Pubdate: Wed, 03 Sep 2014
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2014 The New York Times Company
Author: Ian Lovett


BERKELEY, Calif. - Since the birth of the Free Speech Movement half a 
century ago, this city has prided itself on its liberal values and 
policies, be they generous benefits for the needy or a 
look-the-other-way attitude toward marijuana use.

Now, the city is bringing those policies together with a new amenity 
for the poor here: The marijuana will be free.

Beginning next August, medical marijuana dispensaries in this city 
will be required to donate at least 2 percent of their cannabis to 
low-income residents. The City Council approved the requirement this 
summer - unanimously no less - with the hope of making the drug, 
which can sell for up to $400 an ounce at dispensaries, affordable 
for all residents.

But the charity cannabis mandate, which city officials believe is the 
first such law, provoked a swift backlash from critics who mocked it 
as a tie-dyed fantasy in a city already famous for liberal experiments.

"Instead of taking steps to help the most economically vulnerable 
residents get out of that state, the city has said, 'Let's just get 
everybody high,' " said John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California 
Narcotic Officers' Association.

Mr. Lovell said the free marijuana would sap patients' motivation to 
look for work - after all, it is not a drug known for encouraging 
anyone to get off the couch - and could easily be resold on the 
street for profit by people who are short on money.

"I don't see anything progressive about that," Mr. Lovell said.

Tom Bates, the mayor of Berkeley, said the city was simply trying to 
ensure equal access to a drug he emphasized was medicine, useful for 
treating cancer pain and other maladies.

"There are some truly compassionate cases that need to have medical 
marijuana," Mr. Bates said. "But it's expensive. You hear stories 
about people dying from cancer who don't have the money."

Mr. Bates, a former state legislator and football player at the 
University of California, Berkeley, has also championed home brewing 
and organic vegetables on school menus. As for medical marijuana, 
"it's a novel ideal to have it available to the poor," he said. 
"Berkeley is sort of known for doing new things."

Nearly 20 years after California became the first state to legalize 
medical cannabis, Berkeley's new law highlights a paradox of 
marijuana as medicine: Whether it is sold illegally on the street or 
legally in a dispensary, access to the drug depends almost entirely 
on whether you can pay for it.

Almost anyone with $40 to spare can find a doctor who will prescribe 
cannabis to treat insomnia or migraines or low appetite or something 
else (but especially insomnia).

Yet, because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, insurance 
companies refuse to cover such treatments, which can run to hundreds 
of dollars per ounce for designer strains like All Star Sonoma Coma 
at local dispensaries.

It is not as if marijuana, medical or otherwise, is tough to find 
here, amid the vegan restaurants in downtown Berkeley and the smoke 
shops on Telegraph Avenue.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Joseph Skyler, an undergraduate at 
the university here, sat on the street with a group of homeless men, 
who were making trinkets and jewelry to sell to tourists. He was 
smoking marijuana that he said had been prescribed to him for insomnia.

"I believe in living a certain kind of lifestyle that's very stress 
free," Mr. Skyler, 23, said. "I've noticed that just from smoking, 
everyone calms down."

No one else sitting with him had a medical cannabis card, though that 
had hardly stopped them from smoking marijuana. Mr. Skyler said they 
should all have access to medical marijuana.

"These people deserve it," he said. "A lot of these guys have the 
same problems I have."

At least in the San Francisco Bay Area, where marijuana is more 
socially accepted than cigarettes in some circles, an informal 
network already exists to help low-income people obtain medical 
cannabis. Across the bay in San Francisco, David Theisen, 56, has 
relied on what he calls "compassion," a popular term for free medical 
cannabis, to deal with insomnia.

After moving to the city several years ago, he quickly learned the 
compassion schedule at several dispensaries, which give away a few 
dried-out buds to the first comers once or twice a month. When one 
dispensary cut back, said Mr. Theisen, a former line cook who remains 
unemployed, he started going days without sleeping.

"I can't afford to buy it, but my need isn't any less than anyone 
else's," he said.

The compassion system has now been formalized in Berkeley, where city 
officials aim to provide low-income patients with a more reliable 
supply of medical cannabis. Only Berkeley residents are eligible for 
the free marijuana, and they must show proof of income (less than 
$32,000 a year for individuals).

Dispensaries, which are prohibited by California law from turning a 
profit, will also have to hire security guards to patrol nearby, in 
order to deter crime (though, true to Berkeley's character, the 
guards will not be allowed to carry firearms).

One of the city's largest dispensaries, Berkeley Patients Group, 
already gives away marijuana to patients who cannot pay. One of them 
is Arnie Passman, a poet and longtime Berkeley activist, who has been 
a recipient for about a decade; he could not remember exactly how 
long, nor was he entirely sure what condition his prescription was 
meant to treat.

"It could be for my allergies, or my arthritis - you know what 
happens to us folks: We forget," Mr. Passman, 78, said. "I can give 
it a blanket 'I feel better.' It helps me get going in the morning."

But Sean Luse, the dispensary's chief operating officer, worries that 
the city mandate could lead to resale on the street. Currently, about 
100 people, not all of them Berkeley residents, receive free 
marijuana from Berkeley Patients Group, representing about 1 percent 
of the drug the facility dispenses. The new law will now compel the 
dispensary to give away about twice as much.

"No one has really quantified the legitimate demand; they just set 
the 2 percent threshold out of thin air," Mr. Luse said. "Are we 
going to be forcing medicine on people just because it's the law? 
There could definitely be a financial incentive for folks to resell it."

Mr. Bates, the mayor, acknowledged that resale was possible, but he 
waved away the question of whether there was enough demand.

"There's a huge demand - we could make it 20 percent," he said.

He said he was more concerned with trying to regulate the safety and 
quality of the cannabis, which is not tested or standardized by the 
state, and varies substantially from one dispensary to another.

Unlike the low-grade varieties often handed out by San Francisco 
dispensaries, the free cannabis under the law in Berkeley must be of 
the same quality as the marijuana that customers pay for - ideally, 
grown organically, Mr. Bates said, without any pesticides.

And despite the mocking from outside city limits, on the streets of 
Berkeley, no one voiced much objection to the new law.

"If you believe marijuana is medicine, then helping low-income people 
purchase the medicine they need kind of makes sense to me," said Bill 
Green, 49, who works for a solar energy company.

He added that there was "probably a lot of use of medical marijuana 
by people who don't really need it," but that he saw an easy fix to 
that problem: full legalization.

If the city's mandate is another step toward legalization for 
recreational use, Mr. Bates said, then so much the better.

"I think what we're seeing now is an evolution towards full 
legalization," he said. "It's coming. It may not be in the next few 
years, but it's coming."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom