Sweetleaf Keeps Compassionate Care on the Map

For 25 years, Joe Airone’s collective has provided free cannabis to disadvantaged and critically ill patients.

Joe Airone has spent much of his career avoiding the press at all costs. As the founder and central figure of a California nonprofit devoted to putting free cannabis in the hands of patients who need it most, operated under the belief that the system worked best without undue attention. 

Founded in 1996, Sweetleaf Cannabis Collective is broken in two distinct epochs: before and after Prop. 64.

“Before, during Compassion 1.0, we would go to farms, pick up the donation, bring it back to the base, package it up, and then we would deliver it to our patients’ homes as a lot of them have mobility restrictions,” Airone, who goes by Sweetleaf Joe, explains. “That’s why home delivery is really important and helpful. And then Prop. 64 happened and there was no nonprofit license category, so we had to change everything up.”

Prop. 64’s failure to carve out an exception for cannabis donated for compassionate use meant that, beginning in 2018, California would require Airone to pay taxes on the cannabis he delivered in order to stay above board. It was an existential moment for the future of compassionate care cannabis in the state; the omission inspired lawmakers and industry leaders alike to demand a proper fix.

Initially vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, SB 34 — known as the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Compassionate Care Act — was signed into law by his successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, in March 2020. While the success of the bill was unquestionably vital for the efforts of outfits like Sweetleaf Cannabis Collective, Airone also notes that the time in between the creation of the legal snafu and its solution came with consequences.

“That window of time when we had to sort this stuff out,” he recalls, “that came at the expense of human life. When Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 829, which was the first incarnation of SB 34, he sentenced people to death.” 

Airone quickly clarified that while he fully believes Brown made the choice “unconsciously,” the result was a loss of access to free cannabis for extremely disadvantaged and ill patients. In some cases, he insists, losing access to medicinal values of cannabis and not being able to effectively treat symptoms like loss of appetite or severe pain shortened the lives of some patients.

“I’m not trying to say he’s a bad person,” Airone added, “but we hope the public and the government will learn from this tragedy and never repeat that mistake again.”

Even with the victory of SB 34, Airone’s collective is still unable to operate as a “plant-touching” business. As a cannabis nonprofit working in the wake of Prop. 64, Sweetleaf has been forced to pivot, and now functions as a central hub to connect cultivators, manufacturers and sectors of the industry with disadvantaged patients suffering from serious health conditions.

“What I’ve been telling people,” Airone says, “is that if they have a compassion program, focus on your patients. Don’t worry about sourcing donations — your specialty is working with patients — let me source donations for you.”

Despite having to fully restructure how his collective operates, Airone still is helping people get access to compassionate care cannabis however he can. So far this year the company has surpassed its initial goal to help distribute $1 million worth of cannabis. As a result, Airone has now doubled the goal total to $2 million, with proceeds going toward funding disadvantaged medical cannabis patients as well as paying their employees more.

As part of those efforts, Airone encourages donations to a GoFundMe campaign he created to ensure Sweetleaf Cannabis Collective is never again in such peril. (To donate, scan the QR code below.)

That’s why he is now — after more than 20 years of flying as low as possible — finally talking to the press.

“We’ve seen what happened to compassion programs in the nonprofit sector in states that legalized before California, like Oregon and Washington and Colorado,” he says. “Their compassion programs all disappeared. The nonprofit sector disappeared in all of those states. The thing is, that looked like it was a growing trend, which is why it was so important for us to address it now.” 

Thankfully, he says, SB 34 accomplished a major aspect of that mission.

“The big win with SB 34 is that it’s the first time a governmental entity as large as the state of California has acknowledged the nonprofit sector in cannabis. It’s never happened before and because we did that, we’re seeing ripple effects around the country. Now they’re talking about the MORE Act and legalizing on the federal level. Thanks to the work that we did, cannabis nonprofits and compassion programs are being invited to the table to craft this new legislation.”

For Airone, it boils down to one thing: saving peoples’ lives. Whether that means launching a branded lighter donation campaign in dispensaries across the state or partnering with folks like the East Bay delivery service Padre Mu to get product in patients’ hands, Airone says he is determined to get the job done.

“This year marks our 25th anniversary,” Airone says. “I’ve seen all of the changes this industry has undergone. I’ve been here for the whole roller-coaster ride and we’re still here.”


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