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Interview: Etienne Fontan on Berkeley Patients Group

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To mark the 20th anniversary of Berkeley Patients Group, the longest-continuously-open cannabis dispensary, caught up with Etienne Fontan, Co-Owner and VP of BPG, for an in-depth coversation.

— The Editors

Activism planted seeds of BPG

Etienne, Mikki and I met you when worked with Jack Herer and CAN’s hemp tours in the early 1990s. Tell us about that and how you transitioned to working with patients.

A: In 1989 Jack Herer and Debby Goldsberry along with other hempsters hosted a rally at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV and I reluctantly went as I was an underground smoker and didn’t want to put myself out there. My best bud at the time Greg rolled a big one and said we were going to smoke it at the rally. I thought he was out of his mind and we went, we smoked that joint with about 12 of us on the quad. I can remember being so scared. Then Jack spoke and if you ever heard him, he can grab you and pull you in and he did just that. I bought my first copy of The Emperor Wears No Clothes and soon found myself reciting it at party after party.

Fast forward a few years later and I had just come home from Desert Storm and I was having health issues. While I was in the army going through rehab in Germany, a brave doctor recommended I try hash to get off of morphine. I thought he was out of his mind, little did I know how right he was. Stateside, I got tired of making criminals out of my friends and fellow veterans for my medicine, so when I moved to CA, the first event I attended was by CAN who hosted Dr. Todd Mikuriya and I’ve been involved since. The first event we did in the Bay Area for CAN was the 50th anniversary of LSD. Needless to say, it was a hell of a jumping-off point. 
The classic San Pablo Avenue BPG was been a hotbed for community organizing and sponsoring talks and hosting events, such as this 2003 gathering.

We actually saw you get married at a High Times Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam.

A: Yes, I was married at the Cup in 1995. It was rather spontaneous. My bride and I were in the budding hemp industry at the time and thought it would be fun. We contacted High Times magazine and they were down, so why not? It was a blast, Todd McCormick was my best man, Stephen Gaskin did the ceremony and Patty Smith’s guitarist did the music. Jack Herer was there and gifted us a 100% hemp copy of the Emperor. Truly an epic time.

The early days of BPG laid the foundation

Meanwhile, back in the USA … is it true that BPG grew out of the Berkeley Cannabis Consumers Union and lounge?

Yeah, BPG did grow from the Berkeley Cannabis Consumers Union and the OCBC (Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Coop). Jim McClelland founded BPG in 1999 and worked for Jeff Jones’ OCBC and when it was shut down by the Feds. Jim had heard of CAN and our many escapades but, most importantly, it was the Union that solidified it. After CAN had been busted and fought the harassment by the Berkeley Police, Jim found like-minded allies that would fight for their rights. The team they created helped foster in the second iteration of compassionate caregiving that became dispensaries.

How did you get started at BPG back when Debby Goldsberry and Don Duncan were running the collective?

I was asked to help with the BPG grow. I was general manager of Ed Rosenthal’s grows and, due to my experience working with CAN, it was a natural fit. I came to BPG in 2001, shortly after Jim passed away.

The grow was in a terrible location, it was basically a white powdery mildew factory due to location in San Francisco. I basically came in and shut it down since it was clear it wasn’t going to get better. I next started working in the weigh room and worked my way up to management. I became the buyer for five years and overtime was given part of the business by Don and Debby.

A part of the Berkeley Community

How many locations has BPG had over the years?

Technically we’re in our third location. The first was on Fifth Street and in 1999, the city got wind of BPG and told us to move due to zoning issues. We were in an industrial part of town and needed to be in a commercial zone.

BPG at its landmark San Pablo Avenue location.

The next location was a classic old tool rental place that was converted into the first iteration of BPG which many of us grew and loved. In 2012, the government forcefully evicted BPG from its landmark San Pablo Avenue location as being within 1000 ft of a K-12 school, a private French school. We were over 1000 feet if you walked from our door to theirs — but measuring from the edge of the lot, it was 980+ feet. They threatened to go after the bank that held the loan on the building. We had to move next door and operated as a delivery service until we found our current home at 2366 San Pablo Ave. Then they came after us again for being closer than 1000 feet from a daycare center. Since only K-12 applies to the laws, we sued and in 2016 we won our case. So, we’re finally allowed to exist in our current location.

Our vision never had a 20-year anniversary, instead, we expected to get arrested any day at any time. We were activists doing direct action. We couldn’t hire normal people as they were not going to risk their freedom for a job. We had to do raid drills, police drills, fire department drills, you name it, we drilled in anticipation. Against many lawyers' wishes we kept books, diligent books, as we wanted to prove to our 12 peers that we were doing the right thing for the right reasons and we anticipated that arriving by us being arrested and fighting it out in the courts. There was no medical defense so brilliantly the founders put “patients” in the name of the organization so when and if we were in court the jurors would hear the word patients and realize we were the sick helping out each other. With no medical defense, there was no ability to effectively defend yourself in federal court.

By the patients and for the patients


This was our theory, we just never got our chance to try it. Making the leap to adult-use was a whole other lift and one that we’re still enduring. It was the largest regulatory change in just about any industry and it was herculean. Our team swam through the muck of the regs and we navigated it deftly considering the many changes and challenges. They are still experienced in all aspects of the industry in CA and the ripples will be felt for some time.

Tell us more about that city initiative election that BPG undertook some time ago and how it played out regarding electronic voting machines.

I mentioned earlier how Berkeley wouldn’t give the dispensaries in town an actual business permit to do business. We had miscellaneous retail sales permits and we wanted an actual cannabis sales permit. When Berkeley stonewalled us our counsel at the time suggested we pool our resources of the dispensaries and we run an initiative. It was originally PAMCA, Patients Access to Medical Cannabis Act, that had enough votes to put it on the ballot as Berkeley Measure R. It lost by less than one percent of the vote, so we paid for an official recount and still lost by a very small percentage.

During the recount, we were contacted by a group of lawyers who told us we had a perfect storm of a case for voting machines. As part of our recount, we wanted to see inside the Diebold voting machines, Diebold nor Alameda county would allow us to look inside the machines. They stated we could look at the computer they downloaded them into but not the machines themselves. The firm who contacted us sued Diebold thanks to two BPG employees, Michael Goodbar and Donald Tolbert (RIP), who became the plaintiffs and in the end won the right for every American to look inside any voting machine, period.

The courts reinstated our initiative in 2008 this time as Measure JJ which passed by over 60 percent of the vote. In the spring of 2009, we finally received our cannabis permit from the city of Berkeley. You don’t know which way the winds will take you so you have to strap in real tight and in this case, we rode it out successfully. 

Transitioning back to adult-use marketplace

How have you handled the transition from an SB420 collective to a licensed adult-use sales and dispensary?

It’s been a challenge, dispensaries were illegal when we started out, we had to change the laws. We couldn’t get a business permit from our own city and had to create an initiative to get our license. We were created by patients for patients so we knew we always wanted to help our the underserved so we pioneered programs for giving away cannabis to low income people and having a support network.

First day California legalization retail sales grand opening
Berkeley Mayor prepares to cut the ribbon at a ceremony opening BPG to the adult public after Proposition 64 legalized sales. Photo by Dale Gieringer

Prop 64 is not perfect, far from it, so it was a challenge to go from holding, storing, testing, packaging, etc. to now being part of a supply chain as opposed to controlling what we had and had access to. It was a major shift and change for us and many were not able to make that leap. We had our challenges as well but in the end, we’re still here and still taking care of patients daily.

What are some of the reasons people stay on as patients rather than simply as consumers, are there some financial or membership benefits? Can they get larger amounts, higher doses or lower prices?

Because we are patients, we welcome the new consumers who have adult choices but we will always be here for the patients. We were created in the darkest days of the AIDS crisis and many of us lost friends and family to their health struggles and we want to always be there for those who need this as a medicine. Science has come around to our anecdotal experiences and this had further cement our feet in our belief in helping others. Helping others feels good and we like to feel good so it’s a win-win. 

What lies ahead for BPG?

How do you see BPG changing over the long term, local and out-of-area franchises or maybe launching your own product lines?

BPG Chris Conrad Mikki Norris first legal adult sale in California Berkeley
Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris show the first legal cannabis sold for adult use at BPG on January 1, 2018.

We will always be patient-focused, with cancer rate coming in around one in two, we’re going to be needed for quite some time. BPG will stay local and serve Berkeley as long as Berkeley will keep us. We’ve tried our own product lines with edibles in the past and it becomes a quality control issue. It’s challenging to create a product you want to see without the ability to grow it from the start. Berkeley’s cultivation laws have left us with no choice but to purchase from outside Berkeley. With expectations of quality that we’ve come to expect we would need to be in control from the ground up. We do hope to find a new home that is larger than what we currently experience and allow us to do more social events, etc.

As cannabis goes mainstream, how do we keep the community together?

You reach into the roots of your community and you build it from the ground up. We’re celebrating 20 years of being in business by helping out 10 nonprofits over the next 10 years that are non-profits affecting our community. We’re donating $1million for good by investing in organizations we believe in. We created the campaign for others to replicate.

It all starts locally and with your local community. The deeper your roots, the deeper the community. We’re not just donating money, we along with our supporting partners are going to be volunteering and helping out these organizations by infusing people into their non-profits to help them do their services. We’re going to help out a lot of people and we like helping people because it feels good.

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