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History / Activism

Notes from the Pioneer Days: The Founding of Berkeley Patients’ Group: Early years of Medical Cannabis in California

By Grandmama Purple

It was Fall 1999.  As a young college student interested in plant medicine, I was blessed to have been invited to work at one of the first Medical Cannabis Dispensaries in the Nation, The Berkeley Patients’ Group, located in Berkeley, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

California was the first state in the USA to legalize cannabis as a medicine, with the passage by voters of The Compassionate Use Act, or Proposition 215, in 1996.  This strengthened the unification of the gravely ill in the San Francisco Bay Area, where activists with chronic and terminal illnesses, such as AIDS, Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, and Parkinson’s Disease formed patients’ cooperatives based on generosity and inclusivity, led by such courageous heroes as Denis Peron, Jack Herer, Eddy Lepp, and Jeff Jones.

A unique city, iconic in the United States for its history of Free Speech and Civil Rights, Berkeley is also home to a world-renowned University, an academic haven with rigorous standards, birthing cutting edge science and technology.  From this combination, the culture of Berkeley fostered an outspoken community of open-minded individuals who understood the medical potentials of cannabis, and sought to promote the plant as a safe alternative to harsh and toxic pharmaceutical drugs.

. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The freedom to choose a plant-produced substance with no strong side-effects, and zero chance of overdose, offered a salvation to so many of the sick and injured from the world of synthetic opioids causing mental delirium and other medications causing permanent liver and other organ damage.  It is fascinating that the recognition of the valuable therapeutic benefits of cannabis which resulted in the passage of Proposition 215 occurred before the days of any rigorous scientific studies revealing the cancer preventative and tumor shrinking properties of THC and other cannabinoids.

Our own amazing hero, Berkeley Patients’ Group founder, James “Jim” McClelland, saw an opportunity to help a community of suffering people have access to this medicine.  He invested his personal time, money and creativity into what became his pet project, his passion.  The dispensary was set up not just as a place to obtain medical cannabis, but as a holistic wellness center.  We offered therapeutic services such as massage, acupuncture, and yoga and community services such as meals, and movie nights for the elderly, promoting a rich sense of community.

Cannabis is truly remarkable in its efficacy against such a wide variety of symptoms.  Doctors and scientists believe this is because the human body has a sophisticated array of cannabinoid receptor enzymes for its own internally produced cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) to regulate bodily functions.  A Berkeley-based doctor, Tod H. Mikuriya, M.D., or “Dr. Tod”, as he was affectionately called by his patients, firmly believed in the scientific evidence of cannabis as medicine.  He introduced his patients to a world where they could use cannabis responsibly to alleviate their pain and regain wellness without fear of imprisonment, or legal censure.

 Most of the time, patients would report that cannabis helped them more with their symptoms than multiple hosts of pharmaceutical drugs that other doctors had prescribed.

Opening our new Berkeley Patients’ Group location In May 2000 was historic; we were one of only five “cannabis clubs” in California, and of course the entire Nation.  For a month before opening, a core group of dedicated individuals refurbished the location by hand; we were alive with the dream of improving the quality of life for countless individuals.  We transformed our space into a clean and sophisticated environment, a safe place for patients of all kinds to access the medicine they needed.

On opening day, the line to the medical dispensary area went out the front door and well down the sidewalk.  This was thanks to the courage of Dr. Tod, who had made it legal for these people to obtain this age-old treatment.   He faced controversy from non-progressives in those early days with a calm and steadfast demeanor, knowing he was doing the right thing.  His convictions have been vindicated and proven fully right over time, with 31 US states now allowing medical cannabis, and 10 states legalizing adult recreational use.

Our days running the dispensary consisted of our friendly security staff guiding the elderly, young, and wheelchair-bound alike to our front table to fill out our intake form and become a member of our cooperative.  They would then walk into our back room, straight up to me, behind a glass display case, with our cannabis flower offerings in glass bowls, and our concentrates and edibles neatly packaged and organized.  The opportunity to look into each patient’s eyes, focus my attention on them, learn their needs, and provide them with the best medicine possible for their condition, has been one of the most fortunate and formative experiences of my life.

I am eternally grateful to our founder, Jim, who was a true mentor to me, showing me that the key to running a successful organization is generosity with both those you are working with and serving, and team-playing by respecting and supporting the ideas of others.  The medical cannabis community, and indeed all communities, are strengthened by and thrive on these principles.

The Berkeley Patients Group is now a nationally renowned establishment in the US, offering top quality selections for all patient needs.  The strong foundation which was nurtured by many selfless individuals took on a life of its own.  Today, people are still proud to be employed at the “BPG” and excited to procure their medicine from such a time-honored and reliable organization.

This article is dedicated in loving appreciation to the memories of Jim McClelland and Dr. Tod H. Mikuriya.

The Green Greeks Magazine

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