For more than 20 years, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists, and citizens, have been advocating for cannabis to be seen as a form of medicine. Here, Steph Sherer and Debbie Churgai of ASA discuss the importance of medical cannabis and how advocacy will light the way forward.
For more than 20 years, women-led Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists, and citizens, have been advocating for cannabis to be seen as a form of medicine (1). In this article, Steph Sherer, Founder and President of ASA, and Debbie Churgai, Executive Director of ASA, discuss the importance of medical cannabis and how advocacy will light the way forward.
ASA was founded in 2002 by Sherer, who was a self-described cocky 25-year-old medical cannabis patient. She saw that there was more than 80% support nationwide for medical cannabis and assumed it would be a piece of cake to overturn federal illegalization and legalize cannabis for medical patients. Sherer was led to advocacy through federal raids taking place in the Bay Area (2). Nothing was being done to protect individuals who were providing medical cannabis or for the patients receiving that medicine. Soon she became involved with other advocacy groups to try to have these individuals and businesses protected. With this network, advocates like Sherer banded together and took part in protests which led to the removal of legislative barriers and provided better protection for medical cannabis patients. Further down the road, Churgai joined the organization in a temporary role before a Unity Conference.
“The Unity Conference is such an amazing, wonderful experience where patients gather together, and they really feel a community vibe,” said Churgai. “After being in that environment and just seeing these patients, seeing how much ASA meant to them, seeing that patients really need this medicine and they need safe and affordable medicine, and knowing that ASA was the one that was really fighting for them, I really just fell in love with the organization.”
Instead of moving on from her temporary position at ASA, Churgai stayed on and became a team with Sherer, growing the women-led organization.
Sherer has a wealth of advice and recommendations for anyone interested in medical cannabis advocacy. “Policy happens from individuals, and we have created a lot of the resources for patients,” said Sherer. For example, ASA has an advocacy training center that helps individuals become more involved.
“If you’re looking around and you’re not seeing the medical cannabis policy that you want to see, you can definitely sign up with us and start learning more about being an advocate,” said Sherer. By becoming an advocate, you are amplifying positive response on medical cannabis. “Advocacy is just bettering your knowledge of how to take that passion and that work and amplifying it to a broader audience and to policymakers,” Sherer added.
In the beginning stages of an advocate’s journey, no one wakes up as a policy expert. Over the last 20 years, Sherer became an expert in legal strategies. Before ASA, she hadn’t passed anything bigger than a city ordinance. Through ASA, Sherer has learned not only how to pass city ordinances but has gone on to pass state laws and federal legislation. Sherer now knows how to challenge regulatory agencies and how to create strategies to change the scheduling at the United Nations (UN). Although the journey can be a bit daunting, you have to start somewhere. “I would advise folks to come to our website www.safeaccessnow.org (3), where we have a whole list of resources for advocates to get started. But advocacy is also when you read a story in your local paper where they get it wrong or if your local TV station is talking about medical cannabis in a disparaging way, that’s an opportunity for you to engage. You can reach out to that reporter and say, ‘Hey, I’m a medical cannabis patient. That’s actually not what happened.’ When you see something going around on social media and you know it isn’t correct, challenge it,” said Sherer. “Don’t just share something to your social media feed, actually comment and help people see that perspective. When you hear about legislation in your community that you know isn’t right or isn’t going to work for patients, reach out to legislators.”
Part of advocacy is that you’re playing a role in bringing a vision to reality. For example, we do not have a federal medical cannabis program yet because it hasn’t been created. Without advocates voices, there’s a slim chance such a program could be created.
Sherer also shared her comments for those individuals questioning if they should dip their toes into cannabis advocacy. “If you’re thinking what can one person do? When I started Americans for Safe Access, I was a cocky 25-year-old that thought that I was going to change federal law in two years. But I grew into what the issue needed me to be and I found amazing people like Debbie along the way that help you grow into advocacy. You’ll find within a very short period of time, you will be an expert on legislative matters, on how to break the myths of medical cannabis,” she said.
Sherer also emphasized that advocacy doesn’t have to be a full-time job. Even just spending a couple minutes a day or 30 minutes a week getting your point of view out can help inspire federal law change. Don’t give into the “it’s too big for us to accomplish” mindset, everything that is seen in medical cannabis today, began with individual patient advocacy. “The fight isn’t over, and we really need you. So, I would encourage people to get involved and stay involved,” said Sherer.
Churgai mentioned that ASA is a great tool to make the process less intimidating. When people come to her asking how to start, Churgai recommends becoming a member of ASA and to sign up for their mailing list because they send out action alerts. “We know that not everyone can write a well-written letter. So we draft the letter for you, and we allow people to edit it or to share their story in the letter, to change it any way they want or just to send it as is, and it goes immediately to their representative through our system. We make it really easy for people to become advocates,” said Churgai.
As mentioned earlier, ASA also has their advocacy training center on their website. If an individual wants to learn the process on their own, the center will go into how easy it can be done. ASA wants the process to be as easy as possible for people to advocate. Advocacy can be as simple as sharing one of their posts on your social media page. Every little bit helps in the big fight for medical cannabis. If everyone shares a little bit, organizations like ASA, would greatly appreciate those efforts helping change go a little farther. Sharing facts about medical cannabis or the patient experience are also other ways to advocate and inspire development.
In addition to the individual-level trainings ASA offers, they also have chapters in cities all over the US. To become an advocate, you don’t need to be a part of a chapter. If it’s a small group of a few people, doing impactful work at the state level, they may not need to be involved with a chapter. “If it’s a community, they need to find more people to work on issues or if there’s legislation that’s coming up that really needs a broader coalition, then that might be a good time to create a chapter,” said Sherer “Our chapters—depending on where they are created and why—all have very different personalities. We have some chapters that have been around for 20 years that have really become sort of a community organization and continue to be a place where people meet on a monthly-basis and stay connected. We also have some chapters that are formed to pass a piece of legislation or to work on implementation, and maybe after they have finished that mission, the chapter goes dormant for a little while.”
If you’re interested in forming a chapter, you will need to bring together 10 members and ASA will be able to assist you through that process. For those individuals who are involved with other patient organizations, ASA provides an option where you can become an ASA-affiliate. This means you wouldn’t need to create a new organization but can then affiliate the work you’re doing with another organization. While you are carrying out the work of ASA, other like-minded individuals in your area will be able to connect with you to work on medical cannabis policy. To become an affiliate, this information can also be found on ASA’s website under the “Get Involved” section.
This year’s Unity Conference theme is “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” which will highlight and give attendees a chance to see how far we have come in cannabis advocacy with ASA. “We’re going to be talking to folks that were some of ASA’s early staffers, alumni, and people that were part of some of the lawsuits that we carried out in the early days,” said Sherer. “Then we’re going to be looking at some of the things that are working today for patients, and unfortunately, a larger look at some of the challenges that patients are facing. Finally, we’re going to end with talking to some doctors and researchers in other countries that really helped us look towards the future and figure out what we can expect and what we can ask for.”
The conference will also be taking a deep dive into the model of federal legislation and try to engage people in the campaign ASA will be rolling out to get legislation passed in the next session. Sherer hopes that attendees will appreciate how far we have come in cannabis advocacy, being comfortable in articulating that we haven’t won the war yet, and to be empathetic towards people who are still struggling in our current medical cannabis system. The conference will end on building hope and enthusiasm for fighting for the future we all want and need.
An important takeaway from ASA’s historical 20 years as an organization is to remember that the advocacy work for cannabis isn’t done. Over the last few years Sherer has been listening to medical cannabis patients and advocates. These patients are disheartened because they have worked so hard to create medical cannabis access programs in their state only to see adult-use strip away some of the rights they had won. This can feel really defeating. One of ASA’s hopes for the future is to re-engage those patients while also trying to reach the people who look at the current medical cannabis programs and think that’s what the organization is fighting for and that they don’t see themselves in the program. “Fast forward 20 years later, we’re dealing with sort of a new challenge, which is on one hand, everybody sort of thinks that we’ve won. A lot of people ask me what I’m going to do next, and I’m like, ‘Well, we’re still fighting this one unless we change the name of our organization to Privileged Americans for Safe Access.’ We’re very far from winning,” Sherer said.
The organization will continue to chip away at legislation that has been stopping medical cannabis from succeeding and one day dismantle the stigma preventing cannabis from Federal legalization.
If you’re interested in learning more about ASA or becoming an advocate, please visit https://www.safeaccessnow.org.