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Friday, June 15, 2012

Medical Marijuana Is Still Too Expensive

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2012 at 7:20 AM

click to enlarge No such thing
  • No such thing

Being poor is not so bad. Not in San Francisco at least, where in addition to free housing, city officials are now also handing out taxpayer-subsidized puppies to panhandlers.

The disabled, terminally ill, or downright dirt-poor also "enjoy" an advantage over the healthy or the merely struggling to afford Delfina: Some medical care for indigent people is covered by the government (for now at least). Whether through Medicare, Medi-Cal, veteran's benefits, or AIDS-assistance programs, one can access all kinds of powerful pharmaceuticals.

Medical marijuana, however, is not one of those drugs, rendering it all but inaccessible for people on disability or Social Security. For those with only a few hundred dollars -- or less -- left after paying rent, a $50 eighth at a city-licensed dispensary simply isn't in the budget.

Cannabis advocates have for years been clamoring for the city to subsidize low-income citizens' marijuana. It's not a bad idea, one member of the Board of Supervisors recently said, but it's an idea without much political support -- and with some sizable legal and financial hurdles.

While the bounty and competition provided by medical marijuana's semi-legalization has made marijuana more plentiful and more available than ever before, pot is certainly not cheap. An eighth of an ounce -- which for the parsimonious may be a month's supply and for others, could be a day's smoke -- costing anywhere between $35 and $65 at a city dispensary; an ounce runs about $300.

A modest home grow set will cost about $100 a month in electricity bills alone; seed, soil, nutrients, and methods of killing off dreaded pests like spider mites or powder mildew are extra. That is, if you have the space or resources to grow your own.

Some of the city's 22 licensed medical marijuana dispensaries have what's called a "compassion" program. "Compassion" -- as in the Compassionate Use Act, as in the 1996 law that's made all this possible -- is slang for free pot. Sometimes poor folk asking for "compassion" at dispensaries get discounted cannabis, or get pot for whatever cash is in their pocket.

"Other times, they get shown the door," said Shona Gochenaur, executive director of Axis of Love, a group that is part-cannabis advocate mobilization force, part medical marijuana-dispensing charity (its detractors' stories can wait for another day). "There needs to be a medical cannabis component to Healthy San Francisco."

Opponents of medical marijuana dispensaries in neighborhoods have in the past asked why pot can't be dispensed through pharmacies or at San Francisco General Hospital through the Department of Public Health. That for now is impractical: No pharmacist would risk his or her license to sell prescription heroin by slanging bud, and likewise, DPH has made it clear it's not interested in handling marijuana.

Gochenaur envisions a middle ground. Low-income patients could receive a city-subsidized debit card for use at city-licensed dispensaries. A sort of EBT for marijuana, the cards would be refillable, and dispensaries allowing their use would be compensated by the city.

A fine idea, said Supervisor Christina Olague, who appeared at a recent Axis of Love charity dinner. "We need to have a discussion about it," she said. "I'd consider sponsoring something like that."

Olague -- an appointee of Mayor Ed Lee who is running for election in her own right in November -- currently has no plans to introduce such legislation, an aide said Thursday.

Setting a city-funded marijuana dispensary would require some doing. "There's some major legal obstacles to contend with," Barbara Garcia, the director of the city's Department of Public Health, told SF Weekly on Thursday.

Such a program would "absolutely" require legislative action from the Board of Supervisors; in turn, the City Attorney would need to verify that doling out cheap or free pot wouldn't violate any major laws.

Since marijuana possession violates federal law, any kind of government-sanctioned giveaways may be dead on arrival.

Not that it matters: Poor finances make the entire point moot. "We don't have any dollars for that right now," said Garcia, whose department, the city's largest, has a budget of $1.675 billion and nearly 6,000 employees on its payroll.

That leaves poor pot-seekers with few options. Beg, borrow, or steal -- or take the government-supplied pills.

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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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