Medical Cannabis Donations From Within the Industry Help Reduce Opioid Use

Since 2020, SB-34, also known as the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act, has been giving the cannabis industry an opportunity to give back to those in need.
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The recent California state law provides a legal pathway for licensed cannabis operators to donate excess and expiring products at no cost to eligible patients.

From the onset of this new legislation, one of the longest-standing chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), Los Angeles NORML, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, began working alongside the Veterans Cannabis Coalition to affect change through SB-34. Los Angeles NORML Executive Director, Ian Rassman, and Veterans Cannabis Coalition CEO and Founder, Eric Goepel, made it their organization’s mission to focus on developing programs surrounding this unique legislation. 

Their program is based on a model developed by Goepel and Shelly McKay, the Co-Founder of Kannabis Works where the program was pioneered. She launched the first day the new SB-34 legislation came into effect on March 1st, 2020. Kannabis Works has maintained a consistent monthly donation since that time. They have become the longest-running donation site under this legislation and serve as the precedent on which other programs have been built.

Rather than creating a standalone nonprofit or a “social justice” lifestyle brand, Los Angeles NORML and the Veterans Cannabis Coalition have been focusing on revitalizing and leveraging existing nonprofit entities. They strive to build cannabis donation programs that simultaneously benefit communities, patients, and the industry as a whole.

While SB-34 does not create any tax incentives, it does reduce the cost by excusing certain state taxes (cultivation, use, and excise) depending on the license type. When properly coordinated across the supply chain, SB-34 donations are able to be delivered to patients with a relatively low shared labor and material cost.

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Licensed California cannabis companies are in a unique position to legally give away life-sustaining medicine to people, many of whom suffer greatly from lack of access and/or the means to afford legal cannabis. Every corner of the industry is able to participate. This includes cultivators and manufacturers, retailers (storefront & delivery), distributors, testing labs, brands, and ancillary businesses (legal, tech, admin, etc).

“We have worked with many brands and retailers to locally implement corporate social responsibility programs that truly benefit medical patients in their communities. We are helping these communities by providing safe access to lab-tested products at no cost. Furthermore, we are empowering local retailers and brands to continue compassionate work even past our events. This program is a big part of changing the stigma, and that’s a huge reason I continue to be a proponent of its expansion,” said Ian Rassman. “It has been sending a signal to the community at large that cannabis is medicine.”

Los Angeles NORML and the Veterans Cannabis Coalition are focused on helping veterans, the terminally ill, elderly people, and those suffering from mental health issues. At present, they have over 100+ active participating brands, 600+ unique patients served, 10+ active retail & non-profit partners, and 12 donation sites that have resulted in over $4 Million of retail medical cannabis donated back into the community over the last 2 years.

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“It is a very emotionally moving experience to attend one of these donation events,” said Ian Rassman of Los Angeles NORML. “Every single time I hear moving stories of individuals that have been able to reduce or eliminate opioids from their daily medications by substituting cannabis. Overwhelmingly, these patients tell how they used to sit on the couch watching their life pass before them, and now feel that they have returned to life and re-engaged with their family and friends. Those are powerful statements that will really pull at your heartstrings.” 

Ian went on to highlight how oftentimes these people are in tears as they tell him stories of how they have rediscovered their best life with the assistance of medical cannabis.

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Veterans Cannabis Coalition CEO and Founder, Eric Goepel, said that “we have played a largely behind-the-scenes role in socializing the concept of compassionate donations to the California cannabis industry while providing the connective tissue to sustain it. This includes administrative and technical support, donation procurement, connection to patients and consumers, and education.”

Goepel elaborated, saying, “to that end, I’ve been developing donation and education programs with chapters of the three largest national veteran service organizations: the American Legion, VFW, and Disabled American Veterans. I am also developing a donation pipeline to a frontline harm reduction nonprofit. This group was working with the unhoused on Skid Row and had lowkey been gifting cannabis for years. They’ve seen firsthand the vastly reduced risk and potential benefits.”

“Rather than trying to duplicate what already exists and further fragment support and attention, we bring donations and education as a valuable service to the cannabis-friendly organizations out there,” Eric said.

Goepel made it clear that SB-34 is a means to an end. It’s meant to show how cannabis can improve both one’s individual quality of life, as well as overall public health (by promoting substitution and sparing effects). Los Angeles NORML and the Veterans Cannabis Coalition believe that working with an expanding network of nonprofit partners and funneling viable products that would’ve otherwise wound up discarded to patients is the first step. 

The next vital step is securing governmental support. This can come at the city/county or state level to establish a pilot program that would both donate and reimburse patients for medical cannabis purchases and track their health metrics for a year.

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Goepel emphasized that “we’re at the stage of normalization and legalization where we theoretically demonstrate the power of cannabis in a way that will leave politicians little room to hedge or dodge.” He went on to say that “the skyrocketing suicide and overdose rate plus a new #3 cause of death (COVID) that is disabling millions of Americans reflects severe, structural failures in many of our institutions.” 

Goepel hit the nail on the head when he voiced that “cannabis isn’t the cure-all. But, it is the most promising single tool we have to develop more effective and less harmful medicines at a time when they are desperately needed.”

Active SB-34 donation partners for Los Angeles NORML include the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, Kannabis Works, HERBL, Nabis, Pineapple Express, Amuse, Rove, Pacific Stone, Claybourne, Papa & Barkley, Raw Garden, CRU, CanEx, Coastal Sun, Bird Valley Organics, Emerald Bay Extracts, and more.

Brands that are interested in getting involved should know that only legal operators can provide SB-34 donations. Los Angeles NORML is able to help utilize the program to provide a legal pathway to donate products and establish regular community outreach events. All license types can tag donated products at “SB34” in METRC. Eliminate remediation or retesting costs by taking products with a short shelf life and donating them!

For retailers, you’re able to combine forces with Los Angeles NORML to engage your supply chain partners on a mission of compassion and create content for promotional purposes. You can then educate new market segments to generate product awareness for brands targeting those new markets.

“California is unique in the world in that it is the only state or country with legislation passed allowing for compassionate donations. The success of this legislation in California, in many ways, can serve as a proof of concept for other states and nations to follow,” Ian said. “As this program expands, it continues to act as glaring evidence that cannabis has the potential to heal. We have purposely built this program to be replicated in other markets.” 

There are an unlimited number of patients who need help accessing medical cannabis. It’s important to empower individual retailers and brands to develop their own unique programs to further the compassionate donations that SB-34 allows. Los Angeles NORML and the Veterans Cannabis Coalition are putting all of their energy into jumpstarting awareness about this program because it affects real change. 

There are other thriving organizations within California that have also created compassion programs that are supplying medicine to those in need. A few of these include Sean Kiernan at the Weed For Warriors Project, Melissa Burgstahler and Kellie Carlton at Dear Cannabis, and of course, Sweetleaf Joe Airone from the Sweetleaf Collective in San Francisco where compassion has been the mantra since 1996.

Ian concluded, saying, “we essentially want the whole world to follow these examples, use the resources already developed, run with it, grow it, and put more medicine into the hands of the people that need it. It is our goal to further expand this program across the US and the wider world as a destigmatizing example for emerging cannabis markets to follow.”

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