Americans for Safe Access Local Chapters: Meet the San Diego ASA Chapter

ASA has local chapters throughout the United States and in this new series of interviews, we will be introducing you to those chapters and highlighting some of the state-level work being done to advocate for patient’s access and rights. In our second installment, we introduce the San Diego ASA chapter.

Americans for Safe Access (ASA) is a non-profit dedicated to ensuring safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research. ASA was founded in 2002 by medical cannabis patient Steph Sherer as a vehicle for patients to advocate for the acceptance of cannabis as medicine. ASA has local chapters throughout the United States, and in this new series of interviews, we introduce you to those chapters and highlight some of the state-level work being done to advocate for patients’ access and rights. In this installment, Terrie Best, the chair of the San Diego ASA chapter, shares some of the highlights from her chapter in California.

How did you first get involved with Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and advocacy work? Can you tell us a little about your work as the San Diego, California Chapter Chair with ASA?

Terrie Best: In 2006, I noticed Drug Policy Alliance was advertising a rally in San Diego because the top Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official, Karen Tandy, was in town. The protestors were upset because of the raids on medical cannabis facilities. At that time, I was leading a harm reduction group at a local hospital for drug users who were waiting to get into treatment. I knew the benign nature of cannabis and the extremely dangerous nature of the drug war, so I drove to the hotel where the rally was.There I met Steph Sherer who was hosting. I followed her work for a while and got involved with ASA a few years later when we had more raids. I found out that these raid victims were ASA members.

I became active with ASA and in 2014 was elected chair of the San Diego ASA Chapter. We held monthly meetings, conducted rallies and protests, organized court support, spoke at public government meetings, and raised money to send our members to Washington, D.C. to ASA’s Unity Conference each year. I also did courtroom narratives as cultivation and distribution cases came before the criminal courts. Our last two court cases ended in not guilty verdicts, which took only 10 minutes to decide in deliberations. We had sufficiently struck down district attorney Bonnie Dumanis’s fierce fight against medical cannabis patients.

Both our city and county, though conservative, had cannabis access ordinances well before California legalized adult use. We are very proud of the patient advocacy in San Diego.With COVID we have moved to joint, virtual meetings with other California ASA Chapters. ASA DC recently formed a California Advisory Committee, which I am on.

What projects are you working on currently?

Best: We are working on social equity, social equity, social equity! As every good non-profit should, we are finding the most vulnerable patients are patients of color or those living in poverty. Entire demographics were left out of legal cannabis. People often view social equity as an economic inequality issue and it is, but it is also an access issue here in San Diego. Because our city and county ordinances are so old—made in a time when politicians were loathe to place retail near neighborhoods—that our retail shops are in the far-flung industrial areas and often not on bus routes. Simple, convenient access is a bigger problem.

We keep beating the drum. Access to medicine is the first step and the rest will follow, I feel. All cannabis users are vulnerable but there is a subset within that vulnerable population who are very sick and need a little extra. If we can remember that in our advocacy, policies, and treatment of the issue, then we can do a better job of protecting patients.

Our political landscape has changed. We have much more permissive, forward-thinkers on both governing bodies. Both the city and county have instituted social equity assessments with promises to address the inequities. San Diego ASA is determined to keep up the message about access as well as continue job and entrepreneurial efforts.

Do you face any unique challenges in your chapter compared to other areas of the country?

Best: Our city shares a border with Mexico and we have about 1000 too many federal agents calling San Diego home. We have patrol checkpoints all around us and patients traveling from rural areas must pass through these checkpoints. Many times, they claim their medical cannabis and many times it is confiscated. Sometimes the patients are arrested. It depends on the agent, quantity of cannabis, and probably other stuff we don’t know. It is Russian roulette for patients, and we’ve heard terrible stories. Patients have a false sense of security. They are often too sick to keep up with conflicting laws and so they become the low-hanging fruit because they are honest with law enforcement.

California received a C+/69.43% score on the 2021 ASA State of the States report. How do you see this score guiding your advocacy?

Best: California is being left behind as the stigma and fear around cannabis reduces across the country. We look at our regulatory scheme and find it treats cannabis like a vice or something radioactive. That notion is no longer viable, but it used to be the norm. You will find older regulatory schemes antiquated.

I focus quite a bit on local issues right now (with over four municipalities struggling to regulate, we have our hands full), but I do go to lobby days in Sacramento, and I am linked in when important bills are in state committees.

Last November marked 25 years since the passing of Proposition 215 in California, which started the entire medical cannabis movement across the country (and beyond). How did that success set the stage for subsequent patient advocacy efforts in California?

Best: San Diego had enough cannabis outlets to serve patient populations back then, but police, politicians, and drug prevention contractors were outraged at them. The state law (Proposition 215) was pretty clear that anybody or their caregiver with a doctor recommendation could grow and use cannabis. It was a short simple law that cops and district attorneys interpreted very narrowly. Their strategy was to make more arrests than ever, conduct stings and raids, and let the juries sort it out. It was a hard, bloody road, but juries in San Diego did interpret the law correctly. From the very beginning juries were acquitting, but it was horrible for the victims of this process.

Is California where you thought or hoped it would be by now in terms of patient rights and access?

Best: No. Because of local control, we still have vast swaths of no access. Police are still very dismissive, and patients have no rights to use cannabis and be a parent, or get pain therapy, housing, or employment. Cannabis users can still be penalized in all these areas. Also, inner-city and high-density areas have no access. Even though Californians passed Proposition 64 in 2016 (the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act), most people can’t get cannabis in their areas. There is also just as vicious a push to arrest unlicensed shops. Criminalizing the unlicensed has more support than ever even though there are not enough legal outlets.

Have you had any feedback about Senate Bill 311 (the Compassionate Access to Medical Cannabis, or “Ryan’s Law”) since it took effect in January?

Best: I watched Senator Ben Hueso sponsor that bill and was so proud. He was on the San Diego City Council while we were advocating for an ordinance to allow retail shops. He wasn’t exactly supportive back then, but he was respectful. Folks did their job in Sacramento! They worked on him until he did a great thing for patients! A true milestone for our chapter’s personal goals. As one example, we have a wonderful man on our advisory committee, Marcus Boyd, whose sister asked him for cannabis while she was in a nursing facility. Marcus committed to working on this issue until there was access in hospice in honor of his sister, Kim.

How could someone best get involved or stay in touch with your chapter?

My email is ilegalsmile@hotmail.com. Our website with additional contact info is www.SafeAccessSD.com and you can find us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/SanDiegoASA.