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Vice Blog

WEED DEALINGS - SWEETLEAF

February 4, 2011, 3:33pm

My name is on a list somewhere. At this point I have to accept that by writing these articles I compromise my anonymity. I go from being part of the human mass, to a single person doing specific things in the world of medical marijuana. But that's part of being here, and the price of being in this movement. You must accept that there are risks and decide how to handle them. It's not that different from playing sports, doing construction, or running a hedge fund. As with any of these, it's the rewards that make my risks worth taking.

The principle difference between this and any other industry is that medical marijuana still has tangible ties to the proverbial "black market." Anti-marijuana advocates keep spinning myths about this plant, turning its story into a web of death, crime, deceit, and treachery. Why? Because it's untaxed. In marijuana's alternate marketplace there's no stock market, no government sanctions, no federal taxation, and no regulation. In this para-market, the rules and characters involved are entirely different. This alone is enough to scare some people senseless, and in their senselessness, they assume an alternate marketplace can only be bad. I can't blame them. I can only hope that they might be willing to consider a first-hand account from an honest, hard-working, Bar-Mitzvahed, Honor Roller who carries strollers down stairs on the subway, holds doors, and gives dollars to the homeless. I've seen what's going on out here--and while it may be illegal--it may also be exactly what this country needs.

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Where is your government on issues of basic survival? I'm pretty sure we are all left to confront these issues on our own, just as we were in the Stone Age. Until there is a generation born into a world where no one worries about shelter, health, and food, citizens must secure the bare necessities for survival on their own. Remember, though, that we already have the resources to provide these fundamentals to anyone in need. Unfortunately, we participate in an economy forged by businesses founded long before the technology wave swept over us and changed the way we live. These businesses started bankrolling government officials long ago, ensuring their influence in legislature. Primarily industries of bygone ages, they no longer produce anything that benefits our survival. Today they merely move capital around among themselves, use citizens as debt farms, and operate with no regard for the future or broader, human concerns. Whereas once this marriage of government and industry was our only choice, today we are now presented with an alternative.

While marijuana may seem sinister, it doesn't have to be. And, while it may be part of an alternate economy, that alternate economy doesn't have to be an illegal market. Instead, it could be a legal market that generates real wealth, and finances the creation of an alternative system to the fast-food-big-pharma-oil-burning mess we currently live in. This is a chance for citizens to act like they care about our country, our future, and our communities. Marijuana is a gateway drug, but the gateway doesn't lead to more drugs. The gateway leads to a future where we don't have to live in a broken system built by bald white men with thin lips and curly wigs.

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The opportunity to use this industry as a platform for change is what's really at stake. It just so happens that this plant unites a lot of people deeply vested in changing the world around them for the better. It could have been sneakers, or it could have been bibles, or it could have been music. What's important here is not the object of production--what's important is how this industry can help us as citizens. I believe I speak for all the people I met at the Emerald Cup when I say that our industry is about providing real and lasting change; it's about something much larger than marijuana. This is evident in the diversity of our pursuits. People involved at the core of this movement are united in their desire to change something about the world around them. For the folks at San Francisco's Sweetleaf Collective, motivations couldn't be more altruistic. This is a group of people who take it upon themselves--with no funding from any government agency--to help low-income AIDS patients. Sweetleaf saw an opportunity to step in and get medicine to the people who need it most, and what they do embodies the capacity for change that this industry represents.

Josh Carls (that's a pseudonym I'm using for the article to protect dude's name) founded Sweetleaf right after proposition 215 passed in 1996. Before 215 passed, Josh worked with Food not Bombs salvaging usable food and using it to feed people in need. With a DIY mentality and a fondness for marijuana's medicinal values, Josh set about finding a way to capitalize on the marijuana industry's waste. In the beginning, that meant acquiring discarded trim, using it to make edibles, and distributing the edibles to AIDS patients in a local hospice. While his industry peers built for-profit dispensaries by cramming them into non-profits, Josh went looking for a way to operate a genuine not-for-profit organization. As Josh once put it, "As an AIDS patient, when you go to one of the city's care centers, you don't pay for those services. So why shouldn't these patients be getting this medicine for free as well?"

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For the first ten years, things were spotty. Everyone involved worked on a volunteer basis and Josh had to spend part of the year working an out-of-town job. This meant that service would pick up and drop off intermittently as the operation changed hands from Josh to other, less involved volunteers. While Josh was away, the folks who were coming on temporarily would invariably run into snags or get too busy. Almost inevitably the operation would grind to a halt. When Josh would return, he'd put things back together, but maintaining contact with patients and keeping a solid network wasn't possible with service constantly turning on and turning off.

Still, Sweetleaf eventually amassed a group of ten or twelve patients they could supply somewhat regularly with medicine at no cost. After ten years of hard work and patience (Pebbles Trippet's wise advice rings true), Sweetleaf got the attention of the right folks. Things changed dramatically in 2006 when they connected with a few dedicated benefactors who started donating money and enough flowers to solidify the operation. With this surge of cash, Sweetleaf was finally able to hire part-time employees. This meant that when Josh left to focus on other work, there were still people around to run the collective.

Over time, as the industry grew, the quality of the medicine increased dramatically. As more growers came into the business, and as existing growers began to produce more medicine, the quality of excess donated marijuana increased dramatically. Instead of offering second-rate medicine, Sweetleaf could supply the highest quality--just as good as anything you might find at any of the city's clubs. And, with a much larger supply of flowers, the collective was able to schedule deliveries well into the future and maintain a consistent patient base. With just a little bit of stability on their side, Sweetleaf made some impressive advances. At this point they're the longest running club in San Francisco, they're one of a handful of not-for-profit collectives in the country, and they're set to double the amount of patients they cover over the course of the year.

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And they're doing all of this without any government assistance. This is on the back of a very small group of people. They have a desire to help folks out, and that's what they're doing. They saw a shortcoming in government-supplied solutions, and they stepped up to fulfill an unmet need. For the patients they help, marijuana is the only thing that can settle their stomachs so they can eat. And, if it weren't for Sweetleaf, these patients would have no other solution, as they can't afford their medicine at club prices. With only resources donated by people in the medical marijuana industry, Sweetleaf made an impact in the lives of patients who needed their service. Imagine what they could do with just a little help from the city or the state? Recently they found a way to monetize: Starting this year, Sweetleaf is going to be working with growers and dispensaries to supply hash on a 1 for 1 basis. Through a charitable partnership, dispensaries will sell hash supplied by growers. Half of the proceeds from the hash will go to funding Sweetleaf. We can expect these people to have a sizable and lasting impact on the AIDS community in the Bay Area.

If a little non-profit like Sweetleaf found a way to help patients with the resources of an alternative market alone, what else can be achieved? Could we get food to hungry people? Could we get shelter to homeless people? I can't say for certain, but as I see it, that's what this is all about. Let's get free.

ZACHARY G. MOLDOF

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