The Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act (SB-34) has overwhelmingly passed a California Senate vote, and was sent to the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom on September 18th, 2019. Governor Newsom now has until mid October to decide whether to sign it into law or veto it.
SB-34 was introduced and co-written by State Senator Scott Weiner, who represents the 11th Senate District that includes San Francisco. He has been a leader in the state legislature on cannabis and other progressive causes like net neutrality, renewable energy and LGBTQ issues.
“The purpose of SB-34 is to ensure that legalization doesn’t kill off compassion programs and access to cannabis by low income people,” he explains. “When Prop 64 passed, I supported it, and many people supported it. The goal was to bring the industry into sunlight and have regulation, taxation, and a safer, healthier industry. What inadvertently happened was the imposition of approximately 25% taxes on compassion programs that have no revenue because they simply donate cannabis to low income patients.”
“The result is that these compassion programs are closing down and people are losing access to cannabis because they can’t afford retail prices for cannabis, so they are either resorting to the illicit market, which we don’t want, or they’re just not able to access their medicine,” he continues. “It’s a bad situation, and SB-34 will help rectify it.”
A Brief History of SB-34
A previous version also sponsored by Senator Weiner, SB-829, passed the State Senate, but was vetoed by former Governor Jerry Brown, ostensibly over concerns about misuse by bad faith cultivators who would claim that their entire crops were for compassionate use, creating a tax shelter for commercial crops. Many skeptics, however, considered that an unlikely scenario under California’s comprehensive track-and-trace system, in which each plant is registered for cultivation tax and regulatory tracking. Governor Newsom has traditionally had a positive relationship with and toward the cannabis community, but Senator Weiner isn’t counting on anything just yet.
“I don’t know if he will sign the bill. We worked with the administration on it, and made some amendments based on the feedback they provided,” he says. “He hasn’t taken a public position though, so I don’t know what he’ll do.”
This bill and its authors, sponsors and supporters represent what they hope is part of a local and national movement to return the cannabis industry to the medicinal and communal roots that are its basis for existence. It may also serve as a defining test of Governor Newsom and his relationship to cannabis.
Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary
The namesakes of the bill are legendary in the history of cannabis, healthcare, and California. Dennis Peron established the first dispensary in California in San Francisco in the 1970’s, and is widely considered the father of medical marijuana. Brownie Mary Rathburn dealt medicated brownies openly in San Francisco until a bust in the early 80s, when she went temporarily underground. Both pushed their public activism—and by extension the California cannabis movement—into overdrive in response to the AIDS epidemic of the early 90’s as it devastated the San Francisco gay community, of which Peron was a proud member, leader and organizer. Brownie Mary also further solidified her name and eternal reputation during this period, courageously providing illegal medicated brownies to her terminally ill ‘kids’ at great personal expense.
After one bust in 1992 she told the San Jose Mercury, “I make them for the worst of the patients, the ones on chemotherapy and the ones totally wasting away. I pick out the worst of the worst and turn them on.” They were contemporaries, neighbors, friends and collaborators from 1974 until Mary’s passing from a heart attack in 1999. Dennis Peron remained a tireless activist for cannabis and other causes until he passed in 2018 at the age of 72.
Proposition 215, aka The Compassionate Use Act, was conceived and co-authored by Peron. Passed in 1996, that bill legalized medical marijuana in California. For the next twenty years, “Compassionate Access Programs” thrived in a statewide network of generosity that provided free cannabis to those that couldn’t afford to purchase or otherwise access the medicine they needed. Under that system, cultivators were able to freely and directly provide cannabis to anyone in need with a medical card. Since Proposition 64 passed, cultivation, transfer, distribution and delivery are taxed with no exception for charitable or compassionate use.
John Entwistle, surviving husband, partner and collaborator of Dennis Peron, and close friend and co-conspirator of Brownie Mary breaks down the intent of SB-34: “The bill says that if the pot is free, so are the taxes.” Entwistle, who also co-wrote Proposition 215, is a supporter of SB-34, and sees it as part of the response to a number of negative side effects caused by Proposition 64 and ‘recreational legalization’.
“What the system of taxation and regulation has done in the short term is to make pot in California more expensive and harder to get than it’s been in decades. Particularly hit by this are medical users who are low-income and poor, because suddenly they’ve been locked out of the market and they can’t get medicine anymore,” he says. “Programs that used to collect pot from growers to give away for free, they basically all closed this year because of the tax problem.”
The increased difficulty also, he believes, creates a danger of increasing the amount of people using alcohol to manage pain and stress, and a corresponding increase in drunk driving, which has dropped over the years in California as access to cannabis increased since Proposition 215. The implication is that Proposition 64 has counterintuitively made cannabis less accessible for some.
The Shelter Project at Jetty Extracts is a Compassionate Access Program that’s been providing free cannabis products to cancer patients since 2014. Prior to Proposition 64, they were providing about 500 patients with high quality oils in multiple forms at a total cost to them of about $10-20,000 a month. Under the tax burden of Proposition 64, providing the same amount of patients with free medicine would cost the program over $100,000 a month. Lindsey Friedman, the founding and current director of The Shelter Project, has also worked with groups like Operation Evac and Weed For Warriors to provide free medicine to veterans physically and psychologically afflicted by their involvement in America’s past and current wars.
“People’s lives were dramatically affected and improved by these programs,” she says. “Some people’s tumors completely stopped growing, people that weren’t able to eat or sleep, people who were on multiple narcotics and heavy pain pills [saw improvement]. When they suddenly weren’t able to get our oils, I started getting calls about tumors returning and conditions worsening.”
As Senator Weiner fears, Friedman says many of their former patients are either turning back to prescription pills or illicit markets to try to manage their symptoms, or trying to manage unmedicated. Recent media reports, public concern and legislative hysteria around tainted vape carts show that the risk of resorting to illicit markets in California sometimes isn’t just about getting lower quality products.
The Shelter Project is one of the fortunate few compassion programs that have been able to remain operating, thanks to their status as growers, which cuts out one very expensive step in the taxation and transfer process. They’ve also been able to work around the Prop 64 ban on direct conveyance by partnering with Eaze’s delivery service and Harborside Dispensary as providers in some areas. Others, like Sweetleaf, have restarted maintained operations by securing private donations to cover their tax bills and continue to provide cannabis free of charge to those in need. Even so, this has meant a dramatic reduction in the amount of patients the programs have been able to help. The Shelter Project currently reaches 50 patients a month, a far cry from the 500 they were previously serving.
Keeping Medical Marijuana Accessible
Other important oversights in Proposition 64 that SB-34 aims to correct involve the burdens it added to the process of patients getting medically licensed. Proposition 64 mandates MMICP (Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program) licensing for all medical patients, whereas under Proposition 215, most medical patients needed only a doctor’s recommendation. An MMICP card can require multiple visits to their local County Public Health Department, which some patients have called ‘horrific’, describing wait times of up to three hours in stressful environments that would be arduous even without the physical and social discomforts that many patients are already combatting. The Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act would reinstate patients ability to enroll in compassion programs with just their doctor’s recommendation.
Some issues that patients face since Proposition 64 won’t necessarily be solved by SB-34. Second amendment issues may not be a priority for many cannabis consumers or California voters, but they do tend to be for military veterans, who are a large constituency of Weed For Warriors, Operation Evac and many other compassion providers. California regulations do not allow medical cannabis patients to own firearms, which forces many veterans to choose between their constitutional right and their ability to access medicine. Another new regulation outlawed the ability of collectives to offer local delivery by bicycle, which has curbed direct for many collectives and programs that operate locally in urban areas, particularly in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Joe Airone is the founder of Sweetleaf Collective, and has been providing free cannabis to low income folks in California since legal Compassionate Access began in 1996. In his view, SB-34 is just the beginning of the process of recodifying the intentions and sacrifices of his friend and mentor Dennis Peron and the cultural heroes who inspired him, like Brownie Mary.
“What Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary were doing in the 80’s and 90’s changed the way people started thinking about cannabis. And now we’re kind of regressing, because it’s in the mainstream now, and the mainstream often thinks of it as similar to alcohol.”
He is concerned that in particular, many politicians see cannabis regulations as akin to ‘sin taxes’ applied to alcohol and gambling, rather than as a plant that provides crucial relief for countless suffering people, with extremely rare instances or potential for abuse. Airone believes that while many involved in the regulatory process are well intentioned, more inclusiveness, perspective and foresight when implementing Proposition 64 was needed.
“When Prop 64 was being written, nobody talked to any of the nonprofits involved that did compassion [programs], none of us were invited to the table when they drafted the law,” he explains. “It was all big business [people], and everybody had dollar signs in their eyes.”
While he recognizes that many people are driven by a need and desire to make money, the people that are the very basis of the movement that Dennis Peron, Brownie Mary and so many others sacrificed and struggled for cannot be disregarded. “The problem is that the millions [of dollars] people are making is coming at the expense of the people that are the reason we have legal cannabis in the first place. It’s at the expense of low-income, terminally ill patients who now do not have access to their cannabis because of legalization.
Entwistle believes that SB-34 is an early referendum on Governor Newsom, the former mayor of he and Peron’s hometown of San Francisco, and who has only been in the governor’s mansion since January 2019. “It’s about the reputation of Gavin Newsom,” Entwistle says, “And when we look back on the Newsom governorship, what are we going to say? If he signs this thing, we’re going to say he was a good governor who started off by doing the right thing. If he doesn’t, there’s going to be a lot of questions about him.”
Airone adds that the broader issue this bill is addressing is not specific to California, and doesn’t end there, or with SB-34: “When we looked at Colorado and Washington [since legalization], we realized that medical and compassion programs were also disappearing in those states.”
Colorado has seen a significant drop in the number or medical card holders since 2014, with familiar reports of astronomical price increases and new regulatory burdens. In Washington, the only operating compassion program that Sweetleaf could find is run in Seattle by Have a Heart, a dispensary chain. The struggle to reinstitute compassion programs in those states continues, and must, in the view of Senator Weiner be a feature of future legalization campaigns and legislation.
“These compassion programs are so important for people who are extremely vulnerable; low income and suffering from significant health problems, whether it’s HIV, veterans with PTSD, people with cancer… You have to make sure that as you legalize, you don’t kill off the programs where it all started.”
Ultimately, most of the activist caregivers we spoke to are cautiously optimistic about Governor Newsom signing the bill. Since long before Dennis Peron shared his first joint or Brownie Mary gave away her first brownie, compassionate sharing of cannabis to help the sick and suffering has been an intrinsic part of human and cannabis culture. The fearless legacy of all those involved in this movement to re-establish that culture and freedom in the US is continued by John Entwistle, Joe Airone, Lindsey Friedman and their contemporaries throughout the state and country. For the first time since taking office, Governor Newsom has an opportunity to establish himself in the history of that compassionate cannabis movement.
“Everybody is hopeful,” Friedman concludes, “I do have a little apprehension because of [Governor Brown’s veto of] SB-829 when it seemed like such a no-brainer to sign the bill and put medicine back in people’s hands. But when cannabis was first legalized, it was for compassionate use, and the people who have been involved in the compassionate cannabis movement are all in it for the long haul.”
“No matter what happens, we’re gonna be here to keep working to create a better space for cannabis in the future.”