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Berkeley Plans to Give Free Marijuana to the Poor

Earlier this month, Berkeley’s City Council voted unanimously for an ordinance that would provide free medical marijuana to patients with low incomes. If the ordinance passes its second reading in August, marijuana dispensaries will have to set aside 2 percent of their product — which must be of equivalent quality to the marijuana they’re selling at market prices — and give it free to city residents with incomes below $32,000.

It makes a lot more sense than it sounds like at first.

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. 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.

Those regular channels don’t work for medical marijuana users. Even though California authorizes medical marijuana, it’s illegal under federal law, and the Food and Drug Administration has not approved it. As a result, Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, doesn’t cover it. If any private health insurance plans cover it, I couldn’t find them; Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans, told me they’re not aware of any plans that cover marijuana, either.

By Josh Barro
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