Joe Airone, who goes by Sweetleaf Joe, has been in the business of compassionate cannabis since 1996. As founder of Sweetleaf Collective, a donation-based charity organization based in San Francisco, Airone has dedicated his life to providing low-income terminally ill patients with free medical cannabis — no strings attached.
When Airone founded Sweetleaf Collective, it offered five AIDS patients access to the plant. Now it provides cannabis to 150 patients with AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses, and has given away over $2 million worth of compassionate cannabis in the past two decades. Airone and his team deliver cannabis via bicycle directly to the homes of these patients, many of whom are housebound.
Unfortunately, the road to success was paved with a number of obstacles. As he discussed in the first two episodes of Weedmaps' docu-series Uprooted, when Proposition 64 legalized recreational use in California, it ultimately made cannabis less accessible, especially for medical patients. The same medical patients who found relief with cannabis once it was legalized for medical use under Proposition 215, suddenly became unable to acquire it once Proposition 64 hit due to inadequate licensing that created a market with limited supply and high prices. Cannabis became too expensive for many, and medical patients were undeniably suffering.
“A big thing about [Prop 64] that they did not address when they were drafting it is the difference between commercial and non-commercial cannabis. So what we ran into is that for us to give away compassionate cannabis, we were now required to pay taxes on it,” Airone explained in Uprooted. “Legalization technically made compassion illegal.”
Since the early days of California's cannabis history, medical patients were at the forefront of the community, creating a major disconnect when Prop 64 was passed. The collectives that had been able to provide compassionate — or free — cannabis to the sick throughout the 1990s were no longer able to operate, and several of them never reopened again. I sat down with Sweetleaf Joe to discuss how cannabis regulations have evolved since Prop 64, and where changes still need to be made.
“Legalizing compassion” for patients in need
Airone lobbied alongside other compassion programs and worked with state Senator Scott Wiener to introduce SB 829 in 2018, a proposal designed to allow authorized retailers to provide free cannabis to medical patients once again. The proposal was vetoed, despite receiving a 90% “yes” vote in the Senate. “Some of these compassion programs I know of, were working with cancer patients and their patients were dying, and that's something I don't think [Governor] Jerry Brown realized when he signed that veto. He was signing patients' death certificates,” Airone said.
Thankfully, some progress has been made in the last few years to ensure that medical patients are prioritized within the current legal system in California.
SB 34, named the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act, was signed into law in 2019 and served to provide a pathway for compassionate cannabis to thrive again by waiving its taxes. This combined effort between advocates like Airone and California legislators is the first step toward creating a cannabis economy that is accessible to all.
Nonetheless, the years between Prop 64 and SB 34 have left a lasting impact on medical patients and the organizations that serve them. According to Airone, his experience as an advocate and owner of Sweetleaf Collective can be divided into two distinct time periods: before Prop 64 and after Prop 64. “Pre-Proposition 64, we were involved in the supply chain and we were plant-touching. We would go to the Emerald Triangle, primarily Humboldt, and we would pick up large donations and we would bring it back to San Francisco. We would then package it all up and we would bike deliver it to our patients.”
“Now, post-Prop 64, we are no longer allowed to be plant-touching. There is not a non-profit license in the California permitting structure, so we are now basically a patient organization. We do not touch the plant anymore, but we work with permitted partners all up and down the supply chain,” Airone explained.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has also initiated a shift in operations for the Sweetleaf Collective crew. “Our patients are primarily HIV/AIDS patients, some of them cancer patients, and some of them have HIV and cancer ... We have some patients [whose] immune systems are so weak, their doctors will not allow them to get the vaccine.”
“I want to give a major shout-out to Padre Mu. They're an equity delivery service in Oakland,” Airone said. “Now when COVID hit, we had been working with Spark and we were doing giveaways at their dispensary. We realized we could not be asking our patients to leave their homes and go into public spaces ... I'm not aware of any of our patients that have passed due to COVID, but thank the universe for Padre Mu, because they delivered to our patients, and they did it safely.”
“And [the owner] Aren ... He personally did hundreds of deliveries to Sweetleaf compassion patients, and that's just another aspect of our industry, it brings together all the right people, all the people with heart,” Airone added.
He is optimistic that despite the difficulties that the pandemic posed, the compassion sector will continue to boom in the coming years. Between Sweetleaf's lighter project, which pays for the taxes on an eighth of weed for a compassion patient through lighter sales, and its recent five tons project, Airone is keeping busy. Already processing their first 500-pound bulk donation, Team Compassion is working to move leftover flower from a number of growers through the supply chain and into the hands of patients.
“Our biggest hurdle is funds. We're trying to do more fundraising right now, we're looking for sponsorships, we're looking for retailers that want to sell our compassion product,” Airone said. The goal is to ultimately donate 10,000 pounds, or five tons, of medical cannabis, which shakes out to a four-month supply per patient, per trip. “So, instead of seeing them twelve times a year, we see them three times a year. I'm all about efficiency, my mind works in systems. I find that the more efficient we are, the more good we can do, the more access we can create.” At the end of the day, this is Airone's main philosophy: access is everything.
“Together we are saving lives. Every fucking day.”
Photos by Gina Coleman/Weedmaps