Berkeley Patients Group Is the Past, Present, and Future of Cannabis

BPG co-founder Etienne Fontan looks to build on BPG’s latest milestone.

As part of a celebration commemorating the 20th anniversary of Berkeley Patients Group (BPG) — the nation’s oldest continually operating cannabis dispensary — a number of prominent political figures shared their good wishes during a celebration on Oct. 1. Congresswoman Barbara Lee entered the occasion into the official Congressional Record, while State Senator Nancy Skinner awarded BPG a California resolution and Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin issued a special proclamation.

“It was, needless to say, an honor,” says Etienne Fontan, co-owner of BPG. “It’s humbling because we never expected to hit 20 years, honestly. We were always anticipating we’d be arrested at any moment, so there was really no vision for 20 years down the line.”

To be certain, in the years before Proposition 64 legalized adult-use cannabis across the state, the prospect of being on the radar of politicians or city officials wasn’t necessarily a welcome one for Fontan and BPG. Back in the early days, he recalls the necessity of “drills” in the event of an unexpected visit from police officers or firefighters.

“That was the reality of what we were constantly up against,” he tells SF Weekly. “If a fireman or a paramedic saw something illegal going on, they had to actually notify the police, so we had to practice shutting down the business and covering up the counters to be ready.” 

It was Oct. 31, 1999 when Berkeley Patients Group founders Jim McClelland, Don Duncan, and Debby Goldsberry were issued a Miscellaneous Use permit by the City of Berkeley. Between the founding of BPG that year and the precedent established by the Cole Memo in 2013, legal protections for dispensaries in California were few and far between.

In 2002, Fontan and Duncan subsequently founded Americans for Safe Access, a Washington, D.C. organization that advocates for improved medical access to cannabis for all Americans. During his tenure with BPG, Fontan has also played an instrumental role in advocating for testing standards and helping with discoveries related to identifying the cannabinoids we now know as THC and CBD. The former came about as a result of Fontan — a military veteran who suffers from Gulf War syndrome — ingesting tainted cannabis that caused an upper respiratory infection.

“For me, this is my medicine,” he says, “so if I got sick from it, that’s a concern. I’m also giving this to cancer and AIDS patients. That’s when BPG tried to reach out and find out where testing was available.”

This was back in 2009. Unable to find suitable options, Fontan formed a team that devised an extraction methodology that allowed for the desired elements of cannabis to be suspended in fluids, thus making it eligible to be accepted by laboratories (which legally cannot take vegetable matter for testing). Creating a solution where none existed has been the modus operandi for BPG.

Though McClelland died in 2001 as a result of complications from AIDS, Fontan says the late founder’s vision continues to guide every move BPG makes — even the ones that have often put their operations at risk of legal trouble.

“We came from the AIDS crisis,” Fontan says. “We’ve never forgotten Jim or where we’ve come from. We’ve never forgotten the human aspect of what we do. We don’t know if today is someone’s first day or if it’s their last day, so we treat them with respect.”

As a nonprofit built on the concept of patients helping patients, the concept of giving it forward has thus always been integral to BPG’s operations. Despite their memories of rehearsing to avoid detection, Fontan says his organization now welcomes politicians and members of the cannabis industry to visit, observe, and use BPG’s blueprint as they see fit.

“We wanted people to take our model,” he says. “Harborside took our model. Our model has been basically replicated all over the world.”

To commemorate their 20th anniversary, BPG has also announced the “$1MM for Good” initiative, which will split a total of $1 million across 10 local nonprofits over the course of a decade. During the festivities on Oct. 1, checks for $5,000 were presented to the recipients, which includes the Berkeley Free Clinic and Supernova Women.

“I am thankful for the work and tireless advocacy of the Berkeley Patients Group,” Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin said in a statement. “Their commitment of contributing $1 million to organizations that are lifting up our residents shows that their roots have always been about doing what is best for the community.”

Created in partnership with the City of Berkeley’s “10 Year Improvement Plan,” Fontan says that the concept of BPG’s newest initiative mirrors everything the organization has stood for in its two-decade history by striving to both help people in need while also providing a blueprint and encouraging others to follow suit.

“Not everybody can give 1 million dollars in a year,” he says, “which is why we stretched it out over 10 years. We’ve always been leaders, so we wanted to give a model that others could take and run with.”

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