The Berkeley Patients Group: A Dispensary at the Forefront of Cannabis Legalization and Charitable Giving

Inside the Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley, California.

Photo courtesy of the Berkeley Patients Group, Written by Winter Hawk 

 

With 22 years of activism under its belt, the Berkeley Patients Group (BPG) is the country’s longest-running cannabis dispensary, according to the group’s website. It is a one-of-a-kind dispensary that has an equally unique origin story. 

The founders, Debby Goldsberry, Jim McClelland and Don Duncan, created the BPG in 1999 to provide a welcoming atmosphere where patients could acquire high-quality cannabis and heal in a community-centric environment. 

“[The original owners] were very much on their way to a healing of themselves and their souls, so [they] saw that, embraced that and fostered that,” said Etienne Fontan, the vice president and co-owner of the BPG. “Jim [had] actually set the idea, the concept, that he wanted a healing center for people [where] they could come and relax and medicate and not have to worry so that they could actually talk with each other about their conditions.”

 

Creating a Healing Environment 

This healing centered environment gives patients a safe space to talk about how they medicate without the fear of federal repercussions.

Fontan, a combat veteran of the first Gulf War, knows this struggle well.

“I [have] been forcefully removed from four different [Veterans Affairs] facilities just for mentioning the use of my medical marijuana… they designated me as what’s called a ‘known drug user,’” said Fontan. “So, after being made to feel like a second-class citizen by my own government after my war, my injuries, I was frustrated and angry by that. And I kind of swore to myself that I wouldn’t treat nor would patients be treated that way at any place I would be.”

This treatment, which many cannabis consumers have historically faced, is a driving force in the BPG’s fight for cannabis legalization. The dispensary wants to make cannabis more accessible, and they’ve done so in Berkeley, California by supporting and initiating legislation, and collaborating with the former Mayor of Berkeley, Thomas Bates, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Although the BPG has made progress in the cannabis rights movement, it did not expect to be doing so for over two decades. The dispensary laid the groundwork for future cannabis businesses with little to no plans for the future. 

“There was no anticipation to be here 21-22 years later down the line, we’re all expecting to get arrested and go to jail,” said Fontan. “[Don and Debby] built the plane while flying it. It’s not a comfortable place to be. It’s windy, it’s noisy. You make lots of mistakes.”

Nevertheless, the founders strategically established the dispensary to ensure they would be around long enough to make a change in the cannabis rights movement.

It started with the name Berkeley Patients Group. 

“That was so well thought out because if we were arrested, and we were in federal court, which we were anticipating to be, you could not use a medical [cannabis] defense at that time,” said Fontan. “So, by having “patients” in the name of the business, that was specific, that was strategic because then 12 of our peers would hear the name “patients,” and it would cause questions, it would cause them to wonder.”

 

Full Steam Ahead

The BPG was also the first in the U.S. to test cannabis and hold growers to higher standards than previously seen in the traditional market, according to Fontan.

This did not just mean better quality cannabis for their own patients. But it also led the city government to require that all dispensaries in Berkeley test their cannabis. 

“We lobbied our city to say ‘hey, everyone else who sells cannabis in Berkeley should be selling tested cannabis too because [if] that tested cannabis fails, it’s going to them and to other people, it’s going out into the market,” said Fontan. “So, do you want that to happen to Berkeleyites?”

Despite collaborating with local officials, these pioneers are still fighting a decades-long battle against the federal government. In 2012, it resulted in the eviction of the BPG from their original San Pablo Avenue location due to an issue with the property line, according to Fontan.

“We opened up the next day as [a] delivery service, found a new location and within six months we opened up at our current location [less than a mile away from the original San Pablo Avenue location],” said Fontan. “The federal government came after us again to evict us, but this time because we’re within 1,000 feet of a daycare center.”

Again, in 2013, the group was targeted when the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, Melinda Haag, tried to close dispensaries in her district. Though a crime hadn’t taken place, the government seized the dispensary’s property through civil asset forfeiture actions, according to the BPG website.

The BPG sued the government and, in 2016, officials dismissed the federal forfeiture case. One week later, Proposition 64 passed, which legalized the recreational use of cannabis for adults over 21 in California.

Since then, it has been full steam ahead as the dispensary continues to think of new ways to serve patients and the community.

 

Pervading the Marketplace 

Whether a new patient or seasoned cannabis consumer walks into the dispensary, the BPG has something for everyone. 

The dispensary carries flowers, concentrates, vape cartridges, edibles, topicals, tinctures, and more — which consumers can purchase onsite, or online for delivery to counties in the East San Francisco Bay area. Specialists are also available to guide consumers through menu items.

Along with consultations, the Berkeley Patients Group provides patients with informational guides about how to choose and use different products, such as edibles.

The dispensary encourages members to become medical cannabis patients because of perks like lower taxes, higher possession and purchase limits, and access to more products. Additionally, the BPG offers medical patients a “medical only line” where they have direct access to a consultant.

 

For Good

Beyond the dispensary’s trailblazing history, it is recognized by many for its deep-rooted ties to the community, and donations to homeless, veterans, BIPOC, women, LGBTQ, and animal welfare causes.

Their most recent initiative was the $1 million For Good campaign that committed to donating $1 million to 10 different charities over the next 10 years in order to facilitate community healing through economic justice and social equity, said Fontan.

Donations go to the Battle Brothers Foundation, Berkeley Free Clinic, Berkeley Humane, Supernova Women, and more.

“We wanted to give opportunity but, at the same time, put our money where our mouth is because we believe in what we do, to the point where we raised our freedoms and were ready to go to jail,” said Fontan. “But now that cannabis is here and doing well, we can still give back, we can still build our communities and foster the environments locally.”

Doing good for the community connects the BPG with those in its area while also providing a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the stigma around cannabis.

“Working in service of my community, giving back, it is very wonderful to help and change people’s lives for the better,” said Fontan. “It’s a nice thing when an organization gives you a nice plaque because you donate to them, you have a nice little ceremony and it’s nice to be recognized for the good that you do because we’re so used to being attacked and chastised.” 

Community acceptance of the BPG gives the dispensary hope for a bright future where they can continue to grow as a business and be influential local leaders. 

“We see ourselves moving into a new or larger location, and continuing to build [the] American community,” said Fontan. “We have fully re-embraced what we originally were, which is a community center.”

 

Emerald contributor since January 2021
​I am a Journalism student minoring in International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland, College Park. My passions are to actively do good, encourage kindness, and spread love; and, I plan to do so through my writing. I want to use my writing as a tool to emphasize to every reader that we must recognize the struggles that we all go through as human beings, and we must have the hard conversations people don't generally want to have in order to improve the world in which we live.

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