both sides of the issue, those who stand the most to lose — medical marijuana patients themselves — were completely ignored.
In the case City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, the abstract but quantifiable impact of dispensary bans is that tens of thousands of patients are left without safe and legal access to their medication, mainly as a result of hostile or reluctant local officials. Today, more than 50 localities in California have adopted ordinances regulating the lawful distribution of medical marijuana, while more than 200 of the state’s cities and counties have banned dispensaries outright. For the past 7 years, city councils and county boards of supervisors have passed bans with complete disregard to the impact on their most vulnerable residents.
From a practical standpoint, patients who live in cities where dispensary bans exist and who cannot grow it themselves or find someone to grow it for them are stuck with an unfortunate dilemma: how to obtain a medication that is legal under state law. Every time a dispensary ban is unreasonably and arguably illegally imposed, hundreds if not thousands of patients wake up the next morning not knowing where they’re going to get the medicine they rely on. These patients are commonly forced to either go without their medication, travel long distances to obtain it, or engage with the illicit market as one of the few alternatives to such distribution prohibitions.
The California Supreme Court ultimately focused on two issues: whether medical marijuana distribution is protected activity under the scope of California’s medical marijuana law, and, if so, whether local dispensary bans are preempted by state law.
Much time was spent dissecting the first issue as it relates to the statutory language of the law. Did the Medical Marijuana Program Act (MMPA) passed in 2003 sufficiently spell out the mechanism for lawful distribution in the state? Did the statutory language sufficiently protect such distribution from local bans? Or, did local bans frustrate the purpose of the law, which is to uniformly implement a functional medical marijuana program?
Little time, however, was spent reviewing existing case law that the High Court at one time or another had the chance to review. Plaintiffs’ counsel, J. David Nick, raised People v. Urziceanu and People v. Colvin, and would likely have raised People v. Jackson if the Justices hadn’t cut him off, to show that the legality of dispensaries was well established. Unfortunately, the City of Riverside’s false claim that no case law existed to substantiate the legality of storefront distribution went unchallenged.
Some Justices, Judge Goodwin Liu in particular, questioned whether the MMPA was anything more than limited immunity from criminal prosecution. If so, the Court could logically evade the decision of whether cities can ban distribution. The California Supreme Court ruled previously in Ross v. Ragingwire that no right to civil action existed for patients and the City of Riverside missed no opportunity to invoke that decision. However, neither party nor the court raised an important caveat to Ross. In Butte County v. Superior Court, a landmark appellate decision that was denied review by the High Court solidly affirmed the civil rights of patients under state law. The Butte County Court held that the Medical Marijuana Program Act passed in 2003 was not limited to criminal immunities; it also could be applied more broadly in the civil context under certain circumstances.
Regardless of how the Court rules in Riverside, patients will continue to demand uniform application of the law and a right to safe and legal access to their medicine. The patchwork system that currently exists in the state, with far more municipal bans than regulatory ordinances, has perverted the will of California voters and jeopardized the health and safety of countless patients.
The California Supreme Court has a chance to assist in the equitable implementation of California’s medical marijuana law. Sensible public health policy dictates that municipal governments should have the right to regulate safe and legal distribution of medical marijuana, but not ban that activity outright. The High Court knows what to do and should take decisive action, ensuring against any further harm resulting from the current haphazard and largely punitive policy on local medical marijuana distribution.
As most of you know, Massachusetts passed a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana (MMJ) last November 6. Although we were optimistic it would pass, we were very pleased when 63% of the voters, nearly 1.9 million people voted for this.
The Massachusetts Medical Society (which has over 24,000 physician members) had been against the ballot initiative from the campaign’s infancy. I attended their biannual meeting last November 30, where they were voting on whether to recommend delaying implementation of the ballot initiative, and if they should recommend physicians turn in other physicians to the licensing board if they recommended medical cannabis.
With the help of Steph Sherer, we came up with a forceful argument to gain their support. I presented the “Conant vs. Walters” legal decision, which protects physicians against legal action if they recommend cannabis to patients. As well as info about the physician education course, which is taught by world-class physicians, that ASA has put together. I said “the only education most, if not all of the physicians in the room have on medical cannabis is what they learned from smoking it in their dorm rooms during college.” There was laughter from the audience, but my point was well understood. I further noted that the Massachusetts Medical Society has an obligation to its members to educate them about this medicine.
Thankfully, my words were heeded that day and the Massachusetts Medical Society voted against both delaying implementation as well as recommending their members turn in other doctors who recommend medical cannabis.
The November ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana required regulations be issued by May 1, to implement the law. This deadline will most likely be missed due to complexity of trying to finalize rules. Though the laws went into effect at the beginning of the year and patients can grow a limited amount, dispensaries will not be allowed to operate until regulations are set.
I met with the officials at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, on January 22, regarding this issue. They were happy to receive the AHPA guidelines and even requested additional information on an array of issues. I was especially happy because these regulators were genuinely grateful for the help and information we were offering. I left the meeting with the impression that they are working carefully and thoughtfully to create a medical cannabis program that will well serve patients’ needs in our state.
Although there will always be those that vehemently oppose safe access, my experiences working on implementation in Massachusetts have shown me that so long as you are truthful, passionate about the cause, and assume best intentions, things have a way of moving forward in a positive direction.