People Before Profit: A Quest to Keep Cannabis Compassionate

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

As cannabis legalization builds momentum around the world, the future of the plant has never been brighter. But in the rush to capitalize on this historic shift in global attitudes, the people and the message that brought us here are quickly being plowed under by the power of money and political influence.

States across the country have adopted adult and medicinal cannabis use laws because cancer sufferers, children with epilepsy, veterans, and thousands of others who have benefited from cannabis have stepped up to make their case to voters and elected officials. Based on compassion for those who find relief and healing in cannabis, nearly every state created some exception for cannabis use. Now that billions in investment dollars are at stake, however, the needs of medicinal cannabis users are regularly being dismissed or ignored.

This is a tale of two cities—one at the heart of a corrupt political system that favors the demands of the wealthy, the other the birthplace of radical social change.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

At the crossroads of untold power and trillions of dollars sits Washington, D.C.

Last Wednesday marked an important milestone as the House of Representatives convened its first standalone hearing on cannabis reform issues. The topic under consideration was banking access for state-legal cannabis businesses. This has been a long-standing conflict between federal and state laws—otherwise legitimate and licensed cannabis companies are forced to do business in cash because no federally-insured banks are willing to take their accounts. While more and more financial institutions are stepping up to cash in on the fees they can saddle on desperate businesses, most still refuse to touch any money or firm that was involved in a cannabis sector transaction.

Banking access is a top priority for cannabis industry groups, who have taken in millions of dollars to lobby specifically on this topic. Finally getting a Congressional hearing on this issue is a major victory that was years in the making—the bill that will address many of the identified banking and tax burdens, the SAFE Banking Act, is set to be introduced for the third time by Representatives Denny Heck (D-WA) and Ed Perlmutter (D-OR). With Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, this year promises to see the first cannabis reform bills passed out of the chamber.

About 2800 miles away in Oakland, California on Friday that same week, there was another historic event. Long time advocates for compassionate cannabis access gathered to discuss the damage done to their communities by the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, commonly referred to as Proposition 64. Legalization in California has proven a double-edged sword for many. Excessive regulations, hostile city and county governments, massive surveillance, and the ever-present illicit market has driven many of the people who poured their hearts and souls into the fighting for cannabis access out of the industry they helped create.

Beyond the cutthroat nature of the current race-to-the-bottom, raise-capital-or-die mentality of the current market, there has been a steep cost in human suffering. By bringing nearly all cannabis activity under the authority of the state, California regulators re-criminalized the patient collectives and co-ops that defined the medical cannabis era.

Nearly overnight, thousands of citizens who relied on donated products from groups like the Sweetleaf Collective to treat terminal or chronic illnesses like cancer, HIV/AIDS, and post-traumatic stress were effectively cut off because the state gives no tax breaks on charitable giving. If a legal cannabis company wants to give away products to medical patients, they must pay the state their cut.

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It is not difficult to see how the needs of people are being overridden by the desire of the rich to extract as much wealth as possible, as quickly as possible from this new industry. The future, however, is still unwritten. In California, advocates are rallying around California Senate Bill 34 (SB 34)—introduced by state Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco—which would allow cannabis companies to donate products, without being taxed, to recognized patients and groups. It is a step in the right direction to re-establishing compassion as the guiding principle in legalization.

As we approach the end of cannabis prohibition, advocates must redouble efforts to ensure that the thirst for taxes and profit does not obscure the fact that equal, affordable access to medicine is a human right. People—family, friends, communities—made cannabis legalization a reality for millions while risking their health and freedom in the process.

Look to those like Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Rathbun who tirelessly organized, fundraised, and pushed for cannabis reform in the face of unceasing harassment and threats. They did it because they knew cannabis saves lives, and with that knowledge came the obligation to act. We understand that obligation. We have seen, first-hand, the power of cannabis to provide relief and hope where none existed. There are more than 100,000 veterans who have overdosed or committed suicide while the Forever War rages on, casualties of a medical system and government who would rather kill a veteran with opioids and sedatives than give them the option of cannabis. So it goes.

But who will speak for the dead? Who will stand for those who cannot? We all must. We have come to understand that meaning lies in service to others, fighting for the good of all. We can think of no greater service to the people of this country and the world than helping to end cannabis prohibition in the United States.

That is the future we work toward, where every citizen has equal access to cannabis without social stigma, legal jeopardy, or economic hardship. It is a future we can achieve, together, if we choose. Let us make that decision today and every day hereafter to do whatever we can to see this through to a just end and rekindle human freedom.


The Veterans Cannabis Coalition is a non-profit advocacy group founded by Iraq War veterans with the goal of ending federal cannabis prohibition and ensuring equal access to medicinal cannabis for veterans and all Americans .

The Veterans Cannabis Coalition is a non-profit advocacy group founded by Iraq War veterans with the goal of ending federal cannabis prohibition and ensuring equal access to medicinal cannabis for veterans and all Americans.