Berkeley mulls proposal to provide free medical marijuana

July 3, 2014

If approved, measure would require dispensaries to give away 2 percent of all medical cannabis to low-income patients. 

If a new proposal passes a final City Council vote next week in Berkeley, California, poor and low-income medical marijuana users in the city will no longer have to worry about how to afford their next high.

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to change its laws to require marijuana dispensaries to give 2 percent of the amount of cannabis they sell each year to low-income medical users for free.

The 2 percent would have to be the same quality of medical marijuana a dispensary would sell to paying customers.

The change in rules would also allow Berkeley to open another dispensary, bringing the city’s total number to four.

“Basically, the City Council wants to make sure that low-income, homeless, indigent folks have access to their medical marijuana, their medicine,” Berkeley City Council Member Darryl Moore told CBS San Francisco.

“We think this is the responsible thing to do for those less fortunate in our community,” Moore added.

The fourth dispensary would also help the city meet its growing demand for medical marijuana.

“There’s definitely a need for more dispensaries in Berkeley,” Charles Pappas, a member of the Berkeley Medical Cannabis Commission, told the East Bay Express. “This was really important.”

Berkeley will vote on the fourth dispensary as the federal government moves forward with a plan to close one of the city’s most prominent ones — Berkeley Patients Group, which has been giving away marijuana to needy patients for 15 years.

“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,” Sean Luse of Berkeley Patients Group told CBS.

The dispensary will return to court later this year to fight to stay open.

Pappas said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has already closed 11 dispensaries in San Francisco and has been trying to do the same across the Bay Area. While medical marijuana is legal in California, the federal government still considers pot an illegal substance — that despite several states legalizing marijuana for both medicinal and recreational purposes over the past few years.

According to unofficial estimates, there are more than 1,000 dispensaries throughout California, but there is no official number because dispensaries are not required to identify their type of business when they register for a sales permit, and they do not have to categorize the types of products they sell, according to the California State Board of Equalization. That ambiguity has left dispensaries in the state, much like Berkeley Patients Group, vulnerable to shutdown orders.

Obtaining a permit to legally use marijuana in California only requires that a registered doctor “prescribe” or “recommend” it to a patient — who doesn’t even have to be a state resident. The cost of a medical marijuana ID card varies from county to county, and all patients on Medi-Cal, the state's low-income health insurance program, receive a 50 percent discount on the fee.

In Alameda County, where Berkeley is located, medical marijuana cards cost $103.

The three dispensaries in Berkeley offer a wide range of marijuana products — including edibles, such as marijuana cookies; dissolvable strips that go on the tongue; and traditional marijuana plants in different flavors. Prices range from $15 to hundreds of dollars, depending on the product.

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