Erich Pearson, left, CEO and chairman of SPARC, is working with Joey Airone, founder of Sweetleaf Collective, to jump-start the collective’s compassionate care program. Photo: Sari Staver
Compassionate care programs are expected to expand locally, following the March 1 start date for Senate Bill 34, the new state law making it easier for organizations to legally donate cannabis to low-income patients.
The law, known as the Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron Act, was introduced last year by gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom last fall. It enables cannabis retailers and nonprofit organizations to avoid paying taxes on donated cannabis, reversing an unintended consequence of Proposition 64, which required an organization donating cannabis to pay taxes to the state. As a result, most programs contracted sharply, with some closing down altogether because of the additional costs.
Prior to legalization of adult use, or recreational cannabis, nonprofits and dispensaries had donated millions of dollars of free pot, largely to seriously ill, low-income patients. The new law means such programs have the potential to serve more people than ever, advocates said.
Sweetleaf Collective, believed to be the largest compassionate cannabis group in the Bay Area, is hoping to serve more patients locally and expand statewide, said founder Joe Airone, a straight ally whose program focused largely on people with HIV and cancer.
In a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Airone said his program “facilitates the donation on behalf of cultivators” who donate flowers they grow. Sweetleaf has donated more than $2 million worth of cannabis since it was founded in 1996, he said.
Airone said Sweetleaf had to reduce its donations to patients in the past two years, but the program stayed afloat. The new law should make it much easier for donors, although they will still have to undergo the seed-to-sale tracking and testing required for all cannabis sold in the retail market.
Airone said that after two years of lobbying, compassionate cannabis is now recognized by the state. According to Airone, thousands of disabled Californians will regain access to this medicine.
“The people who have died during this time are gone but not forgotten. They passed because they did not have access to cannabis, but this tragedy has ended. The biggest travesty caused by Proposition 64 has been rectified,” he said, referring to the state ballot measure that voters passed in 2016.
Airone said that Sweetleaf has been working with Flow Kana, which donated cannabis, and the LGBT-owned dispensary chain SPARC, which distributed the products to patients. Sweetleaf has been selling lighters for $1 each at all SPARC locations, which has raised over $5,000 toward the overhead of the program. Additional fundraising is planned, said Airone.
There has been “lots of interest” by cannabis growers and businesses in donating to Sweetleaf, Airone said.
SaraMitra Payan, a queer cannabis activist and public education officer at the Castro-based dispensary the Apothecarium, is also optimistic about the effects the new law will have.
In a phone interview, Payan, who coordinates the program for the dispensary, said, “There are a lot of very generous people working in the cannabis industry who I know have been anxious to donate.”
But given the recent contraction in the industry, she said, “we also don’t want to push people to give” when the industry is going through shaky times financially, as companies have to deal with increased competition and higher operating expenses.
Payan ran the Apothecarium program for four years, giving patients a box of products once a month. That program was put on hold when Prop 64 went into effect, but she is hoping to get approval to start again soon.
“It was heartbreaking to have to tell our patients that the program had to be stopped,” she said.
The program is not yet taking new applications but will make an announcement when it begins, she said.
Cannabis activist Ryan Miller created a compassionate use program for veterans at Harborside Dispensary in Oakland, prior to launching a free-standing program, Operation EVAC (Educating Veterans About Cannabis), which sponsors peer-led support groups for military veterans, in addition to distributing free cannabis.
“We’ve seen transformative results” among veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, he said in a telephone interview with the B.A.R.
David Goldman, a cannabis activist who is also president of the Brownie Mary Democratic Club, had to put his compassionate program on hold until SB 34 went into effect. Goldman, who runs the program with his husband, Michael Koehn, out of their home in Eureka Valley, hopes the legislation will enable them to get the program back to full speed.
“We had to have the legislation” to encourage donations, he said.
Wiener, a longtime cannabis advocate, said in a prepared statement, “For decades, compassion programs have played a critical role in helping low-income people with serious medical conditions access their medicine.
“Access to medical cannabis has allowed so many people living with HIV, cancer, PTSD, and other health conditions to survive and thrive,” he continued.
He added, “Taxing programs that give away free medical cannabis, and thus have no revenue, makes no sense and has caused far too many of these programs to close. SB 34 will allow compassionate care programs to survive and serve those in need. Many people will be healthier as a result” of the legislation.
People interested in the veterans program should contact Ryan Miller at [email protected]