SF Weekly: Scott Wiener and Compassionate Care

June 7, 2018

By Zack Ruskin

There are many flaws to be found in Proposition 64, but one of the most egregious oversights was a failure to ensure that compassionate-care programs would not be taxed out of existence. These not-for-profit programs, which provide free cannabis to seriously ill and disadvantaged patients, preceded the modern marijuana industry. Before there were snazzy dispensaries and designer vaporizers, San Francisco’s pot was largely provided for free by the likes of activist Dennis Peron and others who saw the merit in using marijuana as medicine.

Proven to ease the ailments of those suffering from AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and other illnesses, cannabis remains vital for those who can’t afford to pay rising retail prices. In what a press release from the office of Sen. Scott Weiner describes as “an ambiguity in the drafting of Prop. 64,” the law currently does not allow for cannabis to be designated for compassionate use. This means marijuana that retailers or cultivators donate to compassionate care patients is unable to avoid hefty state taxes.

Wiener wants to amend this error with SB 829, a bill that would ensure compassionate-care programs are not required to pay state taxes intended for businesses. Announced on May 24, SB 829 has already received the support of organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance, Cal NORML, and Weed for Warriors.

Speaking with SF Weekly, Wiener concedes that in the push to legalize cannabis, the fate of compassionate-care programs was overlooked.

“It’s an issue that I had heard a little bit about during the Prop. 64 campaign,” he says, “but we were also focused on the bigger picture of just getting cannabis legalized, so it didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. This year, we’ve started following the issue and looking at how to solve it.”

Wiener says that while the patients he’s spoken with haven’t lost their access to compassionate care yet, “they see it coming.” He’s also heard from several collectives that have been forced to close their doors since the taxes were implemented at the start of 2018. Prior to introducing SB 829, Wiener says his initial hope was to rectify the oversight by amending the state’s budget.

“That’s the easiest way to get stuff like this enacted,” he explains, “but that didn’t happen. So as soon as we saw it wasn’t going to go into the budget, we introduced the bill.”

So how will SB 829 work should it become law? In essence, it calls for the creation of a non-commercial license that qualified compassionate-care programs can operate under. Once California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control certifies a program, it can then receive untaxed donations of cannabis and distribute it to patients.

In addition to the outside support of cannabis policy groups, SB 829 is co-authored by Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg). Wiener also shares that he is garnering bipartisan support within the state Senate.

“We’re going to have several Republican co-authors come onto the bill, as well as Democrats,” he says. “This is definitely not a partisan issue.”

SB 829 is far from the first time Wiener has engaged in cannabis-related policy. Back in November, he criticized San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors for proposing zoning rules that he saw as an indirect effort to limit the number of dispensaries in the city.

He believes that things have improved in the months since he expressed his concerns.

“I think things are progressing in the city,” he says. “We were able to work with the Board of Supervisors and come up with zoning for cannabis that wasn’t my ideal approach but is certainly much better than what was originally proposed. It was a positive step.”

Speaking of the steps that will need to be taken in order to truly solidify the regulations and policies surrounding legalized cannabis, Wiener acknowledges that bills like SB 829 are but one of many changes that will be required before the industry can truly flourish.

“Legalizing cannabis was step one,” he says. “There’s going to be significant cannabis-related policy work happening for years and years. I’m confident that it will be a central issue in the legislature every year. It’s definitely an issue that’s important to me, that’s important to San Francisco, and that we’ve got to get right.”