When Will Compassion Programs Be Legal (Again)?

It should not be this difficult to give sick people free cannabis.

One of the more underreported stories in the wake of California’s legalized cannabis industry is the collective failure of California state legislators — and specifically, the failure of one former governor — to correct what amounts to a loophole in the language of Proposition 64.

Essentially, the track and trace system established by Prop. 64 to monitor cannabis sales across the state makes no distinction between cannabis sold for profit and product donated to what are commonly known as compassionate care centers.

These locations provide pot to those with valid medical complaints who could otherwise not afford to purchase it. Unfortunately, under the rules of Prop. 64, the growers, manufacturers, and transporters who provide these centers with cannabis are still being charged a 25 percent sales and excise tax.

Prior to full legalization in 2018, generosity was a cornerstone of the medical cannabis age. The cost of donating and delivering product was one many mom and pop operations (though there wasn’t really any other kind back then) could incur. Adding in a 25 percent sales and excise tax on top of the free product already being donated, however, is an expense many simply cannot absorb.

Nor should they.

The concept of compassionate care has its roots in the work of early Bay Area activists like Dennis Peron and “Brownie Mary” Jane Rathbun, who saw the medicinal value of cannabis in treating those suffering from HIV and AIDS. Given those afflicted were eventually unable to work (a situation already made difficult due to prejudice over sexual orientation), the only option was to find a way to give people cannabis at a greatly reduced cost — or outright free.

This effort, which birthed the modern cannabis reform movement, has always been, at its core, a fight to ensure sick people have access to medicine. That’s why some of the movement’s earliest proponents — like Peron — opposed Prop. 64, which they saw as legislation guided by greed, not compassion.

“We called Proposition 215 the Compassionate Use Act,” Peron explained to Merry Jane in 2016. “What is theirs called? The Adult Use of Marijuana Act. This sends the wrong message.”

The state’s refusal to amend their mistake on taxing compassionate care donations nearly two years into legalization is an insult to the legacies of individuals like Peron who risked their freedom (and in some cases, their lives) to get pot in the hands of those who most desperately required it.
Former California governor Jerry Brown had a golden chance to make things right before he left office last fall. With a Sept. 30, 2018 deadline to sign or veto any outstanding bills on his desk, Brown opted to veto SB 829, which would’ve established a tax exemption for qualified compassionate care programs.

Brown’s muddled logic for turning down the bill was that SB 829 “undermines” the intent of the voters in approving Prop. 64. Brown’s choice to hedge and hide behind technicalities was a devastating blow for a group of people who could least afford it. Speaking with Cannabis Now in the wake of the news, former California Growers Alliance executive director Hezekiah Allen called the veto “unconscionable.”

Undeterred, California State Senator Scott Wiener — author of SB 829 – pledged to try again.

His second effort, SB 34, is named the Dennis Peron & Brownie Mary Cannabis Compassion bill. When he introduced the legislation in April, Wiener explained the choice of the bill’s namesakes, crediting Peron and Rathbun as “heroes in our community, in San Francisco, who were some of the progenitors of the medical cannabis movement.”

As of Friday morning, SB 34 was still sitting in the suspense file of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

To some extent, there is always a certain amount of avoidable bureaucracy intrinsic to the business of turning a bill into law (Schoolhouse Rock is here to help if you need a refresher). Yet waiting for SB 34 to eventually land on Gov. Newsom’s desk is an unappetizing proposition. Even if all signs point to slow but smooth sailing, the time has come for Newsom to show a little spine and encourage SB 34 to the finish line.

In some sense, it’s the least the former San Francisco mayor can do after talking such a big game during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign about his role in getting Prop. 64 passed. He deserves praise for signing AB 97 — which extended the lifespan of provisional permits — but things never should’ve gotten to a place where AB 97 was necessary, either.

A similar situation presents itself with SB 34. The good news is that the right answer could not be more obvious. There are no winners if SB 34 fails, only sick people that can’t afford medicine.
It’s not a situation unique to cannabis by any means, but given it’s one that can actually be solved with the mere swish of a pen, it’s high time for action.

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