Zahra Abbas — political activist who became one of Michigan’s biggest advocates of cannabis legalization after finding that it was a successful treatment for her epilepsy — died on Thursday. She was 35.
Her death was announced by the Michigan Democratic Party’s Cannabis Caucus, where she served as chair.
“Without Zahra the Cannabis Caucus would not be what it is today and the world is a lonelier place without her presence,” the organization wrote in a Facebook post. “Our deepest condolences to her family and friends. We know she touched many all across this great state and beyond.”
It added, “Zahra was dedicated to teaching the world about the health benefits of cannabis and helping lead the progressive movement action to remedy the catastrophic consequences of the war on drugs. Zahra was frequently failed by our healthcare system and cannabis prohibition that would at times deny her the only medicine that could bring her seizures under control.”
A Muslim, Abbas previously told Metro Times that she had seizures every day, and brain surgery and a number of prescription drugs could not make them go away.
But cannabis had an almost immediate effect, she said. When she spoke to Metro Times in 2017, she said she had not had a seizure in more than two years after she started using cannabis.
“As soon as I started it, within a few days my seizures stopped,” Abbas told Metro Times. “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.”
Abbas went on to help gather signatures to put cannabis legalization on the ballot, which Michigan voters approved in 2018. “I’m doing this because I think more people should have access to cannabis because it helps all people,” she told Metro Times. “It should be everybody’s right to use it,” she added. “It will help people. It’s a lot better than other things that people do, drugs or medications that they turn to.”
Abbas eventually became vice chair and then chair of the Cannabis Caucus, as well as vice president of the Detroit chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Motor City NORML. According to the Cannabis Caucus, her advocacy extended to criminal justice, and said she played a pivotal role in setting up a meeting with Attorney General Dana Nessel that resulted in her writing a letter to Governor Gretchen Whitmer in support of commuting the sentence of Michael Thompson. In one of the longest sentences for a nonviolent offender in the U.S., Thompson was sentenced in 1996 for up to 60 years in prison after selling marijuana to an undercover cop. Whitmer commuted his sentence in 2020.
According to the Cannabis Caucus website, Abbas worked as a medical assistant and wanted to go back to school to get a degree in public health to help shape rules and regulations around health care, drug policy, and disability issues.
Jamie Lowell, a friend and fellow long-time cannabis advocate, says Abbas’s seizures returned after she had temporarily quit using cannabis in anticipation of a drug test for a prospective new job. “She soon had a major seizure and vowed to not quit again for anything,” he says. “After resuming, she was again seizure-free. This was her powerful and amazing testimony.”
During a Friday rally in Pontiac for local progressive candidates attended by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a number of speakers memorialized Abbas.
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib held a moment of silence in Abbas’s honor, calling her “an incredible warrior.”
“Her heart was full of love for community, and there wasn’t a cause that she did not take on ... 100%,” Tlaib said.
“She was one of our biggest advocates for health care and access to alternative approaches, including cannabis … and she never gave up the fight,” she added. “She will be sorely missed. I know that she is with us today.”
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a physician who ran for governor in 2018 and is now a Metro Times contributor, said Abbas should serve as a role model for all progressives.
“She took her pain and she used it to bring people together, to fight for all of the things that she herself was denied, recognizing that it could have been anyone else,” he said at the rally. “She took that pain and decided to make the world that much better.”
He added, “Zahra didn’t have very much time, but Zahra put all of herself into the time she had.”
This story was updated with additional comments from Jamie Lowell.