Berkeley Patients Group Turns 20: An Eye Toward the Future
Berkeley Patients Group's 19th anniversary celebration last year.
Photo courtesy of Berkeley Patients Group

Berkeley Patients Group Turns 20: An Eye Toward the Future

In the final installment of a three-part series, BPG Co-Founder and Vice President Etienne Fontan shares how the company continues to fight for policy reform, how it educates and supports the community, and which market trends have its attention going into 2020.

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September 24, 2019

Berkeley Patients Group will celebrate its 20th anniversary in October, and as the dispensary continues to navigate California’s post-Prop. 64 regulatory landscape, it is keeping one eye toward the future while it continues fighting for policy reform and giving back to its community.

To commemorate its anniversary, BPG will launch its newest community outreach effort, the “$1MM for Good” campaign, which will donate $1 million to 10 different nonprofit organizations over the next 10 years. The organizations focus on health care, re-entry support, affordable housing/homelessness, the LGBTQ+ community, the environment and more. Each month, BPG will highlight a different community partner and drive funds to that particular organization through awareness campaigns, staff volunteers and donations from sales of partner brands.

Here, BPG Co-Founder and Vice President Etienne Fontan discusses how the dispensary supports its community and the causes it believes in, how it approaches lobbying in California, and which industry trends the company is watching going into 2020.

Editor’s Note: Read Part I of this series here and Part II here.

Cannabis Business Times: What mistakes are today’s retailers in California making, and what advice do you have for them that you can offer with the benefit of your own experience?

Etienne Fontan: We’re all in the same boat together—everyone’s just trying to get regulated and up to standard. The state dragged its feet, unfortunately, with its cannabis oversight organizations that they created, so it took a long time just for us to get our annual permit. For us, one of the original ones, it still took a year and a half. So, for those who are just starting out, it’s very challenging and very intimidating, what you have to go through, and it was still daunting and challenging for a retailer of nearly 20 years, ourselves.

It’s hard to look around and say who’s making mistakes. I think the mistakes are people thinking they’re going to exist outside of the lines of regulation and still do storefronts. Originally, they stated they expected about a third of the market to stay illegal. We came from the illegal market. We ran the underground market. We understand the realities that are taking place and that are going to continue to take place because so many people—definitely more than a third, I guarantee you—did not make that leap. They could not make that leap to legal, so people have gone to places around the world or stuck around here and are just going back to the underground market because the taxes were way too high.

The customer, especially early on, felt that they were not getting the quality of cannabis that they needed from the legal market, which was true. As the market scaled up [and started] dealing with distributors and manufacturers, the quality standards were not what we at Berkeley Patients Group had created over the past 18-plus years. It was very frustrating to now have to deal with product that was in price points that were two price points higher than what I would price it. Initially, people were buying an overly inflated product at an overly inflated tax rate, which why would you buy that? I understand the frustration.

CBT: How does BPG approach lobbying? How does it work to advance policy reform in the state?

EF: Berkeley Patients Group is one of less than a handful of dispensaries and organizations that has a government relations person, which is Sabrina Fendrick. She is in Sacramento, dealing with the state senators and legislators all the time, making them aware of the different aspects of the laws that have changed and the problems that are inherently there. Fortunately, the Bureau of Cannabis Control in California came to the public and wanted public input, and we have had a great working relationship with the BCC in helping them understand the laws. They’re brand new, so they went from literally no organization to hiring the former head of the ABC to run the organization. Lori Ajax is a very competent person and she has been open and her department receptive to all aspects of the cannabis community. [We are] educating them on the problems that were caused by some of the ideas or suggestions that had been put forth by the BCC, which we have since changed by imparting our wisdom as well as our knowledge directly to them.

Photo courtesy of Berkeley Patients Group
BPG's celebration of 18 years of service to the community.
CBT: In what other ways does BPG work to educate the community?

EF: At BPG, we volunteer on our weekends to educate educators. We had health department teachers from the 7th through 12th grade in the Bay Area saying, “Hey, now that DARE has been taken out of the schools, we have no education on cannabis anymore—none. And we have kids who are hitting vaporizers in our class. We need to know.” So, we created our own syllabus and volunteered our time, and recently, we even met with pulmonary surgeons who also need education.

It’s showing us that the lack of education is still ongoing and there needs to be actual certification programs so that doctors and teachers have certain accreditations to show that they’re still learning and staying on point. If there are companies out there with the ability to create actual training seminars that they could actually get credit for, it would be a benefit to our educational as well as our medical community because they’re greatly lacking now. The laws have changed so fast that the education has been unable to keep up with the times. There’s an absence of actual certification information, again, due to federal prohibition. We, from the ground up, have to create these things.

CBT: How is the company working to help veterans and supporting other community outreach programs?

EF: As a combat veteran myself, it is and has always been a labor of love for me to work behind the scenes. We offer discounts for veterans, but we also support organizations like the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, which I help mentor. They are the ones working at the federal level. They’re the top lobbyists in D.C., who are from the Disabled American Veterans, the VFW and the American Legion, who have all combined forces to put pressure on senators and congresspeople so that cannabis can get into the hands of our veterans. We know there are over 22 suicides a day still from service members who have come back from combat situations, and we have found that cannabis helps exponentially with PTSD. We also support a local organization called Operation Evac, which is a veterans organization and support group that meets here at BPG a few times a month so that veterans can get support that they need directly and a supportive environment with other vets who are educated and in the same boat.

CBT: How is BPG helping to advance social equity and social justice reform in the industry?

EF: We’re continuing to work at the federal level until we actually change the laws. I was in D.C. in May, along with the National Cannabis Industry Association, of which I am a founding member and a board member, and we were talking [about] social equity regarding cannabis because, as we know, many aspects of our society have been detrimentally harmed by the drug war, so we want to make sure those who have been most harmed have access to be in the legal sphere. We want to remind our congresspeople and our senators that that needs to be in consideration, that we need people of color, as well as veterans, to be able to gain from finally lifting prohibition so that those who were most harmed can have a stake in the future. These are the people who were arrested for marijuana. These are the people who know how to grow marijuana. It would be a shame if they were [barred] from being able to participate in the market. We want to constantly educate and make people aware so we can arrive at a point where we can all feel proper about how this industry is and where it’s going.

CBT: Which market trends are you most closely watching going into 2020?

EF: For me, it’s the lack of environmental concern. We are pumping out [vape] pens at record levels in every state that [allows] these pens, but there’s no recycling for these pens. There’s no way for them to go but into landfill. There’s no one recycling. There’s nobody pulling these metals out. There’s nobody offering a recycled product. So, the biggest problem is waste.

RELATED: The Vexing Issue of Vape Recycling

We see a huge waste with the reality of what Prop. 64 has brought upon us. It has made an onerous packaging situation where you have to have child-proof products. The amount of plastic and waste and no forethought into the environmental challenges their products [present] is a huge point where retail customers and patients need to start asking the manufacturers to [address it]. If they don’t convince them to do so, they’re just going to continue to buy cheap, shoddy products from China. We don’t know what metals are in there, what chemicals are being put in the vapes, as you saw with the popcorn lung and various other lung problems that have popped up in the last couple of months.

Prohibition has driven people and products that fail into the underground market. Those products that fail have pesticides and herbicides that are concentrated because the outside of the plant is sticky. Any type of chemical near or sprayed onto the plant stays on the plant. It never goes away, and it comes out in testing later. If it fails for us, it’s supposed to be destroyed, but a lot of people realize they’re growing illegal stuff, and they don’t care. They just create a bathtub gin situation, [like] we saw in Prohibition—people poisoned people when dealing with alcohol prohibition. “What’s in your vaporizer?” is kind of becoming the bathtub gin of 2020. If it’s not tested and you don’t know what’s in it, you don’t know what you’re getting. Buyer beware.

When people are asking what they should do, I recommend buying from legally tested shops because that oil has been tested to be clear of pesticides, and it’s known exactly what’s in it, whereas illegal carts, you have no idea. The individual customer has to be aware. There’s a reason your cannabis costs a little bit more at a dispensary, because we started all this testing to find all those naughty things that we can’t see so that you are not buying them. I can never sit here and say to you, “Never go to the underground market,” when I came from the underground market. However, if you want to buy a safe product, we know that there are safe products that are tested at dispensaries currently, and that is, right now, the only safe point, unless you know the grower and actually tested it yourself. You need to question what it is you’re inhaling.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.