Once upon a time in modern-day L.A., a group of generous DIY do-gooders looked at the city's rampant homeless problem, and then at the city's flourishing weed industry, and decided to use the latter to help the former. What's become known as Weed the Homeless isn't a fancy operation: It's as simple as handing out weed, in addition to clothing, food, toiletries and other essentials, to people living on the street.
The movement began on Thanksgiving 2017 when cannabis activist and entrepreneur Jackie Sponseller, a self-proclaimed "international epileptic stoner," was home alone in Venice and wanted to give back. "Ever since I was a little teenage stoner, I used to want to have so much weed that someday I could just give it away," she jokes.
That fantasy eventually became a reality for Sponseller, who, having been diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of 10, set out to heal herself and others with medical marijuana. The California native moved abroad to Israel, eventually building a cannabis empire centered around her various projects, including Kaya Seeds, Daily Dab TV and Queendom Canna.
In between jetsetting abroad and back home, Sponseller now is spearheading the fourth installment of Weed the Homeless this weekend on Skid Row.
The night before the first Weed the Homeless, Sponseller invited over a handful of friends to bake edibles and roll joints for charity. For subsequent installments, she had friends in the industry donate oils, prerolls and other products.
"The homeless get tears in their eyes. They're used to people calling them druggies and looking down at them — they're not used to getting weed from people," Sponseller says. "What's inspiring too is with the whole Jeff Sessions thing — ‘good people don't smoke weed’ — I'm pro the idea of stoners giving back, being a good example in society."
Homelessness in L.A. has surged 75 percent in the past six years, affecting about 55,000 of our fellow Angelenos. Less than 30 percent of L.A.'s homeless people have access to any kind of legitimate shelter. At a time when there's so much excitement around L.A.'s cannabis green rush, it only makes sense to use some of that weed money for a cause that's so desperately acute in the world capital of the weed industry.
Sponseller is not alone in Weeding the Homeless. Some have suggested that legal weed entrepreneurs could use their own capital to build homeless shelters.
"The cannabis industry, in fact every industry, should give out as much as possible," says cannabis entrepreneur and Weed the Homeless volunteer Tomer Oliel. Whether it's cannabis industry folk giving out weed or restaurant industry folk giving out food, these conversations and connections on the street need to happen more regularly, he says.
Sponseller recalls one instance in particular when a woman living in a tent on Skid Row practically panicked with excitement and tears. She had epilepsy, too, and needed the cannabis so badly to self-medicate. "For me, that's the reason I'm in the industry — because I have epilepsy, and I know how well it helps my body," Sponseller says. "You really feel it, doesn't matter what country you're from, what your religion is, your skin color or societal background, our bodies all universally respond to cannabis."
People have this idea that the residents of Skid Row are simply drug addicts, Sponseller says. But there are legitimately sick people out there on the street, too, who don't have access to health insurance or proper medical treatment, let alone enough wherewithal to buy retail weed. And even in the case of addiction, if someone on the street is faced with the choice of using heroin or smoking a free joint, the latter presents a safer option.
"Marijuana has always been a taboo subject in the recovery world, but it can reduce the harmful effects of substance abuse," says Joshua Harvey, a psychologist and addictions counselor. "A majority of the people on Skid Row suffer from mental health issues ... and marijuana can be used as a medicine to help treat addiction and mental health issues."
While this is still a novel, minority idea in the mental health industry, one L.A.-based recovery center, High Sobriety, practices harm reduction by encouraging those dependent on opiates to use cannabis as a non–life-threatening alternative.
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While cannabis isn't for everyone, and can exacerbate certain mental health conditions in some cases, such as schizophrenia, the human body nonetheless is built with an inherent network of receptors — aka the endocannabinoid system — that fit perfectly with the chemical compounds one ingests from cannabis. This system regulates a variety of physiological functions including sleep, mood, appetite and pain.
The premise of Weed the Homeless may appear controversial to some — why give out weed to people with dubious mental health conditions? — but the truth of the matter is that those on the street have access to cannabis and harder drugs regardless. Weed the Homeless provides clean, safe cannabis flower, edibles and oil from legal sources.
The volunteers, of course, hand out weed at their own discretion — eventually there may be a license for this kind of effort — but for now, says Sponseller, when "the Californian cannabis market is flourishing, where industry professionals on both sides of the legal fence are making great profits, it only makes for better timing to also give back."