Activist Enlists Unlikely Ally in Bid to Legalize Pot
He is an unabashed Big Business conservative. She’s a liberal who favors the little guy. He’s a Washington insider dating back to the days of Nixon. She’s all of 29 yet has landed in jail plenty of times for underdog acts of civil disobedience.
Now Beltway lobbyist Jim Tozzi and bicoastal activist Steph Sherer have teamed up for an uphill cause: They aim to legalize medical marijuana in all 50 states.
Sherer’s stake is personal and professional. She uses cannabis daily for a spinal injury suffered during her arrest at a Washington protest five years ago. Sherer also runs Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit bent on making marijuana available to any patient in need.
Tozzi, graying and dark-suited at 67, has come to her aid with a federal law spawned at the behest of corporate America. In 2000, Tozzi helped craft legislation that lets the private sector challenge the scientific reliability of government regulations.
Medical marijuana activists like Sherer consider Tozzi’s handiwork a potential boon for a movement thwarted by cops and the courts, most recently a U.S. Supreme Court decision that declined to protect cannabis patients from federal prosecution.
Sherer, an energetic new combatant in a battle that’s raged for generations, said she believes medical marijuana activists now have the scientific goods to counter government assertions that pot has no proven medical efficacy.
If U.S. health officials fess up that marijuana is good medicine, she says, the government won’t be able to continue blocking the 33-year effort by activists to have cannabis dropped from the restrictive list of illicit drugs, which includes heroin and LSD. That, in turn, could stoke research into prescription forms of cannabis, as well as wider and less contentious medical use.
“There’s no way the statement that marijuana has no accepted medical value is true anymore,” Sherer said, citing 6,500 scientific articles from around the world on medical cannabis, as well as the thousands of doctor recommendations in California and nine other states still defying federal prohibitions.
So far, federal officials have rebuffed the pleas of Americans for Safe Access.
Arthur J. Lawrence, the assistant U.S. surgeon general, wrote in an April 20 rejection letter that the federal government already has undertaken an exhaustive review of marijuana’s medicinal merits. That effort began in 2002 when medical marijuana supporters petitioned U.S. regulators to yank cannabis from Schedule 1, which is reserved for abused drugs devoid of medical value. Lawrence reasoned that Scherer’s Data Quality Act request amounted to a duplication of effort.
Scherer countered that Lawrence is ignoring mounting evidence that pot is good medicine and the act’s intent: to quickly correct mistakes in the government record. Americans for Safe Access, which claims 12,000 patients on its rolls, has appealed. U.S. Health and Human Services officials have until Tuesday to respond.
The Bush administration gives no indication of bending.
Although there have been “suggestions” that some elements of the herb might be developed into prescription drugs, potential benefits are outweighed by a “manifest risk” of widespread abuse, said David Murray, a White House Office of National Drug Control Policy analyst.
Even if new marijuana-based drugs were approved, Murray said, they would not likely have “the character of the raw crude leaf.”
For Sherer, relief comes with a dropper of liquid cannabis extract six times a day.
The drug, she says, doesn’t make her high but eases otherwise unyielding pain and spasms at the base of her neck.
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Sherer always preferred microbrew beer to marijuana. But that relationship with cannabis changed in 2000, she said, after a U.S. marshal hit her from behind during an International Monetary Fund protest. Scherer’s civil lawsuit against the U.S. is winding toward trial.
The blow caused a ligament in her neck to snap. After a year of treatment with heavy pain medications, Sherer said, her kidneys began to shut down.
When her doctor asked if she knew anyone who smoked pot or how to get it, Sherer wondered if he had gone off the deep end.
The recommendation that she use pot as a painkiller changed both Sherer’s medical status and her career path. Instead of focusing her budding organizational skills on world trade issues, she made medical marijuana her prime cause.
Americans for Safe Access has since has blossomed into one of the most active medical marijuana groups in the nation.
Last summer, Sherer discovered Tozzi’s law and got an idea. She would turn the pro-business act on its head and apply it to medical marijuana, arguably one of America’s most quixotic consumer causes.
She had never met Tozzi, but the godfather of data quality showed up uninvited when Sherer held a news conference last October in Washington to announce her scheme.
Sherer fretted that Tozzi was up to no good. Instead, he said he wanted to help.
“I figured a little shot of support from me, from someone they’d never expect, would help a group that has been battered around quite a bit,” he said.
Tozzi, having spent a lifetime working Washington’s back corridors, calls himself “a regulatory nerd.” He started in the Office of Management and Budget during the 1960s, after a military tour in Vietnam and a failed attempt to make it as a jazz trumpet player in New Orleans. By the Reagan era, Tozzi had climbed to a top spot at OMB.
He promptly shifted to the private sector, got a big office near Dupont Circle in Washington and, the ultimate insider, forged a reputation as a lobbyist who can massage the Washington work product for clients like the tobacco industry and chemical companies.
Tozzi played a key role in 1996 in establishing the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, a business advocacy group that runs a website devoted to monitoring the wind shifts of government regulations. Out of that he launched the Data Quality Act.
Just a few lines tucked into a 712-page omnibus bill, the act has had far-reaching fallout.
Environmental and consumer groups consider Tozzi a sort of regulatory Dr. Evil, a stealthy genius whose little tweak of federal rules has hurt attempts to tame exploitation of the wilderness and workplace. Businesses view it as a way to check unwarranted government regulation.
Salt companies used the act to challenge government pronouncements about negative health effects. Builders fought claims about polluted runoff from construction sites. Chemical companies battled rules that threatened top-selling products.
Despite her liberal credentials, Sherer has developed an effective working relationship with Tozzi. And mutual admiration.
“I was expecting someone from the shadow government, like the cancer man from the ‘X-Files,’ ” Scherer said. Instead she got “this charismatic character who fills every corner of the room with his personality.”
Tozzi, meanwhile, thinks Scherer is underemployed. “She’s doing God’s work at great personal sacrifice,” he said. “But when she gets this issue straightened out, she can go anywhere.”
Sherer introduced Tozzi to medical marijuana patients. One in particular struck him.
She was a schoolteacher in her early 60s who looked “just like Betty Crocker,” Tozzi recalled. The woman said she had always been a law-abiding citizen but had been forced to buy pot on the streets to treat her multiple sclerosis.
“I don’t know if she was more bothered by the pain of her illness or the pain of her actions,” he said.
But this master of the regulatory chessboard had more than just altruistic motives. Since its inception, the Data Quality Act has been under attack as a weapon of big business, a stealthy way to keep federal agencies tied in knots over what constitutes sound science.
Eager to blunt such criticism and dash attempts to thwart his law in Congress, Tozzi has pushed public interest groups to start deploying the act against the bureaucrats. Legalization of medical marijuana, he said, could prove a powerful court test of government resistance to his beloved Data Quality Act.
But does this bid by Scherer and Tozzi stand a chance?
Peter Meyers, a George Washington University law professor who in the 1970s fought for removal of cannabis from the federal government list of dangerous drugs, doesn’t hold out much hope. He considers marijuana prohibition a part of a broader moral crusade being waged by the Bush administration.
“This has nothing to do with the medical debate,” he said. “I think it’s simply politics.”
Jon Gettman, a George Mason School of Public Policy senior fellow who is leading the current bid to get marijuana removed from that list, believes the Data Quality Act challenge puts extra pressure on federal regulators.
And he welcomes the oddball pairing of Tozzi the conservative and Sherer the activist.
“The idea of overlapping interests and strange bedfellows is a sign of a very healthy political system,” he said. “I think James Madison would be delighted.”