Higher Ground: Lobbyist takes medical marijuana issue to Capitol Hill 

The first time Brandy Zink lobbied in Congress for medical marijuana, she wasn't taken very seriously. But that was in 2000, long before the dam burst on the bud.

"Capitol Hill is very intimidating with those big stone buildings; you can hear every step you take echo down the halls," says Zink, a then-fledgling lobbyist in her early 20s. "At first it was very difficult to get an appointment with a representative. We'd be received politely, but there would be no follow-up. They would make jokes like asking, 'Do you have any samples?' or 'Are you high right now?' We were not taken seriously."

Zink is a Michigan ambassador for Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a group that advocates for patients who need medical marijuana. She's heard a lot of reefer madness disinformation spouted by supposedly responsible representatives or their staff. But things have changed, and when she attends ASA's Unity 2016 conference later this month, she will spend a day lobbying in the Senate. That's because the Compassionate Access, Research, Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) act, which would reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug, has been derailed because the Senate Judiciary Committee will not bring it up for hearings.

Zink is sure she'll get in to see a few senators this time around.

"Things changed with the Obama administration," she says. "I'll have scheduled appointments. I usually meet with staff, (who) may or may not share the opinion of their boss. They treat us as professionals now and their questions are more focused. Some of them have revealed that a loved one has benefitted from or would benefit from marijuana. Little by little, we're gaining allies."

Although she won't out anybody, Zink says many congressional staffers use marijuana. She does recount meeting a very enthusiastic staffer working for Rep. Brenda Lawrence.

"She said, 'I'm from California and I know all about this stuff.' It was the first time a staffer said (they) were all supporters of it."

Zink has epilepsy and uses marijuana to lessen her seizures, as well as the pain from another condition. She found out how helpful it was during her teen years, when trying marijuana resulted in fewer seizures. When her parents found out and cut her off, the seizures came back.

Zink took to advocacy in support of her medicine, and moved to Michigan from Ohio in 2008 when the medical law passed here. She founded the Michigan chapter of ASA and has been a leader in the organization ever since. When it comes to lobbying, Zink is concise, accurate, and honest. She's lobbied for a number of organizations over the years, including the Marijuana Policy Project, a leader in helping to pass medical marijuana laws across the country.

Although she gets a more polite response from politicians now, Zink admits lobbying hasn't led to significant legislation. Many states are taking baby steps toward legalization, Zink says, but none are willing to stick their necks out and lead the charge.

If the Drug Enforcement Agency reclassifies marijuana as a Schedule II drug, more scientific research can be done to study marijuana's medical effects. The CARERS act will also settle banking issues for dispensaries, protect states with medical marijuana laws, and allow Veterans Affairs doctors to use medical marijuana therapies. These changes dovetail with ASA's mission to "ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic uses and research."

In Michigan, that means working to protect the medical marijuana law. Since it was passed in 2008, the state legislature has acted mostly to restrict the law. That makes it all the more important that the Michigan chapter of ASA, currently in active recruitment mode, is vital and effective. Member services include information about the medical use of marijuana, education for medical professionals, information for legislators, advocacy training for patients, and aid in accessing marijuana and medical care providers. There are resources and training for people who run dispensaries, such as what to do in the event of a police raid.

Comedian and activist Tommy Chong is returning to Detroit. He will appear at BDT Smoke Shops in Hazel Park, Chesterfield, and Utica on Friday, April 1 for photographs and signatures, and will speak at the Ann Arbor Monroe Street Fair and Hash Bash on Saturday, April 2. Last year, there was a line around the block at BDT's in Hazel Park, with people of all ages clutching their Cheech and Chong albums for him to sign, and Chong was given the key to the city by the mayor of Hazel Park and a few council members.

The Ann Arbor Monroe Street Fair and Hash Bash will take place starting at 10 a.m. on April 2 at the Diag on the University of Michigan campus. The rally is from noon to 1 p.m. and partying will ensue at the Monroe Street Fair until 7 p.m. The first Ann Arbor Hash Bash was in 1972 as a response to a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that left no law in place prohibiting marijuana for about a month. In addition, Ann Arbor's ordinance making marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $5 fine made the city a Midwestern Mecca for marijuana users.

The Monroe Street Fair, now in its 15th year, gives revelers a place to party off the U-M campus. While the city of Ann Arbor has lenient laws on toking, the university, which is on state property, doesn't. You can find the pertinent information at Facebook.com/MonroeStreetFairHashBashFestival.

Michigan NORML will hold its spring meeting at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 1 at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Club in Canton. The meeting is a fundraiser and will feature a live auction and a drawing for VIP passes for this year's Cannabis Cup.

Israeli medical marijuana products could be the next big import from the Middle Eastern country. Israel is already known to be far ahead of the United States in all aspects of medical marijuana. A business named Tikun Olam (Healing the World) has established greenhouses in Canada and is looking to move into the U.S. market. The company claims to have developed a strain with the highest level of THC ever recorded, in addition to a plant with the highest level of CBD in the world. See what you can do when the government doesn't forbid research on the stuff? Tikun Olam is eyeing a market potentially worth billions for its bud and extracts.

Marijuana haters have been stymied by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The states of Nebraska and Oklahoma have sued Colorado over its legal marijuana, claiming that weed is leaking across their borders and causing trouble. A decision here would ripple into Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, where recreational marijuana is legal. The court has not decided whether to hear the case. If the court chooses to pass on the suit, it will leave the Colorado law intact. Lacking the conservative voice of Scalia in this case is a plus for the pro-cannabis crowd.

More by Larry Gabriel

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