Compassionate cannabis use moves forward

The Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act allows dispensaries to donate cannabis to financially disadvantaged people

Images from iStock

Somewhere along the way, the compassionate giving of cannabis disappeared.

During the complex 2017 negotiations that transformed California’s Proposition 64 into law, politicians made it difficult for businesses to give cannabis away to medical patients in need. Facing stiff taxes on any donation, licensed operators backed away from donation programs, which forced some patients to return to the unregulated cannabis market for affordable medicine.

But Senate Bill 34, a new law written by state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco, brings compassionate giving back. Known as the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Compassionate Care Act, the law eliminates all taxes on cannabis donated to financially disadvantaged people with serious health conditions.

SB 34 also honors two early medical cannabis advocates from San Francisco, Dennis Peron and Mary Jane Rathbun, nicknamed Brownie Mary. Signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last October, SB 34 took effect March 1.

“Compassion programs save lives by providing free medicine to people in need,” Weiner said in a 2019 press release. “We should not burden these programs with taxes meant for businesses, and we should not force people with serious health problems onto the unregulated cannabis market.”

Under the implementation of Prop. 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, in 2019, all medical-era cannabis collectives were phased out. This forced patients to shop at adult-use dispensaries and pay the same taxes as recreational users. Medical patients could buy a California ID card, avoiding the state sales tax. But the card costs $100 annually and still doesn’t exempt buyers from the cultivator’s tax at $9.65 per ounce, the 15% excise tax or local sales taxes.

“The roots of our state’s thriving cannabis industry began in compassionate care,” said Josh Drayton, communication and outreach director at the California Cannabis Industry Association. “Since 1996, compassionate care programs have been able to donate medicinal cannabis to low-income Californians with a valid medical recommendation, including veterans with PTSD, cancer patients and individuals suffering from HIV and AIDS.”

But with layers of added-on taxes, as much as 45% in some locations, these financial hurdles continued to push low-income medical patients out of the adult-use market. With no other alternative to acquire inexpensive medicine, some patients compromised on their personal safety and sought relief with cheaper untested products from the illicit market.

“Due to an oversight in how Prop. 64 was drafted, these not-for-profit donation programs … are now being forced to pay taxes meant for businesses,” Wiener said in a statement, while working to get SB 34 passed.

Businesses cannot take a charitable tax deduction for making donations. Instead, SB 34 relieves them from paying additional taxes just to donate.

“Prior to Prop. 64 we would give a quarterly gift bag carefully curtailed to a patient’s needs,” said Danny Kress, manager at Sacramento’s A Therapeutic Alternative dispensary. “But after 64, that was no longer possible.”

So who were Dennis Peron and Mary Jane Rathbun?

Peron was a San Francisco cannabis activist who sold pot out of his storefronts in the city’s Castro District. In 1991, he worked to pass Proposition P, a resolution asking the state to permit the use of medical cannabis. Four years later, Peron co-founded the Cannabis Buyers Club, considered America’s first medical cannabis dispensary.

Famous for saying, “Every cannabis user is a medical patient, whether they know it or not,” he was arrested twice for his activism, but Peron continued to work tirelessly to legalize medical cannabis. He went on to co-author Proposition 215, which legalized medical cannabis in 1996, and ran for governor of California in 1998 as a Republican against an old adversary, state Attorney General Dan Lundgren.

But Peron did not support the recreational use of cannabis. He believed that accepting the taxation of cannabis to get legalization would hurt the medical movement.

“We believe in plants,” he said in 2009, “and I don’t think we should have to tax ourselves to get it to be free.”

Honored as “the father of modern medical cannabis” by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Peron died of respiratory failure in 2018.

As a fellow medical cannabis activist, Rathbun was a hospital volunteer also from San Francisco and known for distributing cannabis-infused brownies to AIDS patients. She met Peron in 1974, when sharing a joint with him at Café Flore. Soon after, Peron was selling Rathbun’s homemade brownies in his grocery store.

She was first arrested for possession of marijuana in 1981, at the age of 57, when the San Francisco press nicknamed her “Brownie Mary.” For her crime, she was sentenced to 500 hours of community service, which she served by volunteering at thrift stores, soup kitchens and the Shanti Project, a human services nonprofit working on the emerging AIDS crisis.

After noticing that cannabis helped both AIDS and cancer patients, Rathbun used her monthly Social Security checks and cannabis donations to bake hundreds of brownies that she gave to those in need. Two additional arrests didn’t stop her advocacy. She co-authored Proposition P with Peron and continued to speak publicly about the positive impacts of medical cannabis.

Rathbun spent her last days in a nursing home and later died of a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 76. At her memorial service in the Castro District, San Francisco supervisor Terence Hallinan called her “the Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement.”

Now that the law named after these pioneers in the medical cannabis movement is in full swing, dispensaries such as NUG on 16th Street in Sacramento plan to implement on-site education programs to teach members about responsible cannabis use for ailments such as PTSD.

At A Therapeutic Alternative, Kress said the dispensary’s compassion program offers a 40% discount on all products to those who qualify and that it is also working to coordinate its compassionate giving relationships with providers by utilizing the state’s Track-and-Trace System, which will be able to provide products to members with the most need.

“We are extremely excited to be an example of how we can best serve the communities we love,” Kress said. “It reminds us all, business owners, consumers and advocates alike why we are here and why we continue this fight.”