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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Vaccine Incentive: Free Cannabis

Local nonprofit targets young people living in the Tenderloin who are less likely to get their shots.

SF Weekly


If we are to believe the stereotype, then pot makes us a little less likely to check every box on our to-do list. Phone calls are ignored, texts are left on read, dishes pile up, and we are even less inclined to brave conversations with sober folks who want to stick a needle into our biceps.

But San Francisco, per usual, is flipping that cliché on its head. On Friday, the workforce development nonprofit Code Tenderloin gave out free eighths to unvaccinated San Franciscans getting COVID-19 shots. The event, which started at 4 p.m. and lasted for about two hours, ended with 65 people getting vaccinated.

“We are a very efficient organization: We don’t have a lot of money, but we use it in the best way to get results,” explains Code Tenderloin founder Del Seymour. “Our motive is doing good for the community” — a community that, confronted with homelessness, addiction, and the coronavirus, has struggled more visibly than most neighborhoods in the city this past year. Seymour estimates about half of the people vaccinated Friday were drawn in by the free cannabis.

Code Tenderloin’s heady vaccination drive was far from the first of its kind. The nonprofit DC Marijuana Justice coined the term “joints for jabs” when they distributed home-grown cannabis to those getting the vaccine in the District of Columbia. ACT UP in New York City has been hosting “joints for jabs” events as well. And select dispensaries in Arizona, California, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Washington have also sponsored similar programs.

However, the Code Tenderloin initiative appears to be a first in the state. Prop. 64, notoriously laden with arcane, confusing regulations, technically prohibits giving away free cannabis (this is why dispensaries charge $0.01 or $1 for bonus or promotional products). However, it’s San Francisco tradition to bend the rules around cannabis, particularly when it’s in the pursuit of public health. After all, the city informally sanctioned some of our first cannabis dispensaries in the 1990s — even though, when Prop. 215 passed in 1996, the law permitted the use of marijuana but not it’s sale. Then, cannabis activists won over city (and later state) officials because they argued the plant was effective and necessary medicine for those dying of HIV/AIDS.

“From the start, compassion was really the bedrock of why people work so hard to get it legal, at least in the city of San Francisco,” says Bram Goodwin, founder of the cannabis-centric San Francisco Social Club and longtime cannabis activist. For the uninitiated, “compassion” is a term cannabis activists use to describe the process of obtaining free or low-cost cannabis for in-need medical patients.

Supervisor Matt Haney, who was not part of planning the event, voiced his support on Twitter, and drew plenty of backlash; critics called the event “bullshit,” or compared it to giving out free syringes of fentanyl. But in an interview with the Weekly, Haney continued to praise Code Tenderloin for the effort, saying they have become experts in vaccinating the most hard-to-reach populations in his district.

The nonprofit has been doing on-the-ground tours through the Tenderloin for months, often meeting people at their encampments to distribute vaccines. He also says he was unaware the event may not technically be legal under Prop. 64, given how many institutions have offered free alcohol as an incentive for vaccination across the country (including, by SF Weekly’s observation, the White House).

“If there’s anyone who knows how to get more people vaccinated, in our city right now, it’s Code Tenderloin,” Haney says. “They are out there every day walking the streets, reaching populations that have had less access to the vaccine, and reaching them effectively.”

Despite the success, Code Tenderloin might not even give cannabis as an incentive for vaccinations again — Seymour prefers the idea of giving cash. The event, titled “Rap for Vaccines,” also included 12 performers who rapped, sang, or read poetry to the crowd. Each performer received a $200 gift card.

Seymour, for his part, remarks on the event with satisfaction and — despite the smoke in the air — a new sense of motivation. To him, it doesn’t matter if the event didn’t follow every stipulation of Prop. 64.

“We’re saving lives,” Seymour says. “I just want to know, how far can we go?”

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