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In celebration of their 20th anniversary, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) held their 10th annual Unity Conference virtually from December 12-14, 2022. Here we present coverage of the second day of the conference.
Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the nation’s largest member-based medical cannabis advocacy organization, held their 10th annual National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference to reflect on progress made and to reinforce visions for the future. Due to various circumstances, the 2022 Unity Conference was postponed to the spring of 2023 and in the meantime, a virtual conference was held from December 12-14. The theme for this conference was looking at medical cannabis advocacy in terms of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Leading the conference was founder Steph Sherer and executive director Debbie Churgai, plus panels of medical experts, researchers, legal experts, and advocates. Attendees were provided a program and informed that the slides and recordings of the presentations would be available in the weeks after the conference (1).
The theme for day two on December 13th was “Today” with presentations focused on the topics of “What’s Working for Patients” and “Current Challenges faced by the Medical Cannabis Marketplace and Patients.”
The second day of the Unity Conference featured two different panel discussions followed by live Q&A with attendees. The first panel focused on how current access to medical cannabis in the country is actually helping patients and how to encourage others to get involved in ASA’s advocacy efforts. Panelists included Rylie Maedler, Dr. Chad Johnson, Dr. Dustin Sulak, and Dr. Leah Sera.
Rylie Maedler, of Rylie’s Sunshine and Rylie’s Smile, shared her story of using medical cannabis to treat her cancer and her challenges and successes in advocating for access throughout her home state. Her advice to others is that advocacy can be scary, but it is worth it. “Contact your legislators and find someone who will listen to your story and work side by side with them,” she said.
Dr. Chad Johnson, co-director at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, shared how a lack of education around cannabis in pharmacy studies motivated the creation of the Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics (MCST) program at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. Their team encountered stigma and pushback, but continued their work because they knew growth was coming and sought to close the gaps in knowledge they saw surrounding medical cannabis. Dr. Leah Sera, Program Director for the Master of Science in the MCST program at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, also shared her perspective on the program.
Dr. Dustin Sulak, founder of Integr8 Health and Healer.com, shared his vision for moving toward cannabis as a first line of treatment and the need for accessing hard-to-find products, transparency, and labelling. He noted the burnout he sees with his peers from modern conventional medicine and that even though the atmosphere around medical cannabis is less belligerent today, notably at medical conferences, there is still discrimination and scrutiny from government organizations.
The second panel discussed the idea of the current political landscape patients face. Presenters included Ellen Lenox Smith, Dr. Stephen Dahmer, Stormy Simon, and Pamela Epstein.
Ellen Lenox Smith,co-director for Cannabis Advocacy for the US Pain Foundation, shared her journey of living with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and treatment with medical cannabis. She explained the challenges patients face with affordability, housing, employment, doctors resistant to recommending cannabis, difficulty traveling as well as the inability to use cannabis in hospitals and lack of research and knowledge. Her solutions, she explained, were to take cannabis out of its Schedule I status, to make cannabis part of medical curriculum, and to make sure regulations for recreational and regulations for medical cannabis are kept separate. She encouraged advocates to make things better for the next generation and to be the voice of advocacy, otherwise “the enemy” will.
Dr. Stephen Dahmer, Chief Medical Officer of Vireo Health, emphasized that patients and advocates today still have to argue that cannabis is medicine and that even with the newly signed research bill, more research is needed right now on the generic products used by patients every day. He sees the Schedule I designation being used as an excuse for not gaining more knowledge on cannabis, which leads to it being downplayed as an active role in patient care. He pointed out that cannabis is perhaps the only instance in which a medicine is brought forward by the patients themselves to a medical community, which should empower advocates.
Stormy Simon, co-founder and CEO of Mother Ruggers and a cannabis activist, shared her longtime experience as an activist, her work with medical refugees and children, and how she has seen the challenges change but also stay the same. She encouraged advocates to continue to lend their voices. “We’re bigger than the permission we’re asking for at this point,” she said. “People’s voices get stronger than the government.”
Pamela Epstein, Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer of Eden Enterprises, Inc., shared how cannabis kept her migraines at bay and how she first learned about the endocannabinoid system through a neurologist. She spoke about the Farm Bill needing to be re-passed in 2023, how the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) needs to ensure that people are getting the right products they need, and posed the question of how the country can protect the most vulnerable people who want to use cannabis.
After the panel discussions, Abbey Roudebush, Director of Government Affairs at ASA, gave an in-depth presentation of the ASA State of the States report for 2021. The 2022 results will be released in January 2023. The Contaminants Report presentation followed the State of the States report. All attendees were invited to a Holiday Hour at the end of the presentations.
Steph Sherer commented on how current complacency challenges advocacy efforts. “People aren’t dreaming anymore,” she said. “Think about what the world would look like if everyone had access and not privilege. ASA was originally a way to get patients off the battlefield in the war on drugs. We need to remind allies how much more there needs to be done.”
For more information on the Unity Conference and Americans for Safe Access, please visit: https://www.asaunity.org/agenda_2022