02/28/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

You Have Cancer; Go to Congress -- The Battle for Safe Access to Medical Marijuana

Most Americans see the battle of medical cannabis (marijuana) from a distance as a ping-pong game of excuses from the federal government to deny patients and doctors access to cannabis for therapeutic use. Eighty-three percent of Americans say the federal government should move past its archaic rhetoric about cannabis, and as Obama's 2012 campaign promised, Move Forward.

But for millions of Americans, issues surrounding medical cannabis are more than a political game: it affects their daily lives. A million Americans are currently using physician-recommended medical cannabis legally under their state laws. Despite following state law, they still have to worry about federal agents closing down their source of access or about losing their jobs and/or benefits. Millions more are turning to the illicit market because their states have not yet created programs due to conflicts with federal laws. As a result, millions of patients are being hindered and denied adequate health care.

Deputy U.S. Attorney David Ogden sent a memo in 2009 to U.S. attorneys nationwide suggesting that prosecuting people obeying state medical cannabis laws was a poor use of scarce federal resources. His memo seemed like a beginning to a happy ending, but it has turned into a ugly nightmare. Advocates, voters, and elected officials at the local and state level interpreted the Ogden Memo as a green light to create comprehensive laws and regulations. Under the impression that the federal conflict would not be an issue, 18 states and Washington, D.C., have implemented medical cannabis laws. But federal interference and intimidation continued, and in California, escalated to unprecedented levels.

More than a dozen members of Congress recently introduced legislation that would reclassify cannabis for medical use, end federal interference, and protect patients in federal court. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) authored H.R. 689, the "States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act," which in addition to rescheduling marijuana will allow states to establish production and distribution laws without interference by the federal government, and will remove current obstacles to research. Representative Sam Farr (D-CA) authored H.R. 710, the "Truth in Trials Act," a separate bill which will allow defendants in federal court to talk about medical cannabis -- a right they are currently denied.

No one dealing with chronic pain, symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, or side effects of chemotherapy should have to add meetings with elected officials to their health care regimen. However, that is what over 200 individuals will be doing on February 25th as a part of Americans for Safe Access' National Unity Conference here in Washington, D.C. Individuals from thirty-four states will join together and meet with their congressional representatives to urge them to pass these important bills.

Participants of the National Medical Unity Conference, February 22-25th, will lobby on Capitol Hill and learn how to work together to end the federal conflict. The conference will feature medical and legal experts, elected officials; as well as seasoned advocates from the U.S. and overseas, including Canada, Israel and the Netherlands. Workshops and panels focusing on scientific research, strategic planning, and skills building, all aimed at providing advocates the tools they need to achieve policy change on medical cannabis.

This conference is not just for patients and their advocates, it's also for lawyers, doctors, policy makers, and key stakeholders in the effort to establish medical cannabis as one of the public health issues of our time. Renowned physicist and father of 'Superstring Theory,' Dr. John Schwarz, will headline the national medical cannabis conference, speaking publicly for the first time on this issue. "Being a physicist, not a physician, I don't usually comment on issues in medical science," Dr. Schwarz wrote in a Huffington Post editorial from late last year. "But I can no longer remain silent while people in my family and profession run the risk of federal arrest so that they can follow the recommendations of their doctors."

This week will be an opportunity for Congress to hear the voices of those on the frontlines. Congress has the opportunity to establish a sensible public health policy on medical cannabis and its our job to make sure they do so. We stand at a pivotal moment in the history of medical cannabis. It is now more important than ever for us to come together to better educate ourselves and strategize on changing public policy in order to meet the real needs of medical cannabis patients across the country.