Berkeley Gives Free Weed to Poor. Is America Next?

Few major social changes hit America without first passing through Berkeley, Cal. The city is an icon of liberal thinking and social experiments. And now it’s home to a new one: free weed for poor people.

On July 1, the Berkeley City Council voted to pass an ordinance requiring that local medical marijuana dispensaries provide free pot to low-income patients.

The vote has raised eyebrows in the much of the country, but some observers say it’s a model for helping indigent patients. Many need marijuana, but health insurance companies, Medicare, and Medicaid refuse to cover the drug.

“It’s sort of a cruel thing that when you are really ill and you do have a serious illness . . . it can be hard to work, it can be hard to maintain a job, and when that happens, your finances suffer and then you can’t buy the medicine you need,” said Sean Luce of the Berkeley Patients Group, an advocacy organization.

Could free weed for the poor become a new way of approaching healthcare? Could it catch on elsewhere? It’s too early to tell, but the idea has plenty of fans, at least in Berkeley.

“We think this is the responsible thing to do for those less fortunate in our community,” Council Member Darryl Moore said early this month.

The free pot will be available to single patients who earn $32,000 or less each year (a notably generous limit). A family of four, on the other hand, could get the deal if their total income is $46,000 or less. Patients will have to present MMJ ID cards and join a collective to get the deal.

But they won’t be limited to shake. The ordinance requires that each dispensary provide free weed that’s of at least average quality for what they sell.

The plan has its opponents. Some in the weed community fear it could put them out of business, especially in communities like Berkeley that impose tight regulations on legitimate shops. The city currently allows three licensed medical pot dispensaries and recently voted to add a fourth.

Still, others think the idea could catch on. Free weed for the indigent and homeless is similar to the free medical care already provided to millions through federal programs, they note. The only difference is that cannabis is illegal under federal law, which means insurers won’t cover the cost. That includes Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid.

Josh Barro of The New York Times compared the Berkeley plan to Medicaid and other forms of free healthcare given to the public.

“In a way, Berkeley’s action is ordinary: The government provides free or cheap medical products to people with low incomes all the time, with a goal of ensuring that people do not go without needed medical care,” Barro wrote. “The government requires hospitals to provide emergency care to patients in need regardless of ability to pay. It provides free health insurance to the poor through Medicaid, and subsidizes insurance for people with low and moderate incomes through the Affordable Care Act exchanges.”

About Brian Ellis

With 6 years' experience in business journalism, Brian is the person we turn to for anything related to the business of cannabis. His news coverage spans topics including marijuana business and finance. Brian's work features on, and