The “Secret Handshake”—A Program Gifting Cannabis to Unhoused People

    For some people in Los Angeles’ homeless community, a dime bag of weed can make a small but welcome difference. Last spring, partially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sidewalk Project began gifting grams of cannabis to the unhoused people it works with, an informal practice dubbed the “secret handshake.”

    Soma Snakeoil, co-founder of the LA-based harm reduction organization, said that it’s a small gesture, but also that it can mean a lot to homeless people in the city, a group that’s staring down regular camp removals on top of the overdose and COVID-19 pandemics.

    “It’s just a kind thing to do. It provides relief.”

    For some people, the secret handshake is a way to relax; for others, it’s a quick but positive human interaction. For those who experience opioid withdrawal, the grams of weed can also be a bit of a respite, Snakeoil said. “It’s just a kind thing to do. It provides relief.”

    According to Snakeoil, the program has quickly become popular. So far, she estimates that the Sidewalk Project has given out close to a thousand secret handshakes to members of the community. “[There’s] like the biggest smile on people’s faces. There’s one woman who actually dances,” she told Filter.

    Sidewalk project volunteers and workers regularly hand out the evergreen gifts as they make their rounds talking with community members or visiting tents. However, according to Snakeoil, it’s not uncommon now for homeless people in the city to stop and ask staffers for the secret handshake on the street.

    California legalized marijuana for adult use in 2016. However, because of legal limits on cannabis production and the amounts one person can give to another, the flow of the material components of the secret handshake is somewhat slow. Additionally, despite many favorable anecdotal reports, research suggests that it’s currently not possible to say definitively that cannabis is a perfect tool in mitigating opioid withdrawal.

    So far, the Sidewalk Project gets its cannabis from two sources: the farm of TJ Liese, based in the Emerald Triangle part of northern California—which has a long history of cannabis growers—and the High Country Growers Association (HCGA), based in Riverside County, a few hours outside LA.

    The original idea came out of a conversation that Snakeoil had with Edison Gomez-Krauss, an activist and co-founder of the HCGA. After seeing the work that the Sidewalk Project had done in LA, he connected with Snakeoil to find ways to help out unhoused people in Riverside County.

    HCGA has around 40 members, none of whom are allowed to grow cannabis for commercial use—only personal use. With a surplus of cannabis that they couldn’t sell, a few of the growers, including Gomez-Krauss’s mom, began to donate what they could to the Sidewalk Project.

    According to Gomez-Krauss, cannabis might not be the perfect tool to combat opioid withdrawal, but it can certainly help make people feel better. “It’s the equivalent of giving them a Snickers bar. You’re not going to give them the nutrition they need, but it’s like, Hell yeah, this is something I can use,” he told Filter.

    Liese’s farm donates dried flower that would fit the criteria for commercial sale except for some esthetic flaws.

    Further north, Liese’s farm is a licensed producer of cannabis. He got involved with the project after connecting with Snakeoil through a mutual friend, and donates dried flower that would fit the criteria for commercial sale except for some esthetic flaws.

    However, the donations from Liese’s farm have been somewhat irregular. In California, a person can legally only give up to 28.5 grams of dried flower to another person, aged 21 or over, at a time. This presents a logistical challenge, Liese told Filter, considering LA is a solid six hours away from the Golden Triangle. So the donations mostly only head south whenever he or someone he knows is driving down that way.

    As such, Liese hopes that more farmers get involved to donate their unused product. “There’s enough stuff out there that doesn’t cut the mustard for the regulated market that we should be able to do that,” he said.

    Though the farms that Gomez-Krauss works with are closer to LA, they are facing their own issues. The unincorporated region the HCGA operates in has seen an ongoing feud between residents who want to grow cannabis for commercial use, and those who see it as something of a scourge because of the smell and perceived potential for criminal activity. The Riverside County government has banned the growing of commercial cannabis in Anza, where the HCGA operates. Gomez-Krauss would like to see some legal changes—including allowing growers to donate larger amounts to the Sidewalk Project and similarly-minded charities.

    Neither Snakeoil, nor Liese, nor Gomez-Krauss can say exactly how much cannabis has been donated or handed out, as the program is a relatively informal one.

    But for the HCGA growers, the donations also act as a kind of protest. “I think it’s really noble of them to keep growing it and giving it away as a sign of protest to the system that shut them out,” Gomez-Krauss said.

    Back in LA, the secret handshake has developed a hearty following. Snakeoil said that many member of the city’s homeless community regularly ask Sidewalk Project workers about it to help them sleep, or just take the edge off more broadly. This is particularly true if they are experiencing opioid withdrawal.

    “Going through withdrawal is painful, on the body. It’s painful psychologically,” she said.

    Research into how cannabis and opioid withdrawal interact paints a complicated picture, however. In 2018, a team of researchers penned a paper that surveyed 200 people who have experience with opioids, withdrawal and cannabis.

    According to Cecilia Bergeria—an instructor in psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and one of the authors of the paper—the respondents were sourced online from Amazon Mechanical Turk.

    The majority of respondents, 62.5 percent, said that cannabis helped them to stave off some of the complications associated with opioid withdrawal—namely tremors, difficulty sleeping and anxiety. Only 6 percent said that cannabis exacerbated some of the issues associated with withdrawal—namely runny nose, yawning and teary eyes.

    Bergeria said that it’s difficult to draw broad conclusions from these numbers, however—and it’s also hard to say that they suggest anything about the number of people who actually use cannabis to tackle withdrawal. If there are benefits, they might be somewhat situational, she told Filter. “If cannabinoids were effective, it might be among a subset of those symptoms.”

    According to Bergeria, withdrawal is a complicated issue with many different symptoms, and it affects people differently. Cannabis, as well, hits people in sometimes dramatically different ways, and the effects can vary wildly from person to person and strain to strain. As yet, “the science doesn’t back up that cannabis would be a silver bullet for opioid withdrawal,” she said.

    In the future, Bergeria hopes to run some empirical tests in the area, measuring the efficacy of isolated cannabinoids—like THC and CBD—either alone or in different concentrations, to get a better sense of what’s happening.

    “There are things we can do to make those things a little softer and kinder, and I think smoking weed is one of those things.”

    Snakeoil agrees that cannabis isn’t a cure-all in this area, noting that it’s likely not a good substitution for buprenorphine or methadone. But for people without homes and people experiencing opioid withdrawal, cannabis is quite cheap and accessible, and can “[take] the edges off of a pointy world,” she said.

    The pleasures of drug use are often underplayed as a benefit in themselves—both by research and by public attitudes toward people experiencing homelessness and other hardships.

    “There are things we can do to make those things a little softer and kinder,” said Snakeoil, “and I think smoking weed is one of those things.”


    Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

    • Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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