By David Hodes
The 5th annual Americans for Safe Access (ASA) Medical Unity Conference held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., April 7-11, was both a celebration of the life of the advocacy organization (now in its 15th year) and a sort of bookmark reference point in both the regulatory and scientific developments in medical cannabis.
As a measure of the increased popularity and acceptance of the medical cannabis movement over the last 15 years, for the second year in a row a Republican politician was given the Elected Official of the Year award by the ASA. In 2016, Georgia state representative, Republican Allen Peake, got the award.
This year, South Carolina State Senator Tom Davis, also a Republican, was given the same award.
During his keynote speech on the first day of the conference, Davis talked about why he was there, recounting an experience with one of his constituents that changed his mind and got him involved in legislation for medical cannabis.
“In South Carolina by and large, especially in upstate South Carolina, which is the bible belt, being a conservative is all about social issues,” he says. “Being a Republican in that part of the state is more proactive in terms of interfering in people’s lives. So the first thing I do in talking about this medical cannabis issue is the freedom aspect, and the personal liberty aspect. You are a conservative, you are a Republican, and what you should stand for is getting government out of people’s lives, letting them live their lives with individual liberty,” he told the crowd of just over 200.
He says that he gets frustrated in trying to argue against those upstate social conservatives who think he is trying “to promote sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s that sort of mindset.”
He told how, in 2014, because of contact with a constituent who had a granddaughter with severe epilepsy, he started to look into the science of cannabis. “Up until then, it wasn’t even on my radar.”
He offered a CBD oil law in 2014 that passed. In 2015, he offered a more comprehensive medical cannabis bill covering a full range of medical conditions. He has been struggling to get that bill passed ever since. “Law enforcement has been extremely aggressive in opposing this bill, speaking to rotary clubs and city councils about how bad this bill is,” Davis says. “And no politician likes to take a position against the local sheriffs.”
In general, there has been steady progress in getting medical marijuana bills passed. According to Steph Sherer, founder and executive director of the ASA, a lot of times people don’t see that these bills are passing. “Every single state has had from two to 17 bills related to medical marijuana moving forward over the last few years,” she says. “In order for these laws to work, legislators are constantly updating them. Regulators are adding things to them. We saw many states add chronic pain as a qualifying condition. We saw many states add PTSD. And that really heartens me because I know for every single one of these movements and policies there are patient advocates who worked for months to get one improvement passed.”
The number of states where voters approved legalization in November was very interesting, she says, because in one way is has made their issue less radical. “But it has always been our goal at ASA to be mainstream,” Sherer says.
Over the last four years, she has also seen organizations like the MS Society, the Epilepsy Foundation and the Michael J. Fox Foundation start putting resources into lobbying and passing policy statements within their organizations supporting medical cannabis. “For me, the fact that MS Society is supporting our organization was really a threshold moment,” Sherer says.
One of the other presenters at the conference was Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist, psychopharmacology researcher and medical director of Phytecs, a biotechnology company researching and developing innovative approaches targeting the human endocannabinoid system.
He showed a graph illustrating a demonstration between smoking cannabis and vaping it, where the vaped cannabis tends to be absorbed in the mouth. “Even though the amount of cannabis is the same, the level of intoxication is different,” he says. “That is important for medical cannabis users to understand.”
John Hudak, senior fellow in governance studies and deputy director at the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, chaired a session about the state of medical science in the U.S., where today, 44 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam all have cannabis laws that are in conflict with federal laws. “I think a lot of people in this room – patient advocates, government officials and others – are very excited about where cannabis has gotten to today,” he says. “At the same time, the current administration has the capacity to put cannabis policy reforms at serious risk.”
There are some signals that medical cannabis is safe from interference from the federal government, he added, but the reality is that the feds could step in and wreak havoc on the industry at any moment.
He said that there was a poll of people asking about the top twenty issues they are interested in. “Marijuana didn’t make it into that top twenty,” Hudak says. “Most people don’t give a damn about marijuana. The general support is very high, but it lacks intensity. So organizations like the ASA are at a real crossroads on this issue. You have never been more important than you are now.”
Another session dealt with the advances in the regulations of cannabis. For the last four years, cannabis standards have been adopted in several states based on regulatory tools such as the ASA’s Patient Focused Certification, the American Herbal Products Association recommendations for regulators and the American Herbal Pharmacopeia cannabis monograph.
ASA workshops on Monday, April 10, included sustainable cultivation, pesticide guidance and integrated pest management, quality control, and advocacy and activism including how to run a successful ballot initiative.
The conference ended with a select group of 100 medical marijuana attendees going to Capitol Hill to lobby their congressmen in 72 meetings set up by the ASA for more assistance in working medical marijuana laws in various states.