Compassionate use

Homeless advocates say cannabis helps ease the everyday stresses of sleeping outdoors and can replace more harmful addictions. Should organizations help the unhoused gain access to medicinal cannabis?

Cannabis advocate Tracey Lola hands out pre-rolls to homeless folks at Cesar Chavez Plaza.

Cannabis advocate Tracey Lola hands out pre-rolls to homeless folks at Cesar Chavez Plaza.

Photos by Ken Magri

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On any given night in Sacramento County, an estimated 5,570 individuals are homeless. It represents a 19% increase over last year’s count, conducted by Sacramento Steps Forward. Although the number was expected to be higher this year, due to improved data-gathering methods, 5,570 is a lot of people, and 70% of them sleep without shelter.

Like other Sacramentans, homeless people use cannabis, too. It begs a series of questions, however, about why they use it, how they afford it and whether it could help curb addictions to stronger drugs. To find out, SN&R sought out homeless people in several locations and spoke with them.

Sacramento native Josh Morris said he has been homeless in the suburbs for 12 years, since he was 19. A skateboarder then, he was sponsored by DC Shoes. Asked how he fell into homelessness, Morris laughed and said, “It’s a long story.”

Morris smokes cannabis daily. “In the morning, when I hit a bowl, it helps me automatically to focus on my routine, with hygiene and all,” he said.

Cannabis also helps him with knee pain from an old skateboarding injury and back pain that comes with sleeping on the ground.

“After 12 years out here, without marijuana I would go insane,” Morris said. “It’s hard to get to sleep some nights. I catch myself walking around like a doughnut. So, when I smoke, it helps me with my nerves.”

Morris said he recycles cans and bottles for cannabis money. Although he has been inside a dispensary, he buys cannabis on the black market “because you can get more for cheaper.”

Jennifer Donaldson said she has been homeless since her car broke down in Sacramento five years ago. She said she smokes cannabis infrequently because it makes her paranoid.

But she has regularly used edibles, especially when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer six years ago, just before becoming homeless. “My husband noticed I was in pain all the time, and nothing seemed to help. The opioids wouldn’t help,” she said.

By experimenting, Donaldson learned how to make cannabis edibles that were effective. “It helped me to eat and keep things down,” she said. “It helped me to put on weight, and it helped me to move more.”

But the edibles didn’t get her “high, or out-of-sorts,” as she puts it. “I didn’t feel giggly. I just felt like everything was doable,” she said. “Once you’re able to get up and walk around, it gets your mind off things.”

While homeless, Donaldson has found cannabis plants inside people’s garbage cans, leftovers from backyard harvests.

Could medicinal cannabis actually be helpful to homeless people?

Jennifer Donaldson became homeless five years ago after her car broke down. She says she used edibles to cope with the pains associated with cervical cancer.

“Living on the street without safe shelter is a constant stressor on the central nervous system, body and psyche,” said Amy Farah Weiss, who ran for San Francisco mayor in 2015 and is director of the St. Francis Challenge, which offers homeless services. “Cannabis can be an effective ’exit drug,’ as opposed to a ’gateway’ to harmful substances,” Weiss told SN&R.

She explained that meth, heroin and alcohol are often used by homeless people as “coping mechanisms” for physical and emotional distress. But over the years, these drugs take their toll.

“Cannabis, on the other hand, is a medicinal therapy that can provide temporary relief for a stressed nervous system, won’t cause fatalities or physical dependencies,” Weiss said.

“I bring a dozen high-CBD cannabis mini-cones with me and offer them to people when they are visibly agitated or ask me for something,” Weiss said. “Generally, people are very appreciative and become visibly more relaxed just by being offered cannabis.”

Although there have been previous attempts, there are currently no organized efforts in California to give free cannabis to the homeless.

Senate Bill 34 was introduced last December by Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat. It would allow cannabis businesses to donate to patients for compassionate use, without paying excise taxes on that donation. The bill is currently stuck in committee in the Assembly.

But individual donation of cannabis is perfectly legal, and some Sacramentans have taken to the streets to do just that.

Dan Bernick, a retired teacher, gives out joints at Christmas time. Two years ago, on a cold December morning, he said he was approached by a man leaving the Denny’s restaurant on Richards Boulevard.

“I see what you’re doing, and that is so cool! I would help you, but I have to go to work,” Bernick recalls the man as saying.

Tracey Lola, a 43-year old cannabis advocate, regularly passes out pre-rolls to the homeless. “Happy Cannabis Day. Would you like a joint?” she recently asked people while circling the sidewalks of Cesar Chavez Park with an outstretched pre-roll.

A few turned down her offer, but most accepted it with gratitude.

“You made my day!” said Nicole, a homeless woman who only wanted to give her first name. She credits cannabis with keeping her away from alcohol. “You know, it works pretty well.”

Lola takes the time to speak with each person she encounters. David Bridgeman, a homeless man camping on the east side of City Hall, told her that cannabis helps with his nerves, his shoulder pain and sleep. David Bledsoe, who said he has been homeless for 11 years and also stays near City Hall, agreed that it takes some of the edge off of living on the streets.

Lola, who credits cannabis with helping her own depression as a youth, said that people are not apprehensive when she approaches them.

“Homeless people are the best at reading your energy,” she said. “I get a lot of people’s smiles. Just a ’thank you’ and a smile.”

And that seems to be enough for Lola, Bernick, Weiss and others like them.