Portrait of Steph Sherer, first published in Czech edition of Newsweek
Family folklore on her mother's side says she is related to the legendary singer Janis Joplin. For activist Steph Sherer, who also actually looks like Janis Joplin, this fact has little importance. She fights for the global legalization of cannabis for medical use and, unlike Janis, she considers cannabis mostly a medicine.
Once the presentation of Lumír Ondřej Hanuš, associate professor of the Hebrew University, finished one November afternoon, he is surrounded by a group of desperate people. One young woman wants to know how she can help her father, who has cancer. "Can I be your patient?" asks another lady with big brown eyes and multiple sclerosis. An elderly couple, a lady with a cane, a black-haired woman in her forties with bright red lipstick and a brain tumor; one after another, they shower the presenter with questions.
Lumír Hanuš, a chemist from Olomouc, belongs among the world legends of cannabis research. Together with U.S. molecular pharmacologist William A. Devane, he isolated a substance at the Hebrew University in 1992 which they subsequently named anandamide, after the Sanskrit expression for bliss. From two kilograms of pork they extracted something which evokes a perception of happiness and binds to the same receptors as cannabinoids. There are many similar receptors in the human body and according to Hanuš, this is the explanation for why this plant works as a medicine for many illnesses.
But the plant with thin serrated leaves also bears the stigma of an illegal drug, which makes the study of its medical benefits complicated. Different varieties with different proportions of different components work on different illnesses. "A patient can find a suitable variety of cannabis for himself, but no one can tell a patient the exact cannabis medication that will work for them with certainty. This has yet to be studied thoroughly," explains Hanuš.
Whether this will happen at some time and Czech patients will have to seek the answers only at his lectures also depends on American activist Steph Sherer, who recently turned 40 and has recently been in Prague very often.
She has been using cannabis as a medicine for more than a third of her life. When she started at the age of 25, it was very humiliating for her that she to have to go to local dealers to get her medicine and that she was considered a criminal under the law. So 13 years ago, she started a patients' advocacy organization (Americans for Safe Access), which is now one of the biggest and most influential in the U.S. She managed to bring about a change in laws with the support of doctors, politicians and the authorities.
Natural healers and later also doctors used cannabis against inflammation and pain. Equally, the smoking of marijuana enjoyed huge popularity - we mean smoking the dry female inflorescence (flower) of cannabis varieties, containing the psychoactive substance known as THC. The plant gained the status of a dangerous drug and at the beginning of the 20th century, the first prohibition laws concerning the possession and sale of marijuana were passed in the U.S. In 1937, a federal law dealt the final blow to medical cannabis. All doctors and pharmacists who wanted to prescribe and sell medical cannabis had to register for an annual tax. The United Kingdom eliminated cannabis from the official pharmacopoeia in 1932, and the U.S. followed 10 years later.
Cannabis was replaced by modern medicines that carried doctors had high expectations of. However, time has proved that they have limited efficiency and run the risk of serious side effects. "Pharmaceutical models do not cure everyone," insists Steph. "More than half of Americans live with chronic pain and the medicines available to treat this kind of pain do not help them." Desperate patients started to look for alternatives and discovered the almost forgotten plant.
I looked like Quasimodo
Mike Corral from Santa Cruz, CA, was among the first. 25 years ago, he tried to relieve his wife, whose epileptic seizures, a result of a car crash, could not be treated with conventional medicines.
Somewhere in the expert medicinal literature he read that the help he was searching for could possibly be found in cannabis. However, nobody was able to tell him how to use it. "We had no clue how to actually use cannabis, so we started to roll joints and placed them all over the house," remembers Mike. "People with epilepsy sometimes do have the feeling that an attack is coming - and this can happen a couple of seconds or days before. My wife had two minutes." So when it came, Mike just lit up a joint and she took a few puffs. Six months later, the attacks started to disappear. After three years on cannabis, she dropped her other medicine, which she had developed a dependence on. The attacks were gone and never came back.
"We had no clue how to actually do cannabis, so we started to roll joints and placed them all over the house."
Steph Sherer discovered cannabis 10 years later, when Californian doctors already had some awareness. Steph, who was living in San Diego, was injured at a demonstration in 2000. A policeman hit her and the sudden blow injured her neck. Her head was tilted towards her shoulder and she couldn't straighten it. At the age of 24 she "looked like Quasimodo" and took the equivalent of eight 400mg ibuprofen tablets daily until her kidneys started to fail.
"My doctor was a senior practitioner, well into his 80s," adds Steph. "Once I came to his office and he closed the door, leaned over and asked me: Do you smoke pot? I replied: No, I don't. He continued: Do you know where to get some? It just crossed my mind: Am I your youngest patient? I was thinking he wanted me to get some pot for him." But the doctor explained to Steph that cannabis could help her. "I really don't understand how it works as medicine, but it does," Steph repeats what the old practitioner told her. "I have two other patients with ibuprofen intolerance; we don't have many options left, so if you could get some pot, I think we have to try."
So Steph called her friends who were into rap and reggae. The her friends "stash" was quickly used up and the young woman soon had to start reaching out to dealers - teenage skateboarders - directly, but with little luck. She often dressed in business attire for work, which on occasion made them think she was a cop. "Once I was sitting in a parking lot, crying, and I was begging a dealer: please, sell me some marijuana! It was crazy." Then she found out about underground cannabis dispensaries in San Francisco. She moved there shortly. In California, a law was introduced in 1996 which guaranteed immunity to patients who used cannabis for medical reasons, but according to federal law, it was still a criminal offence.
Two months after Steph moved closer to the dispensaries, the DEA conducted a huge raid. "I was thinking: Wait, I have paid for cannabis with my credit card, is it really illegal?" She describes the shock she was in. "Only then did I realize that the people who were running the dispensaries were intentionally pursuing civil disobedience against the federal government, so people like me could get their medicine." Just for patients like herself, those people were exposed to the threat of many years in prison. Steph visited them all, including Mike Corral, and she asked them: What do you think about the idea of founding a patients' organization to fight for safe access?
I am not a hippie
The Industrial Palace, an Art Nouveau building in Prague's Exhibition Grounds, is crowded with groups of expressive characters with dreadlocks, who came to Cannafest to buy some seeds and find out what's new in cannabis growing. This is exactly the picture of marijuana culture which is prevalent at the festivals, and one which Steph expressly avoids. When we take photos of her in the garden near the Cross Club, where huge illuminated industrial statues shine psychedelic lights on her face, she is concerned to not to look like a drugged-up hippie. In other words, like the legendary singer Janis Joplin, her possible relative (and she also resembles Janis not only in her looks, but also her rasping voice).
People who have known Steph for some time usually describe her as a person who has the unique ability to connect the alternative marijuana world with the world of high politics, Republicans with Democrats, impatient patients with bureaucratic clerks. She describes herself as the type of person who can "bring people to one room". This is possibly also because of the fact that these two worlds are connected in her family as well.
According to family folklore, in her mother's line, she is a relative of the queen of psychedelic rock - Steph's grandmother line was connected to that of the mother of Janis. Her grandfather in her father's line was a cousin of the Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson (in office 1963-1969). "There's a family legend that they were competing and did not like each other," Steph says with a smile. "My granddad was in the air force, and when he got a medal, he would send a newspaper clip to Lyndon. No letter, nothing more." The mutual teasing had no end. "My grandmother told me that when LBJ was in the White House, he would send them something with a (presidential) face on it. A shower curtain, an ashtray - with LBJ's face." Steph grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, where her parents moved to open an ice cream store.
Her childhood could hardly have been more distant from the world of Janis, hippies, and marijuana. Her father wanted to become an episcopal priest and entered the seminary. Steph spent most of her childhood time in church with adults, because she did not fit in among her peers. After some time, her family moved back to Texas. Steph got a scholarship at a private school, where she discovered a world known to her only through books.
Her family started to fall apart: her parents divorced and stopped taking care of her when she was in high school. At the age of 18, she met a boy with whom she loaded mountain bikes into a van and visited national parks. After a year of this nomadic life, they settled in Prescott, Arizona, got married, and enrolled at the university.
But then Steph's husband was diagnosed with schizophrenia. "I stopped going to some lectures when he was in the hospital. I needed to work more, I had to make money for us both," Steph says. "He couldn't come to terms with it. He kept repeating that with taking care of him, I was wasting my life. So when he was home from the hospital, he bought a shotgun and shot himself."
Steph then spent a year wandering all over America, lost and rarely sober. When she recovered, she got back into school and started to become involved in the global justice movement. In April 2000, she attended a demonstration in Washington.
After she recovered from the injury she got there, she created Americans for Safe Access. She spent the first years of ASA "getting people out of jail". Today, she is mostly involved in lobbying and drafting laws and regulations- she supports changes to laws and international treaties, so that cannabis patients can have easy access to their medications.
"After all, we are an organized crime group, and according to the law, organized groups do not get five years for cannabis, but 15."
In 2013, she achieved the introduction of cannabis into the American herbal pharmacopoeia, notwithstanding the fact that in the U.S. cannabis (or, to be precise, psychoactive THC, which cannabis contains) is a Schedule 1 drug. This means that officially cannabis has no medical use, unlike methamphetamine or cocaine.
To get cannabis onto the list of natural medicines, she had to raise the money for a description of the composition of the plant. "It cost several hundred thousand dollars," says Steph. "I shouldn't say this, but if they had asked for a million dollars, I would have gotten it." The way she managed to persuade everyone to agree to the registration after years of negotiation was a "classic, by-the-book, cunning, fantastic move," as her colleague Ben Bronfman admiringly puts it.
During the last year, Steph has spent a lot of time on flights between the U.S. and Europe, where she is trying to enforce changes to international treaties and also gives advice to organizations similar to ASA. In the Czech Republic, the use of cannabis for medical reasons has been legal since 2013, but it was not available until December 2014. Its frustrated advocates founded an organization and asked Steph for help. She then met people like Pavel Kubů and Tomáš Zábranský and they started to make plans together.
They organized a conference in March 2015 at which patients' groups from different countries founded an international coalition. These groups are often led by patients who stood trial for growing their own medicine. "It is highly illegal. We have patients who have been given prison sentences. It is an underground, a partisan movement," says Vasil Haralampief, director of a Bulgarian organization, who uses cannabis to ease his neuropathic pain caused by heavy diabetes. "After all, we are an organized crime group, and according to the law, organized groups do not get five years for cannabis, but 15."
Half a billion crowns for cannabis research
Vasil says that cooperation with people like Steph gives people like him hope. "You know that they went through the same thing, and today, they have gone much, much further." But the cooperation is beneficial not only for patients from Bulgaria, Poland, or the Czech Republic. Steph is well aware how hard it is to enforce changes on the international level only from the U.S. As a representative of the international patients' coalition, her word will have more power in the UN. She hopes that the governments of countries which are favourably disposed towards cannabis (for example, the Czech government) will help to speed up the slow international negotiations, for example, those about the reclassification of cannabis in the international drug list.
Recently, she flew to Geneva to attend the meeting of an expert commission of the WHO, which is preparing groundwork data for the UN. But she got a cold shoulder upon her arrival. The commission did not publish the report on cannabis before the proceedings.
She found an American scientist who was known for her disapproval of medical cannabis. "I went to say hello to her. She thought I was someone else and gave me a hug," says Steph. "I told her that I was very disappointed that I couldn't see the report. To which she replied: You wouldn't agree with it anyway..."
After the negotiations, other two members of the commission told her that they would not recommend reclassification, even if the groundwork was ready. Steph now hopes that the preparation of the report will speed up when it is requested by those governments which are positively inclined towards medical cannabis.
Today, Steph is a successful woman. She is bored by the questions of her friends about when she wants to start a family. She believes that she can push through a federal law in the U.S. within a year which would legalize medical cannabis completely. Then she would like to spend more time in Prague.
Recently, she launched, along with her Czech colleagues, the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute (ICCI). Thanks to it, medical cannabis research will return to the Czech Republic after 50 years. The medical properties of cannabis and the plant itself were studied by Olomouc scientists in the '50s and '60s of the 20th century; however, their works are not quoted, because they were published behind the Iron Curtain.
And maybe, thanks to ICCI, patients will cease to bombard Lumír Hanuš with questions. The company will raise funds for clinical studies of cannabis medicines. The Czech Republic is one of the few countries where this is possible, because the medical cannabis regulations there are in accordance with international treaties.
Steph also jokes that the scientific startup is her baby. It took nine months before it was born. The American entrepreneur Bronfman has committed to raise half a billion crowns into the enterprise. Bronfman comes from a Canadian entrepreneurial family. His great-grandfather got rich during the American Prohibition era through making Seagram's whiskey. Ben, is a Grammy nominated musician who is also involved in green business Global Thermostat. "I am involved in what is annoying to me, what I want to fix."
Then he got into medical cannabis. When he had a son with his then fiancée, a British rapper going by the nickname of M.I.A., he moved from New York to California. He was impressed that medical cannabis was not forbidden there, and he started to meet people from the field. "I met many people who are involved in drug politics," remembers Ben. "Steph is the smartest of them. Simply unique. I was telling myself that this woman, she's got it all."