While the rest of California continues to adopt tight restrictions or bans on medical marijuana, the City of Berkeley is headed in the opposite direction.
The Berkeley City Council voted July 1 to require that medical weed dispensaries provide free pot to low-income patients. Under the new policy, dispensaries will be required to dedicate at least 2 percent of their annual product to patients who can’t afford the drug.
The weed has to be high quality, too. According to the ordinance, “medical cannabis provided under this section shall be the same quality on average [as cannabis] dispensed to other members.”
Council Sets Income Caps
“It’s sort of a cruel thing that when you are really ill and you do have a serious illness . . . it can be hard to work, it can be hard to maintain a job,” said Sean Luce of the Berkeley Patients Group, a pro-marijuana advocacy organization. “And when that happens, your finances suffer and then you can’t buy the medicine you need.”
The free weed will be available to single patients who earn $32,000 or less, and to families. A family of four, for example, would have to earn $46,000 or less to qualify. In addition, patients must be exempt from paying local taxes. The city council will determine future income levels each year.
Ordinances in California must usually pass two votes by local leaders, a preliminary vote, or “reading” of the law, and a second reading. The new ordinance still faces a second vote. The policy is set to take effect in August.
Council Looks for Fourth Dispensary While Setting New Rules
At the same time, the council is looking for a new legal medical marijuana dispensary for the city. Council members voted last month to approve a fourth pot shop. They adopted several other industry regulations as well.
The council voted in June to continue allowing patients to smoke up in dispensaries – a relatively rare provision in California. Members also imposed mandatory testing of cannabis edibles made in Berkeley (though not edibles from other places). And they set a new 9 p.m. closing time for pot shops.
Council members said they wanted to provide free medical weed to help patients without the money to buy it – including homeless residents.
“Basically the city council wants to make sure that low-income, homeless, indigent folks have access to their medical marijuana,” said Council Member Darryl Moore.
Dispensary Already Giving Weed Away
At least one pot shop, Berkeley Patients Group, was already giving pot away to low-income customers, said Sean Luse, chief operating officer for the MMJ collective.
“We’ve found out over the years that one of the cruel realities is that when you do get sick and you have a serious illness is that it’s often hard to keep a job, can be hard to keep your income up, so those people really need the help the most,” Luse said.
Berkeley imposes a strict limit on the number of legal shops, but it’s a relatively open city when it comes to medical weed. Other communities in the Bay Area have banned dispensaries or tightened the rules that govern them.
There are many illicit dispensaries in the city, most of which don’t pay cannabis taxes. It’s not clear whether these shops would play along with the new rule, which is in line with Berkeley’s famous liberalism.
“We think this is the responsible thing to do for those less fortunate in our community,” Moore said.