When the movement for medical marijuana gained mainstream traction in California in the ’90s, the basis was apparent; suffering people – particularly with debilitating, life-threatening, and life-ending conditions such as AIDS and cancer – should be able to legally and freely access the healing that cannabis was already providing many of them through heroes like Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary. The Compassionate Care programs, which provide free or extremely low-cost medicinal cannabis to people in need, became able to operate more openly after the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996. After serving as a critical healthcare source in the state for over twenty years, the vast majority of Compassionate Care programs have shut down in California in the past year, the victims of the overburdening and inflexible regulations, and short-sighted tax structure of Proposition 64. The Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act (SB-34), which was introduced by Senator Scott Weiner and quickly passed the state legislature, was signed into law on October 12, 2019, by California Governor Gavin Newsom. The goal of SB-34 is to remove the oversight in the regulations instituted by legalization in 2018 that taxes compassion programs at the same rate as for-profit businesses, which raised costs by over 500% in some cases, effectively forcing almost all of them to shut down. Nugl will regularly be reporting on the battles for a system in California, and throughout the country, that prioritizes the needs of some of the most vulnerable and desperate members of the population.
Zach Kuchera is the CEO of Circadian farm in Mendocino County and has provided “literally tons” of cannabis to compassion programs, according to his longtime collaborator, Compassionate Cannabis hero and provider Joe Airone of Sweetleaf Collective. He and other compassion providers had to halt their programs when Proposition 64 passed with no regulations or tax exemption in place to sustain them. “When Prop 64 passed, it came to a complete halt, and medical marijuana and compassion programs – which are really one and the same – were all left in the dust. Nothing was really there to go by, let alone do because there was no protection written into any of the laws for the programs.” The lack of any regulatory loopholes for his and other programs meant that there was no way to legally run them without prohibitive costs, so they unfortunately closed. Now that SB-34 has passed, he says the mood among farmers who had previously supported the programs has grown optimistic, as they hope to get medicine back into the hands of the suffering and needy as soon as possible. “ Everybody is super ecstatic about the fact that the bill passed, and that Governor Newsom was willing to do what Governor Brown wasn’t, despite being on his way out of office.” He is referring to previous Governor Jerry Brown, who vetoed an earlier version of SB-34 before leaving office, claiming it left open too many potential tax loopholes for bad actors. “Things are definitely looking on the up and up, and everyone is excited that we’re not looking at just for-profit cannabis; that we can start treating it as a medicine again, as it was when legalization started in 1996.”
Zach notes that the struggles of the compassion program have not been covered regularly in media around the state. He suggests that members of the cannabis community who want to be sure that the programs are being re-implemented and maintained should pay attention to updates directly from those who directly operate and fight for them. “A bunch of people got left in the dust, and you don’t hear anything about it in even local media, let alone national publications.” Reliable news can be easier to find on social media accounts of direct providers, such as his old friends and collaborators at Sweetleaf Collective, who regularly update their feeds with important news. Donations to Sweetleaf also go entirely to the costs of providing cannabis to patients. We’ll explore a bit more of the history and future of Sweetleaf Collective in our next report on Cannabis Compassion.