Senator Wiener Announces Bill to Save Compassionate Care Programs that Provide Free Cannabis to People with Serious Illnesses

November 29, 2018

San Francisco –  Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced his intent to re-introduce a bill to exempt compassionate care programs from paying state commercial cannabis taxes when they are providing free medical cannabis to financially disadvantaged people living with serious health conditions. This bill is modeled off of Senator Wiener’s SB 829, which was vetoed by Governor Brown in September. Due to an oversight in how Prop 64 was drafted, these not-for-profit donation programs that have been serving medical cannabis patients for decades are now being forced to pay taxes meant for businesses, which are forcing these charity programs to shut down.

Following the passage of Prop 215 in 1996, which legalized medical use of cannabis in California, not-for-profit compassionate care programs started providing free cannabis to financially disadvantaged individuals with medical cannabis prescriptions for illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and other life-threatening conditions. Retailers donate the cannabis to these programs, which then provide the cannabis free to patients who are already struggling under significant medical expenses.

With the enactment of Prop 64, which legalized adult use of cannabis in California, taxes were put in place for both adult use and medical use of cannabis. These taxes were designed to apply to all cannabis that enters the commercial market. Compassionate use cannabis does not enter the market because it is neither bought nor sold. However, due to an ambiguity in drafting of Prop 64, there is no way for cannabis designated for compassionate donations to avoid the cultivation, use, and any local tax. That means that retailers or compassionate care programs are forced to pay high taxes on a product that is donated, effectively crippling the compassionate care programs and leading to mass closures of these donation-based programs.

“This is about ensuring low income people can access their medicine,” said Senator Wiener. “Compassionate care programs save lives, and we should help them thrive instead of forcing them to pay taxes intended for businesses - taxes that are shutting these programs down. We need to correct this oversight in Prop 64 and help people living with serious conditions like HIV and cancer obtain the medical cannabis they need.” 

“Compassionate care is essential to ensure that low-income Californians who rely on medical cannabis to treat their health conditions have access to a no-cost medical cannabis program,” said Senator Nancy Skinner (D- Oakland). “No-cost medical cannabis, pioneered by Bay Area dispensaries, has played a critical role in patient care.”

This bill exempts all donations of cannabis and cannabis products to patients holding a valid physician’s recommendation or a medical identification card from the use and cultivation taxes enacted by proposition 64. It will also allow compassionate care programs to facilitate donations from a licensed retailer, thereby allowing them to restart this service without facing the prohibitive costs. 

 “Since the beginning of this year, low income terminally ill patients, children, veterans, and seniors have been kept from receiving free medical cannabis,” said Joe Airone, founder of the Sweetleaf Collective, which has provided medical cannabis to people living with HIV/AIDS since 1996. “This bill will reopen the door of cannabis compassion to those who need it most. The time is now. Lives are on the line.”

“There are people in my community who would not be alive today were it not for access to cannabis,” said San Francisco District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.  “I want to thank Senator Wiener for taking this important step to make sure compassionate care programs can keep their doors open and continue to provide relief for the people who need it most.”

Representatives from The San Francisco Office of Cannabis, the California Cannabis Industry Association, California NORML, Eaze, Operation EVAC, and Weed for Warriors were all present at the press conference in support of this legislation. 

The legislation will be officially introduced on December 3rd when the legislature begins the 2019-2020 legislative session.