It was just a few years ago that now 30-year-old epilepsy patient Zahra Abbas tried her first medical marijuana on the advice of her doctor. Abbas suffered seizures almost every day and took four prescription drugs. It didn't take long for her to notice the difference.
"As soon as I started it, within a few days my seizures stopped," says Abbas. "Before I started looking into it for epilepsy I was very much against marijuana because there was so much misinformation around it. It came to the choice between using that and having another brain surgery to control my seizures. ... Turning to cannabis was kind of my last resort."
Chalk up cannabis to taking away the worry about seizures. Now, Abbas is off all but one medication, and has been seizure-free for two years and three months. "It feels like I'm given freedom from my seizures and medication," she says.
Maybe a little freedom can go a long way. Abbas has since become a pro-cannabis activist, speaking on panels at events such as the Hash Bash and a May Day rally in Lansing. She collected signatures two years ago for the MI Legalize effort at putting the question of legalizing recreational marijuana on last fall's ballot. Now, she's collecting signatures again this summer as an unpaid volunteer for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol petition effort to get the question on the 2018 ballot.
"I'm doing this because I think more people should have access to cannabis because it helps all people," she says.
Abbas has come full circle on the issue. Even though she is a medical user, she believes it should be legalized for recreational use.
"It should be everybody's right to use it," she says. "It will help people. It's a lot better than other things that people do, drugs or medications that they turn to."
Maybe she has wandered into the all-cannabis-use-is-medicinal arena. And that contingent is out there among the entire spectrum of the pro-cannabis world. I pretty much believe it. But it's that enthusiasm that folks at the CRMLA are counting on from their signature gatherers.
"We ask them to talk about why they are personally passionate," says CRMLA spokesman Josh Hovey.
Abbas argues that while marijuana is seen by some as a gateway drug to harder stuff, it has actually been helping people get off some of that stuff. Indeed there are people using cannabis to ease out of opioid and alcohol addiction. The journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research just released data from a University of California, Berkeley-Kent State University study that supports that notion. The study found that pain patients are successfully substituting cannabis for their pain medication.
But it's not studies that make the difference with people when out gathering signatures. First of all, polls show that the majority of Michigan voters support recreational legalization. And second, Abbas has a pretty compelling story, even if her use is medicinal. The upshot is that she's not running into much opposition as she gathers signatures.
"Some people just sign it once they know that it's to legalize cannabis," she says. "Other people want more information and we tell them that this will help regulate it, by legalizing it that will get it off the streets."
Signature gathering seems to be going well for the effort. A couple of weeks ago the CRMLA released an announcement that signature gathering had crossed the 100,000 mark, and while it's not official, Hoyer said last week that the number was over 126,000. The group needs to gather 252,523 valid signatures by Nov. 22. Due to the fact that in any petition some signatures will be challenged as invalid, the group needs to gather more than 300,000 in order to be sure they have enough. MI Legalize turned in some 350,000 in 2016 but they weren't gathered in the required 180-window.
The legalization effort is not a piece of cake (or even a cannabis-infused one). However, it seems to be moving along at a steady pace. That pace is set by people like Abbas and hundreds of others gathering signatures, and support, across the state.
Old time activists can remember days when they would publicize pro-marijuana events and two people would show up. It doesn't work that way anymore. Contrast that with a recent CRMLA fundraiser where 75 people paid $250 each to participate. Activist Tim Beck reported in Michigan Medical Report Magazine that, "Members of powerful cannabis trade groups, business owners, and their lobbyists, mingled with members of grass roots organizations such as MI Legalize, Michigan NORML and the Safer Michigan Coalition among others." Although a lot of grassroots types have rued the involvement of the Marijuana Policy Project (a national advocacy group) in the past, and there is lingering anger that the MPP didn't wholeheartedly support the MI Legalize effort for 2016, folks have chosen to bite their tongues and come together for the greater good.
Amazingly enough the Michigan effort to legalize recreational use of marijuana has pretty much unified Michigan activists. However, things seem a bit disjointed at the federal level. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been doing some serious saber rattling about ramping up the drug war and taking on states that have legal access. He even sent a letter to Congress asking representatives to rescind the order blocking the DOJ from using federal funds against state-legal medical marijuana facilities.
Well, the upper House didn't go along with that. The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment recently to continue preventing the U.S. Department of Justice from interfering with medical marijuana operations in states.
Tom Angell, chairman of the Marijuana Majority, had this to say about that:
“This vote is not only a blow against an outdated Reefer Madness mindset, it is a personal rebuke to Jeff Sessions. The attorney general, in contravention of President Trump’s campaign pledges and of public opinion, specifically asked Congress to give him the power to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers who are following state laws. A bipartisan group of his former Senate colleagues just said no.
"A majority of states now allow medical cannabis, and we will not allow drug warriors in the Justice Department to roll back the clock. The war on marijuana is ending, even if Jeff Sessions doesn’t realize it yet."
Sessions is beleaguered at the moment with President Trump tweeting away about the attorney general's recusal from the Russia investigation. Speculation is that he will either quit or be fired. Neither of those things may happen, but at the moment it's hard to see how the loudest voice in Washington in support of ramping up the drug war seems to lack support in the halls of Congress and in the White House.