The Berkeley Patients Group has distributed free medical cannabis for years to low-income patients. A new law passed by the Berkeley City Council codifies this and requires dispensaries to give away 2% of its cannabis to the poor. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Berkeley’s medical marijuana dispensaries must provide 2% of their cannabis free of charge to very low-income residents under a law passed unanimously by the City Council earlier this month.

Individual patients who make under $32,000, or families that earn less than $46,000, qualify for the complimentary cannabis. The law further requires that the free marijuana “be the same quality on average as Medical Cannabis that is dispensed to other members.”

“We were happy with that,” said Charley Pappas, a member of the city’s Medical Cannabis Commission. “It gets the council and the mayor focusing on patients. There should be access to the best medicine and the poorest people shouldn’t be excluded.”

Following the decision, national media proclaimed, “Berkeley out-Berkeleys Berkeley” and declared the arrival of “weed welfare.”  Many of the articles were long on hyperbole and short of the facts, since the new law may not force dispensaries to radically alter their business models. Many of them already give away free medical cannabis.

“It’s not an uncommon practice” to voluntarily provide free cannabis to needy patients, said Pappas, who used to own a dispensary in San Francisco.

Berkeley Patients Group (BPG) on San Pablo Avenue and Cannabis Buyers Club of Berkeley (CBCB) on Shattuck Avenue, two of the city’s three dispensaries, previously had programs that distributed free marijuana to low-income clients. Furthermore, the law only applies to Berkeley residents, who typically make up only 25% of a dispensary’s clientele.

“We do this on our own, so we certainly welcome the city mandating that all dispensaries create these sorts of programs,” said Sean Luse, chief operating officer of BPG.

Cannabis being inspected at Berkeley Patients Group. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Luse estimated that the dispensary, which has hosted a program for low-income patients since it opened in 1999, typically gives away 1% of its cannabis. He questioned whether the 2% requirement was appropriate.

“I do think there could be problems if we’re oversupplying demand and giving away more cannabis than is legitimately needed,” he said. “We’ll see how this plays out.”

The commission’s initial proposal asked dispensaries to give away 1% of their marijuana, but the council decided to double the amount, Pappas said.

The 2%, by weight, is determined by mandatory half-yearly calculations of the amount of marijuana distributed to all members.

In the same July 1 vote, the council approved a fourth dispensary for the city, three and a half years after residents voted on Measure T in support of the additional dispensary.

Pappas applauded the council’s approval of a fourth dispensary.

“They perpetuated the status quo for years when they put a moratorium on additional dispensaries,” he said. “It displays their attention, finally, to medical cannabis distribution in Berkeley. With another dispensary, [medical marijuana] will be cheaper, because there will be more competition.”

The Medical Cannabis Commission had recommended approval of up to six dispensaries in Berkeley, but the council decided to revisit the request next year.

At a previous council meeting on June 17, council members praised the commission’s work on recommending revisions to the cannabis ordinance.

“The work you’ve done here is thorough and honorable — but ongoing,” Councilman Max Anderson said.

Berkeley Council: Let’s add fourth dispensary (06.08.14)
Berkeley will again consider a 4th cannabis dispensary  (06.03.14)
Berkeley delays decision on fourth dispensary (09.20.13)
Berkeley to consider 4th medical cannabis dispensary (09.17.13)
Berkeley delays fourth medical cannabis dispensary (06.13.13)

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...