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Charity Case: Berkeley Is Mandating That Poor People Can Get Free Medical Marijuana. S.F. Is Not on Board. 

Wednesday, Jul 16 2014

Before there was medical marijuana, before there was legalization talk, there was free weed.

It began here, and it began with AIDS.

There are a few happy stories to come out of the dark days of AIDS in the 1980s. One is the woman who roamed the ward at San Francisco General Hospital, where the gay men were dying in droves, giving out cannabis-laced brownies.

The treats baked by Mary Jane Rathbun (yes, her real name) gave real, tangible, and visible relief to people modern medicine had failed. "Brownie Mary" and people like her helped turn public opinion in time to convince voters to make medical marijuana legal in 1996.

There are days when San Franciscan Mike Hinkle could use a Brownie Mary. Scoliosis keeps the Tennessee native, 52, in his wheelchair most days. Mobility isn't his biggest problem, though — it's money. The pot that Hinkle says makes life tolerable is expensive, and since he lives off a Social Security check, he has to rely on unreliable charity to get ahold of marijuana. "If I had to spend money on cannabis," he says, "I'd spend more than my whole check."

Most San Francisco dispensaries, especially when they're trying to get a city license, offer something called a "compassion program." You hear the word "compassion" a lot in the medical weed movement — it's code for "free weed" supposed to be reserved for the poor, elderly, disabled, and military veterans whose government benefits don't extend to pot.

Sometimes, "compassion" nets Hinkle a free eighth a week. Other times, he scores a few joints or a brownie, or a scraggly gram. There's really no guarantee, he says, and "sometimes, it's not even worth going down there to pick up."

If he lived in Berkeley, things would be different. The three pot clubs there are now required to give away weed.

The equivalent of 2 percent of what is sold over the counter is reserved, free of charge, to those of modest means under new rules approved by the Berkeley City Council this month. And it cannot be schwag charity: The free weed must be of "the same quality on average" as the OG Kush sold for $50 an eighth.

Free marijuana: It's the law.

This doesn't do Hinkle much good, as Berkeley residents and the pot clubs' current members have first dibs. In San Francisco, where pot shop operators are doing so well that some are filing paperwork to open second locations, activists have been pushing for a similar measure for years. Results have been mixed, limited, and don't appear to be improving anytime soon.

In 2007, then-Supervisor and now-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi authored a resolution — nonbinding, of course — urging dispensaries to set up compassion programs.

Most did, and most claim a robust program to this day. "If you don't have one," one Mission Street dispensary manager says, "you'll get run out of town."

However, some very generous compassion programs ended when the hosting dispensaries shut down during the federal Justice Department crackdown in 2011. Now, with the industry roaring again and feds seemingly backing off, "You should probably be able to get, oh, an eighth a week," says David Goldman, a retired mathematics teacher and Castro resident who's spending his golden years on weed activism.

Income and medical verification should be involved, he says, but a $50 sack for poor folk is the least most pot clubs can do.

That's not good enough for Shona Gochenaur. The city's best-known weed rabble-rouser — whose crew, Axis of Love, is notorious for jamming city meetings with lengthy public comment and the scent of California medical-grade — tried to push for a free weed component to Healthy San Francisco. Mirkarimi nibbled, briefly looking into whether the city's Department of Public Health could grow pot, but the idea was soon dropped at City Hall.

And now, no one in office will touch it.

Gochenaur has contacted three supervisors, all well-known progressives with eyes on higher office. An aide to one of the supervisors contacted says that his boss might think about it. "But there's a lot going on," he says, with evictions, tech, and transit all higher priority.

Another supervisor's aide, in whose district most San Francisco pot clubs can be found, told Gochenaur on Thursday that free weed wasn't something the office was interested in touching, she says.

So it's a no-go. Walk, wheel, or limp your way down to the nearest dispensary and hope for the best is the only real option poor folk have.

"San Francisco should have taken the lead" on free weed, Gochenaur says. "This is such bullshit."

Not that it's over. Gochenaur pledged to make her case — and make a scene if necessary. "If we have to stage a die-in at a supervisors meeting," she vows, "we'll do it."

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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