Sweetleaf Joe on Compassionate Cannabis and Growing the Nonprofit Sector

Plus, NFT fundraisers and working with prisoner advocacy projects

Joe Airone, who goes by Sweetleaf Joe, has been in the business of compassionate cannabis since 1996. As founder of Sweetleaf Collective, a donation-based charity organization based in San Francisco, Airone has dedicated his life to providing low-income terminally ill patients with free medical cannabis—no strings attached.

Joe and his team deliver cannabis via bicycle directly to the homes of these patients, many of whom are housebound. We spoke with Joe for our Higher Calling series, where we chat with leaders in the cannabis space.


Joe, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I grew up all over the place. All of my family has been in Northern California for generations, but I was born in Europe, moved to the States in preschool, and lived multiple times in California as well as Hawaii and Washington State. I lived in the Bay Area for 25 years, and now I live in Trinity County up in Emerald Triangle.

Your current role in the cannabis industry.

I am one of the founders of the cannabis nonprofit sector. I work with low-income veterans, terminally ill patients, and people of color to help them access free medical cannabis. Last year our patient network received over $2 million worth of free cannabis. We are networking and solidifying a bunch of independent operators in the nonprofit sector and creating a new nonprofit sector from the ground up. We hope to be the example for the rest of the country once cannabis is legalized federally.

A story about the positive impact cannabis has had on your life.

I honestly don't know where I would be or what I would be like if I had not discovered cannabis in high school and used it medically. Once I saw the medicinal benefits in my own life, I work hard to help others access this life-giving medicine. Not only has cannabis helps with my anxiety and depression, helping others with cannabis gives me a reason to get out of bed every morning. Cannabis is the thing that has made the most impact in my life.

A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.

Circadian farms in Mendocino makes incredible flower and has been a supporter of compassion for the past 15 years. They are a small, family-owned operation that believes in quality craft cannabis and earth stewardship.

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

I believe it is creating depth in brands. There is not a lot to distinguish all of the brands from each other. I think when brands partner with a cannabis nonprofit, it gives a lot more depth to the message.

One thing you're excited about right now in cannabis branding, partnerships or marketing.

I am really excited to be working with NFT projects like Stoned Apes, Crypto Cannabis Club, and Best Buds to raise funds for the cannabis nonprofit sector. Cannabis nonprofits have always had a very difficult time fundraising, and cryptocurrency and NFTs are a great way to realize a fully funded cannabis nonprofit sector. Sweetleaf is hoping to create the first cannabis foundation that exclusively gives grants to cannabis nonprofits. Currently there is no foundation that cannabis nonprofits can petition to receive funding.

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.

Ramon and Equity certified is a great project that educates consumers on which brands support equity and people of color in the cannabis industry.

A recent project you're proud of.

This month we are working with Team Compassion and their partners on a 200 pound Compassion flower packaging run. All of this flower will be going to compassion patients free of charge.

Someone else's project you admired recently.

Project Mission Green and Freedom Grow Forever are true grassroots prisoner advocacy projects. They are by prisoners for prisoners. They go so much further than other projects that sometimes seem more like PR companies; these groups actually get prisoners out. They also respect the struggle of cannabis prisoners and know what it's like to come back into society. They would never ask a released prisoner to get back into a jumpsuit as they know what wearing a jumpsuit means and how it feels.

Someone you admire in cannabis who's doing great things.

My two idols in cannabis are Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary. They are the cannabis activists who started the nonprofit sector and gave away free medical cannabis to AIDS patients in San Francisco in the '80s.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in the cannabis industry.

If I wasn't in cannabis, I would be performing circus in Greece sailing around the different islands and doing shows for tourists as well as refugees.

Higher Calling is a weekly series, publishing on Thursdays, where we chat with folks in the cannabis industry about their personal history and taste in cannabis and the future of cannabis marketing. For more about Higher Calling, and our Clio Cannabis program, please get in touch.

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Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a senior broadcast journalism student at the University of Colorado Boulder and a contributor to Muse by Clio.

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