Berkeley medical cannabis dispensaries to give more to low-income residents

Michelle Kim/Staff

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As part of a unanimous decision made at the Berkeley City Council meeting this week, medical marijuana dispensaries are now required to give more of their cannabis to low-income residents.

The vote changed the city’s rule so that medical cannabis dispensaries are now required to provide two percent, by weight, of their marijuana to low-income Berkeley residents, an increase from the one percent required previously.

The income cutoff is based on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “very low income,” which applies to those who make 50 percent of their area’s median income or $46,000 per year for a family of four.

Sean Luse, Chief Operating Officer at the dispensary Berkeley Patients Group, said the people who often need medical marijuana the most are those who cannot afford it because they’ve become unemployed due to illness. Berkeley Patient’s Group has run a program called the Helping Hands Project, which has given free medical cannabis to low-income patients for more than 15 years.

“It’s a great program and we’re glad that the city is mandating that everybody participate in it,” he said.

According to Charley Pappas, a member of the Medical Cannabis Commission, only around a quarter of those buying from Berkeley dispensaries are actually from Berkeley. Still, Councilmember Kriss Worthington said the new two percent rule will “help the bottom line.”

The council also voted to move forward with a fourth dispensary. Although the rule change was already approved by voters as a 2010 ballot measure, Measure T, and the ordinance was proposed last year, numerous delays slowed the process.

At a June meeting, the council accepted nearly all of the recommendations previously proposed by the Medical Cannabis Commission, except their request for up to six dispensaries being allowed in Berkeley. The council opted to consider it in a year.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we’re not doing it now, because I think that the more patients that get brought into a clean, safe, organized place, the better,” Worthington said. “There’s enough demand … Increasing (the number of dispensaries) to six is going to improve public safety and get people off the streets.”

Berkeley’s hundreds of collectives, which are residential, non-business medical cannabis sources — as opposed to dispensaries, which are considered businesses — don’t help curb demand for cannabis because they are small and rather exclusive, Worthington said.

Additionally, according to the July 1 city staff report, the city has collected more than $600,000 in taxes from the existing dispensaries and their providers in the 2014 fiscal year.

“My number one concern is getting protection for the patients,” Worthington said. “The fact that the city gets a little tax money is a bonus.”

Contact Sumaiya Mubarack at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @sumaiyamubarack.