In celebration of their 20th anniversary, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) held their 10th annual Unity Conference virtually from December 12-14, 2022.
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 in-person 2022 Unity Conference was postponed to the spring of 2023 and 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, patients, 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 one on December 12th was “Yesterday” with several talks focused around the topic of “How Advocates Changed the Conversation of Medical Cannabis.”
To kick off the conference and celebration, Steph Sherer and Debbie Churgai gave a welcome and introduction. Sherer encouraged the virtual conference to be as interactive and accessible as possible: attendees were encouraged to submit questions at any time, turn on closed captioning, and comment and “react.”
The first panel of the conference included Don Duncan, Caren Woodson, Paul Scott, Tony Bowles, and Rebecca Saltzman. Stories centered around the theme of “How Advocates Helped Change the Conversation of Medical Cannabis” and the various obstacles encountered in the grassroots beginnings of ASA to get to where they are today. The presentation was followed by a live Q&A with attendees and included topics such as finding workshops for connecting with legislators.
The first panel presenter, Don Duncan, recalled the early days of ASA, which greatly involved countering US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raids on dispensaries in California. He shared a memory of how one time a knock on his door sent him into a panic, but it turned out to only be a pizza delivery man at the wrong address. Duncan continues to advocate to see the promise of California’s Proposition 215 fulfilled and welcomes all (recreational cannabis users included) to the fight for patient rights. “We needed a patient voice at the table and ASA brought it,” he said.
Caren Woodson started at drug policy reform organizations, but after a call from Sherer about calls to action in drug policy, she joined ASA. Woodson saw how civil disobedience in California translated to policy reforms in Washington D.C. “Cannabis is illegal because people aren’t asking the right questions,” she said in her presentation. “Small movements in advocacy lead to a lot, so stick with it.”
As a nurse in California, Paul Scott witnessed firsthand the desperation of patients in hospitals during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and how patients and their loved ones used cannabis as a treatment. He became Chairman of the Board for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative and later established a similar club in Inglewood, running it successfully for more than 12 years with no license or permit. He thanked Sherer for her ongoing support, “I don’t think Black folk thought they could be powerful in this space,” he said.
Current Chair of the Bay Area Safe Access chapter, Tony Bowles joined ASA in its early beginnings after being arrested by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) while transporting medical cannabis for his mother. He became a plaintiff when ASA sued the CHP for this type of patient harassment. “I fought the law and won with ASA,” he said.
Rebecca Saltzman is a former ASA Chief of Staff. She first joined ASA as a volunteer and eventually helped the organization grow to national proportions. She witnessed ASA demonstrations and arrests for civil disobedience. “There was no clocking out at ASA,” Saltzman and Sherer agreed. “In those early days it was like herding frightened cats.”
Next Debbie Churgai presented a surprise slideshow honoring the work and dedication of Steph Sherer since the very beginning of ASA. Then Sherer reflected on the past 20 years of medical cannabis advocacy in a presentation of her own. She explained the strategic plans over the past two decades, honored members who have passed away, and listed ASA’s accomplishments since 2002, both nationally and globally. Though ASA has come a long way since the 11 original unlicensed dispensaries and DEA raids, Sherer emphasized that the fight is not over and people need to take responsibility for the privilege they have. This is still a political fight, she explained, and ASA needs to continue to push the rock up the hill. “Until you win,” she concluded, “that rock can roll back and roll right over you.”
In looking toward the presentations for day two, Sherer said that patients have to be brave enough to say, “this is what medical cannabis should look like,” and continue to fight for the big picture.
For more information on the Unity Conference and Americans for Safe Access, please visit: https://www.asaunity.org/agenda_2022