A second wind has hit the sails of those working to get free medical marijuana to California’s sick and needy, largely driven by a wave of optimistic feeling towards in newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In recent weeks, California’s state legislators have gotten the ball rolling on their second attempt at creating regulations to support California’s compassionate care programs, which provide free medicinal marijuana or marijuana products to the seriously ill, by introducing Senate Bill 34 in early December.
The new bill is modeled after SB 829, which last year made it all the way to the governor’s desk — only to be vetoed by the outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown. SB 34 would enable licensed providers to donate free medicinal marijuana to patients in need, and exempt them from use taxes on the donated marijuana products.
The bill’s proponents say it is needed desperately by both the patients themselves and the providers who face the current tax burden accrued while supplying patients with free medicine.
Legislating Compassion: Second Time’s the Charm?
While former Gov. Brown wasn’t necessarily anti-pot, Gov. Newsom brings pot advocacy bonafides to the governor’s mansion. Newsom was appointed to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in the same election that saw medical cannabis legalized in California in 1996. From there, he went on to become the city’s mayor. And when he served as California’s lieutenant governor, he was a vocal advocate for cannabis legalization, endorsing legislature that dropped many marijuana-related charges from felonies to misdemeanors and supporting Prop 64.
While the state waited for Newsom to come into power, the new push for compassion kicked off in the city where he rose to prominence. Stakeholders, hoping to provide for the folks in the medical cannabis community who need the most support, convened at San Francisco’s SPARC in late November. SPARC is a dispensary known for providing these kinds of support programs since its inception in 2001, when different San Francisco cultivation collectives converged to form what would eventually become one of the nation’s premier dispensary storefronts.
At SPARC, state senator Scott Wiener announced his intention to reintroduce the bill that would eventually become SB 34. “This is about ensuring low-income people can access their medicine,” he told onlookers. “Compassionate care programs save lives, and we should help them thrive instead of forcing them to pay taxes intended for businesses — taxes that are shutting these programs down. We need to correct this oversight in Prop 64 and help people living with serious conditions like HIV and cancer obtain the medical cannabis they need.”
Activists Voice Support
Compassionate care programs are standard fare when you’re talking about the nation’s oldest operators, and storefronts like Berkeley Patients Group have continued their programs, despite the fact that they now have to incur massive new costs to do so.
“We were founded on compassionate giving to those in need and we have to arrive at a place where we can continue to give to those most in need,” BPG Vice-President Etienne Fontan told Cannabis Now. “We hope Gov. Newsom’s bill arrives there, so we can continue to do what we do best, serve the underserved and the most deserving in their most difficult times.”
Longtime activist Lynette Shaw, who first opened the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in 1996, said she believes Newsom’s roots could make the difference this time around.
“Our new governor Gavin Newsom is from Marin County, and I know he understands how [critically ill] patients must have safe access to medical cannabis without the staggering taxes that have been foolishly enacted in California,” Shaw told Cannabis Now.
She pointed to the sad irony that although most Californians can now grow great pot in their own backyards, the state’s most vulnerable individuals are now less able to access their meds affordably than in the past.
“The patients are suffering, and the black market is booming 100 times stronger than even a year ago,” said Shaw. She also offered a nomenclature suggestion: “Having a bill to firmly reinstate compassionate access should be named ‘The Dennis Peron Compassion Act.’ I hope and pray they come to their senses in Sacramento, and that Gov. Newsom handles this as well as I think he will.”
And critically ill individuals, like people receiving end of life care, aren’t the only patients who stand to benefit from SB 34. Ryan Miller, a Marine Corps veteran and founder of an organization that educates his fellow vets on the benefits of cannabis, Operation EVAC, weighed in positively on the new bill.
“We salute Senators Scott Wiener and Nancy Skinner for co-authoring this bill and pray that Gov. Newsom doesn’t leave us behind,” Miller told Cannabis Now. “The culture of compassion in California was curated by Brownie Mary Rathbun and Vietnam veteran Dennis Peron in San Francisco’s Castro and their torches will be carried by any means necessary. The philanthropic exchange of plant-medicine is a sacred act and its continuity is non-negotiable.”
But still others argue the bill might not be necessary, as there is already a mechanism for nonprofit licensing that could be faster than passing and implementing new legislation. Advocate Anthony Rangel has petitioned California’s Office of Administrative Law to look into the licensing that could already be created within the structure of the existing law.
“This would affirm [Section] 26070.5 of Prop 64 for the feasibility study,” Rangel told Cannabis Now, in reference to the part of California’s regulations that allow the state to study whether or not it should create a system for cannabis nonprofits.
But the mechanics on how a dispensary could support an effort solely meant to grow marijuana that will be free of charge is a little blurry. “We are unsure if they would allow retail facilities to fund work of the nonprofit while providing free cannabis to patients, or if it would have to be 100 percent donation through the chain,” Rangel said.
But whatever the route may be, one can only hope that those who provide compassionate care in the form of free medicinal marijuana are recognized for their efforts, and that those who receive free medicinal marijuana continue to benefit from both the plant itself and the generosity of others.
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