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Without Compassion, Cannabis Doesn’t Work: California’s Fight for Patients in Need

Updated: Jul 10, 2019

November 9, 2018

Cannabis prohibition isn’t ending because of the massive profits to be made growing and selling the plant. Or because the war on cannabis is racist, oppressive, counterproductive, and an astounding waste of resources. Or because cannabis is far safer than alcohol. Or because George Washington used to grow hemp.

We’re creating an economy around the cannabis plant that will make the rich richer, mint a few billionaires, and leave behind the poor and sick.

All those things have always been true.

So what did spur the era of legalization? People started risking arrest and imprisonment to provide this healing herb to the sick and dying.

The modern medical cannabis movement in America began in San Francisco, in the early 1990s, as a response to the AIDS crisis then decimating the city. Spearheaded by heroic figures like Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary, a tight-knit network of grassroots activists worked tirelessly to change the laws against cannabis via political campaigns and voter initiatives, while simultaneously subverting those very same laws by breaking them openly.

All too often, this civil disobedience strategy resulted in armed raids. Peron—who opened California’s first compassion club—was shot by the police and did several stints in prison. Mary Jane Rathbun (aka “Brownie Mary”) was arrested at least three times for giving away pot brownies to patients in AIDS and cancer wards.

Ironically, it was these confrontations with authority that caused word to spread far and wide about the therapeutic potential of cannabis. Individual patients also began stepping forward to tell their stories to friends, family, and the media.

That’s what changed everything.

Kind of an Asshole

Outgoing California governor Jerry Brown has always been kind of an asshole when it comes to cannabis. Not as much of an asshole as Jeff Sessions, but definitely way less cool on the issue than you’d expect from a guy nicknamed Moonbeam, who dated Linda Ronstadt back in the 70s.

While whole-plant cannabis is often the most effective and the most cost-effective medicine available, no health insurance plan available in the United States covers it.

“How many people can get stoned [in California] and still have a great state?” Brown once asked (presumably rhetorically) on national television. “The world’s pretty dangerous. We need to stay alert, if not 24 hours a day, then more than some of the potheads might be able to put together.”

Geez, tell us what you really think, Jerry.

Still, it came as a surprise to many cannabis activists when Governor Brown recently vetoed SB 829, a bill passed by the state legislature that would have restored “compassionate giving” to California’s cannabis program.

Since January 1st, all legal cannabis entities have been required to pay “use taxes” on cannabis they give away. That cannabis must also go through the same costly “track and trace” process as cannabis that will be sold. As a result, many growers and retailers have shut down or severely cut back their compassion programs.

“Providing free cannabis to a person with only a doctor’s recommendation undermines the intent of the voters,” Brown wrote in a brief letter explaining his veto.

But to believe that, you’d have to believe that voters in California wanted to legalize cannabis sales to healthy adults, while preventing cannabis donations to seriously ill people who could not otherwise afford it. Which is far too many people, by the way. While whole-plant cannabis is often the most effective and the most cost-effective medicine available, no health insurance plan available in the United States covers it.

California state senator Scott Wiener—who sponsored SB 829 in the state legislature and shepherded it through passage in both houses—has vowed to reintroduce the bill next year, when a new governor will hopefully sign it into law. Meanwhile, Big Pharma is hoping to get their prescription CBD drug to market next year as well, at a cost of $32,500 per patient per year.

The War on Compassion

The Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) in Santa Cruz, California was founded in 1993 by Mike and Valerie Corral after they discovered that cannabis helped control Valerie’s otherwise debilitating seizures. Following a pair of arrests for cultivating their own supply, the then-married couple started a collective to help others facing the same struggle.

WAMM went on to play a leading role in the passage of Prop 215, while growing from a small group of determined citizens into a working model of a compassionate collective that provided hundreds of seriously and terminally ill members with cannabis for free or on a sliding scale.

After two prior local arrests resulted in zero convictions, in 2002 dozens of armed DEA agents raided WAMM’s garden and arrested Mike and Valerie on federal charges. Ten days after the raid, on the steps of City Hall, with the mayor of Santa Cruz and other public officials by their side, WAMM defiantly distributed medical cannabis to its terminally ill members, daring the DEA to arrest them again—this time in front of the assembled community and a huge media presence.

After the DEA failed to intervene, WAMM (with support from the ACLU and the City and County of Santa Cruz) successfully sued the Department of Justice. Except for that brief stretch following the raid, they never stopped distributing cannabis to their members.

Until January 1st of this year.

That’s when the collective was forced to close down until they can figure out a way to maintain their commitment to compassionate giving while still adhering to the state of California’s new regulations.

“After a generation of providing compassionate cannabis to our community, it’s crushing to witness its absence in today’s laws,” according to Valerie. “Legalization hasn’t eliminated pain and illness, but it has made access to cannabis more and difficult for those who need it and can’t afford to pay. WAMM’s cannabis service has been thwarted for 10 months, but we still meet weekly. Because people need more than medicine, we need each other. And we expect to open again soon. We provided more than $250,000 worth of free cannabis in 2017, and we can do even better next year.”

“It All Came From Healing Ourselves”  

Just as the AIDS crisis gave rise to the first wave of civil disobedience in the medical cannabis movement, an epidemic of suicides among US combat veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan inspired that community to cultivate and distribute their own medical cannabis, as an alternative to the barrage of pills typically provided to those diagnosed with PTSD.

In 2011, Jason Sweatt and fellow vet Aaron Newsom started Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance (SCVA).

“When Jason and I first started cultivating cannabis together we found that it had such a therapeutic benefit we were able to cut back or eliminate a lot of prescription drugs given to us by the VA.”Aaron Newsom, Santa Cruz Veteran's Alliance

“Initially, the entire cannabis community was a compassion-based community, back when we were all doing our work in the shadows,” Newsom tells me as we check in on SCVA’s latest crop. “When Jason and I first started cultivating cannabis together we found that it had such a therapeutic benefit we were able to cut back or eliminate a lot of prescription drugs given to us by the VA. We also found ourselves with an excess of cannabis, so we just started helping out other local vets we knew through that community. Which grew from supplying one or two other people to having about seven hundred vets currently enrolled in our program. But it all came from healing ourselves and wanting to share that with others.”

Although SCVA is now a for-profit business, compassionate giving has always been at the heart of their mission. And despite Governor Brown’s veto of SB 829, they continue to provide free cannabis to veterans with a doctor’s recommendation, even though they must pay the full cultivation tax on what they give away.

Qualified applicants for SCVA’s compassion program come to a Monday night meeting held at the local VA building, where they’re given a voucher for eight grams of Kosher Kush, redeemable at the organization’s nearby dispensary. All cannabis distributed by the SCVA is grown at their fully licensed 5,000 square foot indoor cultivation facility and then lab tested and packaged in accordance with state law.

Newsom estimates they currently give away about four pounds of cannabis every month, which would bring in around $120,000 per year if sold at regular retail prices. He says the compassion program not only makes potentially life-saving medicine available to those in desperate need, it also opens a doorway for them into a community of mutual support and understanding.

“There’s guys who show up at our meetings, who have PTSD or severe brain injuries and almost never come out of their houses,” Newsom says. “They show up to get their free cannabis, but they also stick around to spend time with other people who understand what they’ve gone through, and how they feel.”

A Typical Money Grab

Lately, it’s become necessary for all citizens to consider how we became a nation that bullies and abuses its most vulnerable communities, but careful observers of the war on cannabis have long had a sneak peek of what a policy of administrative cruelty looks like—no-knock raids in the middle of the night, children torn from their parents’ arms, draconian prison sentences for victimless crimes, cancer patients left to puke their way through chemo when a few puffs could help tremendously.

And now, in California, and every other legal state, we’re moving from war to peace without any accountability whatsoever for the terrible injustices perpetrated by the government, the medical establishment, the media, and every other institution of society complicit in this oppressive system. We’re creating an economy around the cannabis plant that will make the rich richer, mint a few billionaires, and leave behind the poor and sick. Instead of being held up as models of compassionate care, pioneering organizations like WAMM and SCVA must struggle to fit their higher ideals into a typical capitalistic money grab.

Which is all a very big mistake.

Because cannabis doesn’t work without compassion, and neither does society.


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