By Matt Grimshaw
Amongst the long term cannabis advocates and users that I have filmed across the six years since I jumped into cannabis content/films, there is a strongly held belief that the relationship with the plant itself is of just as much medicinal value as the cannabinoids to be found in its flower. I know lots of home growers who all say the same thing. In fact, I believed in it so much it drove me to make a documentary series about a rookie gardener learning to grow. Or rather, one about teaching a Vietnam veteran named Al to do so legally at home in a nine-episode docu-serial called VETSGROW. But what happens if you can’t “grow your own”? Not everyone has the time, space or money to grow their own medicine at home, some people may not even be able to through injury or disability. Even though I can attest to how relatively easy it is, people have lives, and not all of them fit tending a cannabis garden.
That’s where the idea of free weed traditionally comes from in my experience. It was never a structured thing – it was a grower ‘helping someone out’ or a supplier taking some off the side to give away, which eventually evolved into clubs, collectives and organizations. It’s as important within cannabis culture as light is to the plant itself and almost every veteran cannabis user I know has some secret low-cost direct line to a grower, legal or illegal. Quite often vets with financial means subsidize whole groups & supply free ounces to their vet buddies who aren’t as well off. As long as there’s been blunts, joints, ounces & edibles, there’s been free weed. Or to more sensibly put it; free cannabis donations. So why is it, that time and time again wherever cannabis is legalized across the USA at the state level, the free donation nonprofits that give medical cannabis to those that can’t afford it usually end up being the sacrificial lambs to the gods of legalization? To cut a very long story short, from what I’ve seen it seems to be mainly because they simply don’t fit in with a profit-focused regulatory model.
Indeed, it happened in California too. Despite the very history of the fight to legalize cannabis here being intertwined with free cannabis donor groups like collectives and clubs, they did not get any say in the composition of the rules they’d have to adhere to. It was especially galling to me to discover that California’s lawmakers cared not for the “Compassionate Use” part of Prop 64’s predecessor – Prop 215 from 1996. The new law, marketed as ‘AUMA’ or “Adult Use of Marijuana Act,” passed in 2016 as Proposition 64 on the California ballot and was enacted in stages throughout 2018. However, there was a vicious little sting in the tail of the text, one I only discovered myself halfway through filming VETSGROW when a veteran approached me at an event and asked me if I “knew anyone?” He of course meant a cannabis supplier and you may think this a fair question to ask of someone clearly working in a cannabis environment, but in reality; a vet asking a guy he’s met just three times that particular question barely six months after it’s been legalized? Vets are in general a very private group I’ve found, which suggested he was desperate, and I later found out why: He’d been cut off. Completely cut off. In fact, everyone had.
The major beef that lawmakers seem to have with free weed in legal states, is the FREE part. Why? Because retailers of highly-priced flower with healthy margins, not to mention their tax collecting counterparts, probably want complete control over ALL cannabis (barring home grows thank god) in order to stabilize pricing etc. This means that free programs are a bit inconvenient, and so they were simply left out of the “legalization” conversation. So it came to pass, that when the full effects of the law were introduced in June 2018, it ended almost all free donation programs with a simple mandate: That everyone involved in the donation, pay the equivalent taxes on the retail value of said donation. Free weed was being taxed, so there was by definition no more “free” weed. That’s when you start reading the small print of the 2016 law, which by the way is fully named – the “Control, Regulate and Tax, Adult Use of Marijuana Act.” Funny that they didn’t push that first bit too much eh? It doesn’t take long to discover the truth: The law looks like a money grab, which is sadly probably not far from the truth considering the total tax burden by the time cannabis reaches the California consumer is around 35%+ and I don’t know any craft farmers that are ‘killing it’ with the crash in prices in tandem with 100x the costs.
It took a further 16 months of political wrangling to recreate a legal tax-free path to free cannabis donations again, but as my more recent work attests, the much-hailed “Senate Bill 34” of 2019 isn’t quite the savior some hoped it would be. Any regular donations, although now tax-exempt, continue to be treated like a retail sale, meaning: licenses, packaging, testing, secure transportation & storage etc. All have to be in compliance. This of course incurs countless thousands of dollars in costs before you’ve actually given any cannabis away, but at least it’s a pathway to get regular donations to individual veterans. Or to quote the endlessly quotable “Big Jake” Lawrence, the Founder of MEDVETS (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit) and protagonist of my latest film “From Outlaws to In-laws: The HEROES HARVEST story”:
“SB34 is a ‘wet dog’ of a law. It just stinks – but whatcha gonna do? You work with whatcha got. With Prop 64 we lost 98% of our donations, so at least there’s something to work with today. Now it just takes having friends with money and patience, lots of patience with all the bull**** involved.”
I followed Big Jake on a two-month whirlwind tour of his partner organizations as lockdowns were easing in the waning months of 2020. We visited farms, dispensaries, distributors and everyone in between after creating a COVID-tested bubble with his MEDVETS crew who regularly volunteer as player transportation at Pebble Beach Golf course tournaments (not kidding). This is of course because, when driving famous people around it’s pretty important to not get them sick, so volunteers require a COVID19 test without having to go into any population centers. After that, it turns out that maintaining social distance is easy to do when the nonprofit you’re filming is renovating a 15,000 sqft Hotel, which is part of his other vet “opportunity housing” program: ‘Operation HOMEFRONT’ but that’s another story entirely. What I learned from the first-hand experience of seeing Jake wade through regulatory issue after issue, is that in order for him to do something that just a few years ago was as simple as handing over a baggie, he now has to have several costly licenses, secure storage locations and custom packing in order to reach compliance, and that’s something many nonprofits simply can’t afford. The truth is that the free medical cannabis movement is in dire trouble and it’s all because of legalization.
Of course, I can personally attest that there’s a huge positive side to legalization. Having safe, tested & regulated cannabis legally available does take the “learn your farmer” roulette wheel out of buying cannabis for regular users, but it can be VERY pricy unless you find a favorable brand/farm/cultivar that works for you and in the highly fashion-driven world of recreational cannabis, cultivars that you really don’t want to give to veterans treating combat PTSD are generally the vogue. However, there is change afoot. I’m already working on a sequel to the above film forged from the dark corners of cannabis science to shed light on new fields that are evolving very quickly. One of my filming locations is a brand new medical extraction lab in Mendocino County (the southernmost of the Emerald Triangle) and our knowledge about the plant and its effects is soon set to explode when a brand new farm in Monterey County comes online to supply the research community with high-grade cannabis later this year.
With state after state falling to either medical or fully legal status, like dominoes, across the last 18 months. It looks like Federal legalization is more a case of; ‘when’ then; ‘if’. But this in itself is cause for concern. for I cannot help fear that we are in for a repeat performance of the undermining of medical users in a bid to grab much-needed tax dollars at the national level too…and that threatens to price more and more medical users out of the marketplace. We need to start having a national conversation about this now, because the compassionate use of cannabis and free donation groups are the heart & soul of the plant’s culture of healing, and if we let that pass into history we’ll stand to lose more than just a few historical platitudes…it will cost more lives.
Matt aka “The Documattarian” is a solo independent filmmaker & cannabist activist based in Marin, California, whose recent works deal with veteran cannabis use for the treatment of conditions like PTSD, TBI and associated service related issues including suicide awareness & prevention.
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