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 first installment, we introduce the Bay Area 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. According to their website, 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 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 first installment, Tony Bowles, the chair of the Bay Area ASA chapter, shares some of the highlights from his chapter in California.
Can you tell us a little about your role with Americans for Safe Access? How did you first get involved with ASA and advocacy work?
Tony Bowles: I have been involved in cannabis advocacy for 20 years, and I am a long-time patient advocate and organizer with Americans for Safe Access (ASA). I am an original member of the San Francisco ASA Chapter and am currently Chair of the Bay Area ASA chapter. I was also a plaintiff in ASA’s successful lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol (CHP).
Can you tell us more about that lawsuit and the circumstances surrounding it?
Bowles: It was June 2002, and I was coming back from making deliveries at Oaksterdam. I had just picked up an extra eighth for my mom, as her caregiver when I was pulled over on Mission Street by the CHP for not having a license on the front of my car, which is legal in Florida but not in San Francisco.
During the stop the officer smelled marijuana and asked if I had any on me. I revealed that I was a legal medical marijuana caregiver and pulled out my Department of Health issued ID card. At which point he asked again if I had any marijuana on me, I was honest and said yes. I didn't know to remain silent at that time.
He then asked me to exit the vehicle and hand over the medicine. I was confused and asked what was going on. I thought medical marijuana was legal. He responded that there was still maximum enforcement around this matter and had to confiscate my medicine and detain me until he spoke to the commanding officer. I again said I thought medical cannabis was the law, as he was putting me in the back of the cruiser.
Thankfully I had heard of Americans for Safe Access. I called them up and told them what happened. They said CHP were the worst violators of state law. They had been fielding phone calls and found the most complaints for harassment by legitimate patients were CHP. They then asked me if I’d like to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit against them.
I decided to join in and became a plaintiff in ASA’s landmark lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol. ASA compelled the California Highway Patrol to revise its policy regarding the seizure of medical marijuana from qualified patients through a civil action in 2005, and later established through a published decision in Garden Grove v. Superior Court that patients whose medical marijuana is seized are entitled to the return of their medicine (1).
Do you face any unique challenges in your chapter compared to other areas of the country?
Bowles: The San Francisco Bay Area is viewed as the vanguard of medical cannabis, and a lot of people look to us as an example.
How does San Francisco Bay Area compare to other chapters and medical cannabis industries in California?
Bowles: Safe access is well established here, and we have many supporters, so we have a history we can reflect on and point to when political winds shift, such as with newly elected politicians that represent changing demographics.
What are you most excited to have helped accomplish in San Francisco or California in general? What projects are you working on currently?
Bowles: I played a role in passing Article 33, San Francisco's original law that regulated medical cannabis dispensaries. Article 33 was San Francisco’s local law enforced by the Department of Public Health that regulated medical cannabis dispensaries. Dispensaries may now be considered cannabis retailers under Article 16 of the Police Code. Article 33 sunsetted on December 31, 2019.
I have been involved with many successful political campaigns that helped create our medical cannabis program, including the passing of the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA), which was established through a series of bills passed by the California State Legislature in 2015 and 2016, as well as the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act (SB 34) in 2019, which allows cannabis to be given out as a compassionate act.
When San Francisco sent out a notice to close dispensaries during coronavirus shelter in place, the Bay Area chapter of ASA jumped into action, helping to convince the mayor and Department of Public Health to declare safe access as an essential business.
I am currently involved in legislative efforts at the local, state, and federal levels to expand and strengthen patient access to cannabis.
Is California where you thought or hoped it would be by now in terms of patient rights and access?
Bowles: No, California dropped the ball. After the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) legalized cannabis for adults, patients were thrown under the bus and forgotten about. Enrollment into the state's medical cannabis program fell off dramatically. Cannabis products are highly expensive. That’s why I’m involved in efforts to reform and modernize the whole program.
California received a C+/69.43% score on the 2021 ASA State of the States report. How are you working toward implementing ASA’s recommendations for improvement?
Bowles: We recently held our first ASA California Advisory Committee meeting. We had many great participants and looked over many important bills that would help end workplace discrimination for cannabis users, expand safe access, and protect pain patients' rights. There are many more pieces of legislation to look over and decide if we endorse, including a bill to make curbside pickup permanent, a bill to clean up Ryan's Law, a bill that ensures no loss of custody, and bills to lower taxes. ASA will be coming out with a press release, and we will let you know our official endorsements in the coming weeks. The Americans for Safe Access’ California Advisory Committee (ASACAC) will advise ASA on medical cannabis matters in California and will utilize ASA resources to impact outcomes. ASACAC will be comprised of ASA staff, representatives from California-based chapters and affiliates, and California medical cannabis stakeholders.
Last November marked 25 years since the passing of Prop 215 in California, which started the entire medical cannabis movement across the country (and beyond). How did that success set the stage for current advocacy efforts in California, particularly for patient advocates?
Bowles: Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary showed how direct actions of civil disobedience can be effective. That legacy led to the city of San Francisco being one of the first to allow cannabis dispensaries, despite federal government objection, and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raids. We will not stop until we have safe access for all. Many cities and counties still do not allow safe access in their communities.
Have you heard any feedback about SB 311 (Ryan’s Law) since it took effect in January?
Bowles: I was involved in the campaign to pass Ryan’s Law and was very happy when it passed. Our chapter is participating in ASA’s campaign to ensure smooth implementation state-wide. ASA’s implementation guide for healthcare facilities (which includes a summary of the law, sample policies and documents, and draft standard operating procedures [SOPs] to aid in their compliance with the new law) was sent to more than 2000 healthcare facilities that are subject to “Ryan’s Law.” ASA has also created resources for physicians and their patients to help navigate the utilization of these new rights afforded under the new law that include information on patient requirements, links to sample written recommendations, and continuing medical education (CME) courses on cannabis. In addition, ASA has set up a reporting system for patients who have issues with healthcare facilities refusing to comply, which consists of a designated email (email@example.com) and an online incident report. It is our hope that these resources will help healthcare facilities implement this important law for patients, but we will be monitoring to ensure state-wide compliance.
How could someone best get involved or stay in touch with your chapter?