Berkeley Patients Group Turns 20: Compassionate Beginnings
Photo courtesy of Berkeley Patients Group

Berkeley Patients Group Turns 20: Compassionate Beginnings

In Part I of a three-part series, BPG Co-Founder and Vice President Etienne Fontan shares the dispensary’s origin story, borne from a passion for cannabis and the patients it serves.

September 10, 2019

Berkeley Patients Group, one of the oldest operating dispensaries in the country, will celebrate its 20th anniversary in October. Originally launched in 1999 in a regulatory climate that did not allow cannabis retailers, BPG’s solitary goal was staying open to serve the patients who so desperately needed its products. Since then, the company’s founders have fought on the front lines of the drug war, lobbying for policy reform in California and riding the wave of legalization and the rollout of the state’s regulated marketplace.

Here, BPG Co-Founder and Vice President Etienne Fontan discusses the dispensary’s origins, its founders’ passion for cannabis and their fight for patient access.

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

Cannabis Business Times: How did Berkeley Patients Group get started 20 years ago, and what was the long-term vision for the company?

Photos courtesy of Berkeley Patients Group
Fontan co-founded the company alongside Jim McClelland, Don Duncan and Debby Goldsberry.

Etienne Fontan: Berkeley Patients Group was founded by an AIDS patient by the name of Jim McClelland, along with Don Duncan and Debby Goldsberry. Jim at the time had worked with Jeff Jones at the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club, and upon them getting shut down, he had worked with Debby and Don and decided it was time to open up a dispensary in Berkeley. (Editor’s note: Goldsberry is a regular columnist for GIE Media’s Cannabis Dispensary. Read her columns here.)

There was really no long-term vision. As an AIDS patient, unfortunately, Jim passed away in 2001, and that’s when I started to come into the company. I was here for the opening day ceremonies, which were pretty exciting. But these were patients doing direct action; there was really no long-term vision. There was just the law—Prop. 215—which did not allow dispensaries. We had to go through a long process of lobbying and working with our constituency at the local and state levels to effectively change Prop. 215 with SB 420, and then just a couple years ago, Prop. 64 passed in California, therefore making [cannabis] available for adults 21 and over.

That was a dream of an idea that we never expected to face reality. Berkeley Patients Group was founded in the dark ages when the drug war was at its major height. There was no medical defense in federal court, so one of the key strategic planning points was to put “patients” in the name for the simple fact that we were expecting to get arrested within two years. The long-term vision was to be in jail and then to fight it through the courts. We wanted to prove to a court of our peers that what we were doing was right, and not only right, [but that] we were doing it properly and as legal as possible 20 years ago.

Twenty years ago, there was no business permit in California for medical cannabis. Don went down to Berkeley and got a miscellaneous retail sales permit. Of course, the city asked, “What’s the miscellaneous sales?” and he stated marijuana. They said, “That sounds miscellaneous enough for us. Here you go.” That worked for a while, but then we tried to get our permit from the actual city of Berkeley, which they refused to give us.

CBT: How did BPG continue to help shape the regulatory landscape in California during this time?

EF: The other two dispensaries in town and us came up with an initiative, which then was approved [and] became Measure R in 2004. We lost Measure R by less than 1 percent of the vote. When you lose by less than 1 percent of the vote, you can then call for a recount. The three dispensaries had to pony up around $30,000 to pay for an actual recount, of which we would end up losing by a small percentage in the end.

However, due to this, we asked to see inside the voting machines that Diebold has in Alameda County. Diebold refused to let us see within those individual machines and said, “You can see inside the machine we download these into, but you cannot look inside these machines.” Well, some counsel contacted us out of Florida and said, “You’ve got the perfect storm. Can we take it?” And, of course, being poor activists, we were like, “Go right ahead.” They successfully sued Diebold and Alameda County, and in 2008, a judge here in California restored our initiative back to the ballot, where it was Measure JJ, and then we passed that by over 60 percent of the vote in 2008. And that’s just how we got our business permit in 2009. So, it’s been a long haul and a long-term project for us as patients.

CBT: Why was it important to you and the rest of the BPG team to continue this fight for patients’ access to medical cannabis?

EF: I am a Gulf War veteran, and I was diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome [where] I was basically wasting away—[I was] losing weight and nobody knew why. It turned out to be nuclear biological chemical exposure. I found solace in cannabis after I was recommended it in the military. I ended up getting a positive urinalysis [for cannabis] after using it as medicine and was kicked out of the army and lost all my benefits.

I got involved back in ’92, ’93 [and] ’94 with a group called the Cannabis Action Network, which was started by Debby Goldsberry and various other activists, along with Jack Herer, who were wanting to educate people about all aspects of cannabis. I took to this quite easily and quickly, and spent the next two years doing rallies, teach-ins and tours. The activists that Don and Debby were, along with myself, were the things that attracted people like Jim McClelland to our group because we were not afraid to push the boundaries in the darkest days of prohibition.

I was kicked out of four different VA facilities just for mentioning my cannabis use—physically lifted and removed because, in the dark days, before we changed some of the laws, you were basically classified as what’s called a “known drug user” if you [mentioned] any other type of drug use besides the use that the VA approves for you. When I came to BPG, I helped shape the company to be compassionate and [to] never forget that we are patients taking care of patients.

CBT: How has this passion for cannabis shaped the way BPG operates?

EF: Originally, it was just dealing strictly with patients, mostly terminal patients with cancer, AIDS [and] multiple sclerosis, as well as other diagnoses like PTSD. BPG, in its original location, had the ability to medicate on-site. We had a front room [where] we had vaporizers set up so patients could come in and medicate. Many of our patients live in federal housing and they cannot use their medicine in their federal housing, or they will be kicked out of their federal housing. So, by having a space to medicate, it was a safe place for our patients to be without having to worry about the realities about the drug war that were all around them, in every aspect of their lives.

For us, it’s always been direct action to help patients in any way that we possibly can. We had acupuncture, massage and various other alternative methodologies of healing because we wanted people to realize [that] cannabis is great for some things, but it’s not great for everything. Having Chinese herbalists and massage therapists to educate our patient base was helpful in making them aware of other alternatives besides cannabis to help them with their symptoms or whatever their situations were. It became very much a community center. We had a quilt that was made by patients in reflection of the AIDS quilt. We also had literacy programs. We started to look at different ways that we could be philanthropic locally, through supporting local organizations like the Women’s Cancer Research Center. Even with the recreational use of marijuana, there’s still always going to be a great and large need for medical cannabis as people grow and get through different seasons of their lives.

Fontan said Berkeley has been a supportive community for BPG. "They have always looked at us and understood what we’ve been trying to do, and when we engaged with them, they found out that we weren’t these scary, underground people, that we were just patients trying to take care of each other so that we could actually move the line in the sand," he said.

CBT: How have customer demographics and sales trends evolved over the years?

EF: It was all originally created and made for patients, by patients. The products that we had were made by patients because they could not find this product available [and it was] something that they found that works for them, so they wanted to create it and get it out into the market. For the first 18 years, we were basically dealing with small batch made products that were not very regulated.

Originally, we were the overseers in quality control. Since we worked directly with the farmers, we would tell the farmers exactly what we were looking for. We would not pay the $6,000 to $7,000 per pound of product. That was impossible for us to turn around and get into the hands of patients at a reasonable price.

Dennis Peron did have $80 eighths on the table over there in San Francisco, and he also had free cannabis that he gave away to people. So, we learned early and often to have every economic access point for cannabis—have the $15 eighth, the $20 eighth, the $30 eighth, [but] not the uber expensive thing that people can’t afford.

These were originally called compassion clubs because we would give away cannabis to patients. We still give away cannabis to our patients who meet specific needs. As the law has changed, the compassion has not been lost.

CBT: How has the community responded to the business over the course of its operation?

EF: We wanted to act like any other normal business. We wanted to play on an even field where we could advertise, where we could actually host events that people could come to and not be intimidated by the drug culture or the police culture that prohibition had spawned. For us, it was always a sense of community, but it was always an “us against them” situation. It still is in the aspect of the feds, but one of the things that we learned early is that we always had to work with our city. We had to work with our city council, our mayor, our city attorney and our chief of police. These are not always easy things to do in the darkest days of prohibition. But we went out. We went to fundraisers. You go to birthday parties. You just plug yourself in at the local level so that you can find constituency that’s going to work with you.

We’re a small, conservative city, Berkeley is. Most people think Berkeley is a radical city. Yes, we are forward-thinking. Yes, the laws that we pass are usually 10 years ahead and then spread all over the rest of the United States. Berkeley is a trendsetter. They have always looked at us and understood what we’ve been trying to do, and when we engaged with them, they found out that we weren’t these scary, underground people, that we were just patients trying to take care of each other so that we could actually move the line in the sand. The line in the sand had to be moved at different levels—at the state level and at the local levels, from just getting our business permit to being allowed to exist to the city putting taxation on us.

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