Marijuana advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access warns the struggle is real.
Americans for Safe Access Executive Director Steph Sherer has the chops of someone who’s been an advocate for a long time—fifteen years so far, and no stopping is in sight for her or the organization. Based in Washington, D.C., ASA lobbies and advocates on behalf of medical marijuana patients, cultivators, manufacturers, and retailers.
There’s never a dull moment in the American capital, according to Sherer, especially under the current administration. “I think the cannabis industry has two amazing things going for it right now that have nothing to do with [the White House],” she said, laughing.
“The first is Russia. That’s keeping [U.S. Attorney General Jeff] Sessions pretty busy, and as soon as that shiny ball goes away… It’s not that he’s not doing nothing on cannabis. He’s reaching out to U.S. Attorneys, and they’re putting something together. But, he’s obviously very distracted by Russia.
“The second is that [President Donald] Trump basically wants to cut funding for all administrative agencies,” Sherer continued. ”So, the only reason we wouldn’t see more [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] or [Environmental Protection Agency] violations is because their budgets have been cut. The Department of Justice is the only one they’re considering not cutting.
“The only saving grace is that there just aren’t enough resources at these departments to focus on violations, but they’re happening. When it comes across their desk, they’re fining these companies, and the fines are not small. And there’s not a payment plan for these fines. And they fine you every day until the problem is fixed,” she cautioned.
That isn’t the only serious issue that concerns Sherer. While state and local regulators in cannabis-legal jurisdictions race to develop standards, guidelines, and restrictions for new markets, cannabis remains a federally illegal drug and legalization is not a priority. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration and DOJ are working to oppose the industry, even going so far as to throw cannabis under the environmental bus.
“Anytime there is a regulatory push against the legal cannabis industry, that jeopardizes the medical cannabis program overall, and it jeopardizes [patients’] access,” Sherer said. “I’m here in Washington, D.C., and…as you can imagine, cannabis is a pretty polarizing issue.
“One of the DEA’s most effective arguments to push us back is environmental issues, ironically enough,” she continued. “Even though I don’t believe the DEA cares that much about the environment, they have found it’s a talking point that resonates with members of Congress… [Patients] have enough to deal with without having to figure out the environmental impact of medicine as well.“
While many cannabis entrepreneurs think of the DOJ or DEA as the big, bad swamp monsters, several other agencies with purview over cannabis also can be scary.
“We have seen an increase in fines from OSHA ad from EPA, and rightly so,” Sherer said. “If you are producing a product and selling it, you have an obligation to make sure your workers are safe and to make sure you’re operating within the confines of the law. You also have a responsibility to provide safe products to consumers. So, environmental impacts are key. We’re also seeing the government is trying to figure out how to deal with pesticides and environmental impacts around indoor and outdoor cultivation.
“Connecting environmental impact with patient safety really brings us back to all of these open questions around pesticide use,” she continued. “As of right now, there’s not a single pesticide that’s been approved to be used on cannabis for human consumption.”
“You know, we’re not selling anything but freedom, and it’s not an easy way to bring in the budget.” —Steph Sherer, executive director, Americans for Safe Access
Prohibition forced cannabis cultivation indoors; it’s the only major consumable crop grown inside. The nascent industry doesn’t have the benefit of protocols for pesticides and cultivation standards long established in other agricultural sectors.
“This is a process the agricultural industry has gone through, so they know if they put a [pesticide] on at a certain time during the growth cycle, it won’t end up in the product,” Sherer said. “Basically, every pesticide that’s out there has guidelines for when you can spray it on the crop, when it’s safe, and then, of course, you’re supposed to test the end product for that pesticide, to make sure it doesn’t end up in what goes out to consumers.
“What’s scarier, beyond just the pesticides that have not been specifically tested for cannabis: None of those pesticides have been tested for indoor use, and they say that for some chemicals to be effective, they need sun and air,” she added.
To address the pesticide issue and others head-on, ASA has helped establish a research center in the Czech Republic, the International Cannabis and Cannabinoid Institute, which will provide test data that can be used for reports and provide needed information to develop regulations for safe, sustainable cannabis cultivation.
ASA also has developed the Patient Focused Certification (PFC) program to help government and the industry develop and implement safety standards and guarantee products have gone through a process that ensures safety. ASA has worked with the American Herbal Products Association and American Herbal Pharmacoepia to develop patient-focused standards since 2011.
ASA members also can access open-source templates, training materials, auditing tools, and other resources to help shape their own standard operating procedures to be compliant with regulatory standards.
But, as with all long-term challenges, everything comes down to money. Philanthropists and supporters, currently suffering from fundraising fatigue, are asking Sherer more and more about the billions in revenue reported by the media. For an industry that some so vehemently oppose (including, reportedly, AG Sessions), the battle onward may be a long and costly one.
“These medical cannabis laws aren’t just happening. There are thousands of human hours behind every regulatory change and every law that passes. So, just because you can’t write a $10,000 check—though I think many could—write any check.
“A lot of people just assume the work we do here will always be here,” Sherer said. “But we’re not selling anything but freedom, and it’s not an easy way to bring in the budget.”