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Lawmakers Move to Save California Compassion Programs From Extinction

Photo Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now

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Lawmakers Move to Save California Compassion Programs From Extinction

When California’s temporary regulations for the adult-use cannabis market became effective in January, they effectively destroyed the state’s historic compassionate care programs with burdensome taxes. Now, a lawmaker wants to fix the error.

California State Senator Scott Weiner, a Democrat from San Francisco, has announced a new bill to save the state’s longtime compassion programs that are providing free cannabis to people with serious illnesses.

SB 829 would exempt compassionate care programs from paying state cannabis taxes when they are providing free medical cannabis to financially disadvantaged people living with serious health conditions.

According to Weiner’s statement announcing the bill, what he’s actually trying to correct an oversight in how California’s cannabis regulations were drafted. “These not-for-profit donation programs that have been serving medical cannabis patients for decades are now being forced to pay taxes meant for businesses, which are forcing these charity programs to shut down,” the statement read.

When the commercial aspects of the state’s legalization law — passed after voters approved Prop 64 — began to be phased in on Jan. 1, taxes were placed on both medical and recreational marijuana. According to Weiner, these taxes were designed to impact cannabis entering a market that marijuana grown for compassionate use programs never enters.

With no separation from those taxes levied on the commercial markets, compassion providers have been decimated and many programs have closed up shop entirely.

SB 829 creates a non-commercial license for compassionate care programs to operate under, thereby exempting qualifying programs from state cultivation and excise taxes. Following the certification of a compassionate care program by the Bureau of Cannabis Control, cultivators would receive their non-commercial license, which will allow them to donate their cannabis without having to pay the cultivation tax.

“Compassionate care programs aid people who are seriously ill and suffering, and we should be helping them thrive, not squeezing them with business taxes that are forcing many of them to close,” said Wiener. “These programs are a way for cultivators and retailers to donate free cannabis through non-profit collectives to some of our most vulnerable residents — they are a way for Californians to take care of each other. Let’s correct this oversight in Prop 64, and help people living with serious conditions like HIV and cancer get the medical cannabis they need.”

SB 829 is co-authored by Assemblymember Jim Wood, a Democrat from Santa Rosa. Wood also helped draft the original language for the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, which was essentially combined with Prop 64.

“Prior to Prop 64, many not-for-profit compassionate care programs were helping financially disadvantaged folks obtain medical cannabis free of charge for their life-threatening health conditions but Prop 64 threw a pretty big wrench into that system,” said Wood. “I’m proud to join Senator Wiener’s bill, as a co-author, so that these organizations can once again receive donations from cultivators and help patients treat their symptoms and maintain the best quality of life possible.”

Jesse Stout of the San Francisco State Cannabis Legalization Task Force and Greenbridge Corporate Counsel broke down how the movement to restore compassionate care programs in California all began, exclusively to Cannabis Now.

Stout represents The Green Cross, whose founder Kevin Reed serves alongside Stout on San Francisco’s task force. The dispensary was one of the first retail cannabis establishments in the most pioneering medical cannabis city in the nation. “The Green Cross has been a leader in the compassion wing of the medical cannabis movement for many years now — longer than anyone else currently operating as a retail storefront in San Francisco,” Stout told Cannabis Now.

According to Stout, through the work of he and Reed have done on the task force, they were aware of the plight of compassion operators “who not only do these programs but do them totally for free.”

Stout said California voters don’t just want stores giving away medicine, they also want the diverse ecosystem of compassion operators that existed just a year ago.

“When we first heard about Prop 64, and there [was] something in there about patients being exempt from taxes, that sounded great!” said Stout. “Now fast forward to 2018, there are tax exemptions, but it turns out it’s only the sales tax.”

Stout said they first raised the notion of adding additional tax exemptions for compassionate care programs with Weiner’s staff early in the year at a task force meeting to discuss potential ideas for improving cannabis law and implementation at the state level. Since then, the task force has devoted many meetings on how to improve this current plight of compassion operators while hearing testimony from many.

California NORML, which supported Prop 64, is also backing this effort.

“California NORML has heard from many veterans, seniors, and disabled Californians, who are alarmed and often desperate by the effect that newly enacted laws have had on compassionate medical cannabis programs that benefit indigent patients,” said Ellen Komp, Deputy Director of California NORML. “We thank Senator Wiener for introducing language to protect indigent patients whose access to compassionate programs has been put in peril as a result of unintended consequences of newly passed laws.”

The New York City-based Drug Policy Alliance applauded Weiner’s bill as a common-sense solution.

“We support allowing compassionate programs to provide free medical marijuana to patients in need without being burdened by taxes,” said Tamar Todd, Director of Legal Affairs at DPA. “This bill provides a straightforward, common sense solution to an urgent problem impacting many suffering patients in the state.”

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