Bay Area Cannasseur: For collective, legal pot could put wrinkle in free program

  • by Sari Staver
  • Thursday January 4, 2018
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More than 150 low-income terminally ill people in the Bay Area could lose their supply of free cannabis under new government regulations that have not carved out rules enabling collectives to donate pot to medical cannabis patients.

For the past two decades, longtime activist Joe Airone has been distributing fresh flowers to patients in the Bay Area, including many gay men diagnosed with HIV or cancer.

Airone, 41, a straight ally, launched Sweetleaf Collective in 1996 after Proposition 215 legalized medical marijuana, with pot donated from growers in Humboldt County. He asked farmers to donate the "shake," or trim, from their plants to people in need.

"We used the same model as Food Not Bombs, which takes waste from the produce industry to distribute to homeless people. We copied the model," said Airone in a telephone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

At first, Sweetleaf donated several pounds of cannabis to some five to 10 patients. By last year, Airone had delivered over 100 pounds to more than 150 people in the Bay Area. The patients all had medical cannabis cards, and Airone verified their diagnosis with their physician to be sure the people most in need were helped.

But when Proposition 64, which legalized adult recreational use, was approved last year, Airone worried that the program he built from scratch might be in jeopardy. Recreational cannabis began being sold in California January 1; sales are expected to begin in San Francisco Friday, January 5.

The issue, according to Airone, is that neither the state nor the local laws enable a collective to apply for a license.

"We want to continue to operate legally," said Airone, but without a license, he fears his distributions to patients could be considered illegal.

Local officials said the situation is murky.

"It's a gray area," acknowledged gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who is a medical cannabis patient and uses pot to treat his HIV-related symptoms.

Sheehy, one of the authors of the city legislation to regulate recreational cannabis sales, added amendments to the law "to provide for free or low-cost medicine for patients that need it," he said in a phone interview with the B.A.R. "While the state finalizes its regulations, I remain committed to fighting for patients."

Airone's attorney, Patrick Goggin, a senior lawyer with the Hoban Law Group, shares Airone's concerns but is optimistic that the program will find a way to continue. Goggin, whose firm specializes in cannabis-related issues, has represented Airone and Sweetleaf for the past six years, he told the B.A.R. in a telephone interview.

Goggin hopes a solution can be found, such as Sweetleaf partnering with a licensed retail dispensary.

"I've planted a few seeds that I'm watering and hope one of them will grow," he said, referring to contacts he has made with colleagues in the industry.

"These are challenging times. People are overwhelmed with paperwork to get geared up for all of the new requirements to be legal," he said. "I'm an optimist and hope that Joe's program will be able to continue. It would be heartbreaking if it couldn't."

Steve Stevens, a 64-year-old gay man, agrees with Gogan. Stevens, who was diagnosed with HIV 15 years ago following his partner's death from AIDS in 1984, has been the recipient of Sweetleaf medical cannabis for the past 10 years.

"I live on a fixed income and don't know how I'd obtain cannabis otherwise," said Stevens in an interview with the B.A.R. "It has been an enormous help" to alleviate the side effects of the HIV drugs, he said, "to say nothing of helping with stress and depression.

"I am so grateful to Joe and the wonderful people who deliver my medicine," added Stevens. "If it is legal to distribute methadone, why not pot?" he asked rhetorically.

In an email to the B.A.R., Sheehy referred to a section of the city law that says "retailer may operate a compassion program in which it provides medicinal cannabis and/or medicinal cannabis products at no or nominal cost to low-income individuals who are qualified under California Health and Safety Code Sections 11362.7 et seq. to use medicinal cannabis."

Additionally, the law states that cannabis cultivation facilities and cannabis manufacturing facilities "may provide medicinal cannabis and/or medicinal cannabis products at no or nominal cost to storefront cannabis retailers for distribution through a compassion program."

"The door is open for compassionate access," said Sheehy, adding that it was a priority for him to make sure that the city clarifies the regulations so that programs like Sweetleaf are able to continue.

Medical patients interested in receiving cannabis or donating money to the collective can contact Airone at [email protected]. Licensed retailers who might be interested in partnering with Sweetleaf can contact attorney Patrick Goggin at mailto:[email protected].

Bay Area Cannasseur runs the first Thursday of the month. To send column ideas or tips, email Sari Staver at [email protected].