The medical marijuana dispensaries in Berkeley, California will start giving some of their pot to low-income people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it, thanks to a new city ordinance that passed unanimously at the beginning of this month. Dispensaries are now required to set aside two percent of the cannabis they sell each year to give away for free to people who fall below a certain income level.
“Basically, the city council wants to make sure that low-income, homeless, indigent folks have access to their medical marijuana, their medicine,” Darryl Moore, one of the people who serves on the council, explained to a local CBS affiliate. “We think this is the responsible thing to do for those less fortunate in our community.”
The move has inspired its fair share of jokes. “Soda tax? Yeah, whatever,” the East Bay Express ribbed. “Berkeley may just need to adjust its nickname to the People’s Republic of Pot,” Yahoo News suggested.
But from a medical perspective, the new ordinance certainly isn’t unprecedented. The government subsidizes lots of other health services to the low-income Americans who would otherwise struggle to pay for them. The Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act requires hospitals to treat poor patients for their emergency medical conditions regardless of their ability to foot the subsequent bills. Pharmaceutical companies run patient assistance programs to provide free medications to people who need them. And the Medicaid program uses state and federal dollars to extend insurance to people living in poverty.
It makes sense to come up with a similar system for medical marijuana, a substance that hasn’t been integrated into the health care industry yet despite the fact that it’s now legal in nearly half of the states in the country. Since cannabis is still criminalized on the federal level, it isn’t covered in insurance plans. The national trade association representing the industry has indicated that Americans shouldn’t expect to gain health coverage for marijuana as long as it remains classified as a Schedule I drug — even though most doctors support medical pot.
Like many of the issues with advancing federal law in this area, insurance coverage for pot remains mired in bureaucracy. Insurers typically don’t want to cover services unless they’re approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Meanwhile, the FDA says it won’t approve medical marijuana until there’s more research on its potential side effects. But it’s difficult to conduct any of that research while the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) keep such tight control on potential clinical trials.
That leaves medical marijuana patients doling out hundreds of dollars for their prescriptions while they wait for those government agencies to figure it out. As the New York Times puts it, Berkeley’s “wacky-sounding free marijuana plan will serve as a useful workaround” until federal law catches up.
Other areas that have legalized medical marijuana have also experimented with workarounds. Massachusetts allows dispensaries to offer discounts to patients based on their income. New Jersey reduces registration fees for Medicaid beneficiaries. At least 15 states allow people to grow their own weed for medical purposes, which is particularly advantageous for people who can’t afford to keep buying it at a dispensary. And Washington, DC has proposed passing an ordinance identical to Berkeley’s new law.