The Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana survived a raid by federal agents and other existential threats while providing free and low-cost cannabis to seriously ill patients. In operation for the past three decades, the Santa Cruz-based collective is the oldest example of a "compassionate care" program in the nation.
Now, the program and others like it could be forced to close due to an unlikely reason: legalization.
Under state regulations that went into effect Jan. 1, compassionate care programs must collect taxes on the market value of cannabis that they give to patients. Many of these programs say they cannot afford the taxes nor the cost of state and local permits required to obtain cannabis from legal growers.
The threat of closure due to the requirements of legalization is a painful irony for the state’s compassionate care programs. Images of AIDS patients receiving free weed in San Francisco and cancer patients subjected to the federal raid in the Santa Cruz mountains helped build public support for medical marijuana, and laid the groundwork for today’s commercial cannabis market.
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“Victory was built on the backs of human suffering,” said Valerie Corral, a Wo/Men’s co-founder. “Unfortunately, compassion is not financially appealing in this market.”
Ralph Trueblood of Wo/Men’s added: “We’re saving lives. Do not tie our hands.”
Officials at the Bureau of Cannabis Control last week declined to comment. However, the bureau and two other state agencies responsible for cannabis regulation – the Department of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Public Health are expected to consider recommendations to help the programs.
Compassionate care programs often run as freestanding organizations dedicated to the treatment of a specific illness or group of people. For instance, the Caladrius Network was founded by a Placer County resident who wants to help children like his son who suffer from a life-threatening form of epilepsy.
Weed for Warriors provides cannabis to military veterans across the state who cannot pay for it themselves. Members say cannabis helps with post-traumatic stress disorder, pain and other problems while avoiding highly-addictive opioids prescribed by doctors in the federal health-care system.
“Cannabis gave my vets hope back,” said Sean Kiernan of Weed for Warriors. “The state of California has taken that hope away.”
Some dispensaries, including A Therapeutic Alternative in Sacramento, also have compassionate care programs. Like the freestanding programs, dispensary-based compassion programs provide cannabis to low-income patients with serious illnesses.
Dispensary programs also face obstacles to donating weed, including taxes. Those taxes include a 15-percent state excise tax, local sales taxes that are about half that amount, and other local, pot-specific taxes.
Figuring out a way to make donating pot economically feasible “needs to be a top priority,” said Kimberly Cargile of A Therapeutic Alternative. “We need to take care of this right now.”
Many compassionate care programs have closed, stopped providing cannabis or gone underground since Jan. 1, according to members of the California Compassion Coalition, which recently was formed to fight for change in state laws and regulations.
“What is holding us back is the current taxation on donated medicine,” said Josef Airone of Sweetleaf Collective, which treats Bay Area AIDS and cancer patients. “We gave away approximately 120 pounds of cannabis last year. To do that this year, we will need to pay $200,000 In taxes. This is not feasible.”
The California Compassion Coalition has asked that taxes be charged on the actual cost of goods, not the market value, or waived altogether. They made that and other requests last week in Sacramento during subcommittee meetings of an advisory body of the state’s three cannabis regulatory agencies.
Subcommittee members stressed that taxation likely falls out of the regulatory authority of the agencies and would have to be taken up by the Legislature. A recommendation was made that the agencies ask for legislative help.
One area where the agencies can act without legislation is the need for compassionate care program participants to have a state medical marijuana recommendation card. Advocates say relatively few people have obtained the cards because of the long wait needed to get them through county health departments and asked that a regular doctor’s recommendation suffice.
The Bureau of Cannabis Control regulations require patients receiving free pot to have a state-issued medical marijuana card. The cards allow patients to get a break on sales taxes, 8.25 percent in Sacramento, but they also cost as much as $100, depending on the county.
The coalition also wants the state to create an affordable license for compassionate care programs. Currently, cannabis donations can only be made by holders of business licenses that cost thousands of dollars, depending on the type of permit and where the program is located.
Shirley Stewart, who treats her cancer with cannabis, told subcommittee members last week that people like her need help desperately.
“People with serious medical needs are being pushed aside,” she said. “We need your help and we need it now.”