Wiener to Reintroduce Bill on Tax-Free 'Compassionate Care' Cannabis

1 min
California state Sen. Scott Wiener, left, and Sen. Nancy Skinner, right, at a media briefing last month announcing plans to reintroduce a bill that would exempt providers of medical marijuana to seriously ill, low-income patients from paying state pot taxes.  (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

California state Sen. Scott Wiener plans to reintroduce a bill Monday exempting providers who donate medical cannabis to critically ill, financially disadvantaged patients from paying state commercial pot taxes.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a previous iteration of the bill, SB 829, in September, after Wiener first introduced it in May.

But Wiener is forging ahead once again because, he said, these so-called compassionate care programs, which have been around since the 1990s, don’t make any revenue. So they shouldn’t have to pay state pot taxes.

"This is really about access to medicine," Wiener said in an interview Thursday following the announcement of his new bill, as yet unnamed, at a San Francisco dispensary. "Poverty should not be a barrier to getting your medicine. We don't tax prescription drugs. Why should we tax medical cannabis?"

Since Proposition 64 (Adult Use of Marijuana Act) went into effect in January, California taxes all marijuana businesses -- both recreational and medical -- regardless of their profit levels.

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"Compassion is being taxed," said Joe Airone, founder of Sweetleaf Collective, a medical marijuana group that has provided free cannabis to low-income, terminally ill patients in San Francisco since 1996. "Last year, we gave away over 100 pounds of cannabis. And this year we've been told that the people who hold the permits would be required to pay tens of thousands of dollars to make this happen. That is incredibly cost-prohibitive."

While some organizations are hanging on, compassionate care advocates say the blanket approach to taxation has caused dozens of providers to stop donating or shut down entirely, leaving an estimated 50,000 or more California patients suffering from life-threatening conditions such as HIV, cancer and glaucoma without access to much-needed medicines.

"Pot has really improved the quality of my life,"  said HIV/AIDS patient Steve Stevens, a regular recipient of cannabis donations from Sweetleaf. "But I'm also on a very fixed income. The clubs are very expensive, and for those of us who are struggling just to pay rent, it's really quite an issue trying to get access to pot. We can grow some, but that's not always possible. So I really appreciate the efforts of all these people trying to get compassionate use of medical marijuana."

Wiener said he hopes to have his bill on Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom's desk by the middle of next year.

"We're introducing it with an urgency clause," Wiener said. "This means that it requires a two-thirds vote to pass, which we will get because we got more than two-thirds last time. And it also means that when the bill is signed by the governor, it goes into effect immediately."

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