As the true story of cannabis comes to light, we become more and more aware of the brutal past that has afflicted communities of color. We are aware of the permeation in every thread of white existence. Those that are not of the white ilk have lived with the ever-present confinement and exclusion associated with this story, in every aspect of their lives, not just in relation to cannabis but, quite literally, every aspect of their lives. What we haven’t spent much time unpacking is the story and existence led by the queer community as it relates to cannabis. And, to get it straight, the LGBTQ community, was absolutely marginalized with cannabis as a tool for doing so, and at the same time, hugely instrumental in the legalization of cannabis as we know it today in the United States.
I have been fortunate enough to share stories and inclined enough to do some digging into this past because it is my responsibility to, as a human of this world, honor the past. This reverence I demand of all of my interactions. Hard stop. And while I recognize I am only scratching the surface, I see the demand to share what I do know so that we can all move forward together, or even better for those of you so inclined, move forward while propelling forward those that have been afflicted with the most propulsion we can muster. We must know this history.
For those of you who know of Dennis Peron, good on you. He was one of the loudest advocates for cannabis legalization. From a place of genuine care and compassion for others, he made himself a beacon for his community and a target for law enforcement during the late ’80s and into the ’90s. Proposition 215, the first legal thread of cannabis afforded to the California community was an evolution from Prob P, written by Dennis Person, Brownie Mary, and several other activists and health care providers.
What Dennis and many others moved to protect was not cannabis, but rather the people that could be helped by access to the plant. These people were AIDS patients. And what was blaring obvious at the time was that AIDS was “the gay plague” as deemed by the government, and thus NOT a national health crisis. It bears a striking resemblance to the COVID 19 of late, in that it wasn’t treated as a national threat to humanity, instead, it was treated as a plague that affected the unwanted, undesirable communities of our population.
Looking back on the facts surrounding the AIDS crisis, we begin to unveil a sordid history of discrimination that underpins the communities’ ability to demand care and attention from the US government. At the beginning June 5, 1981, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report stated: In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California.
This finding was statistic one of what would become known as AIDS. Within one month, the number of reported cases had risen to 26 in New York and California. Starting in the 1980’s when The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration left thousands of gay men to die from “the gay cancer,” cannabis activists furthered their own agendas in search of a cure.
While the US government under President Ronald Reagan failed to recognize one of the most serious public health crises in history, countless Gay RIghts advocates including broadcast journalist Joe Lovett, AIDS activists Larry Kramer, founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, co-founder of ACT UP, and many others demanded public attention, in hopes of conveying the gravity of this public health crisis through network news.
When Lovett finally received the green-light to produce the nation’s first television investigation into the government’s inaction on the AIDS crisis in December of 1983, Geraldo Rivera reports on how, in his words, “prevailing social and political attitudes, more bluntly, our society’s negative attitude toward the queer community allowed this killer epidemic a bizarre and deadly headstart.”
Underscored by President Reagan’s denial and inaction, neither the government nor the private sector was interested in developing treatments for people with AIDS. Drug companies did not believe that the virus would spread widely enough to justify the research and development costs of treatments for AIDS. But by 1985, there were already 420,000 people in America living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, including the first celebrity Rock Hudson, Reagan’s close friend.
By that time AIDS had entered the American blood supply and started infecting heterosexuals and children via blood transfusions. Only then did the government realize they had let this virus get out of control and began to take a proactive approach to study and combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. Finally releasing the first commercial blood test for HIV/AIDS in 1985, the FDA also approved the first antiretroviral drug, zidovudine (AZT), as a treatment for HIV in March of 1986.
Until then, citizens had begun to search for cures outside of the medical system. Films such as Dallas Buyers Club depict how straight and gay Americans dying from AIDS worked together to find and share remedies. Unorthodox options, not FDA approved, were smuggled from Mexico to help boost immune systems or relieve pain. Other HIV/AIDS victims who participated in US drug trials run by big pharma, hospitals and the FDA often became sicker on AZT.
Tension between those in denial of AIDS and those deeply affected by the rapid spread of the virus was evident. But for citizens like San Francisco AIDS activist Dennis Peron, who witnessed the daily death and destruction of his community at the hands of this new virus, the palliative relief of cannabis for AIDS victims was obvious. Although controversial as a therapeutic agent, those who studied cannabis knew that the drug had “acute appetite-enhancing effects” and alleviated many symptoms of AIDS wasting, which included involuntary weight loss, chronic diarrhea, and chronic fever. Activists and advocates worked illegally to distribute and deliver cannabis products to those suffering from AIDS.
Simultaneously, as part of America’s “War on Drugs,” First Lady Nancy Reagan launched her Just Say No campaign, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health. In addition, alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical corporations who felt threatened by the potential cannabis market influenced the messaging of organizations such as Partnership for a Drug-Free America who often misrepresented the effects of cannabis in their ad campaigns.
School-aged children around the country marching with Just Say No banners chanting Say Nope to Dope, juxtaposed with activists in California who pushed to legalize the only known remedy for AIDS symptoms fueled the cannabis controversy, while gay activist pressured the government for faster scientific action.
In 1988, political group ACT UP successfully shut down the FDA for a day demanding it take its approach to AIDS more seriously - this was reported as the largest such demonstration since demonstrations against the Vietnam War. ACT UP’s demonstration served to let the media know more about the issues facing AIDS treatment.
That same year Larry Kramer, legendary playwright, AIDS activist and a co-founder of ACT UP, wrote Just Say No which ran for two months off-Broadway, which attacked Reagan and New York mayor Ed Koch’s inertia and hypocrisy in responding to the AIDS crisis.
The tension between those in denial of AIDS and those deeply affected by the rapid spread of the virus was evident. But for citizens like Peron, who witnessed the daily death and destruction of his community at the hands of this new virus, including that of his partner Jonathan West, the palliative relief of cannabis for AIDS victims was obvious.
Dennis Peron is known as the “Father of Medical Marijuana”. He was a former Vietnam Air Force pilot living in San Francisco after the war. As a vet, Peron believed in the healing power of cannabis and frequently hosted “smoke-ins” as a way to end the war. Sick with AIDS, Peron’s life partner Jonathan West suffered from side-effects of drugs like AZT, such nausea and loss of appetite which they knew cannabis would alleviate.
A friend and supporter of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first-ever openly gay elected official who was assassinated the same year, Peron had been advocating for legal use of cannabis before AIDS became a reality. Peron also founded the first Cannabis Buyers Club for patients with AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses to acquire cannabis from a trusted source. Simultaneously “Brownie Mary”, Mary Jane Rathbun, had also long advocated for cannabis and was known for her pot brownie deliveries to AIDS patients, which was permitted by the City of San Francisco. She and Peron joined forces.
"Together, Peron and Brownie Mary lobbied for legalization and went on to draft Proposition P in 1991, the nation’s first medical marijuana initiative. It passed with 80% of the vote and laid the foundation for the passage of California’s Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996."
After adult-use legalization was passed in California in 2018, compassionate care programs had been driven back into the black market. Activists and advocates like Peron and Mary had always known the healing powers of cannabis, which are finally being recognized by governments today.
California’s Governor Gavin Newsom passed the Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act in October of 2019, giving a cannabis tax exemption for compassionate care programs that provide those in need with medicinal cannabis at little to no cost.
After many decades of using cannabis as a way to ostracize and criminalize groups of people, the fight against AIDS made it clear that cannabis was something that the government needed to acknowledge. And in their fight to legalize cannabis to serve those in need, it also became clear that gay rights would be taking center stage in the transformation of contemporary American culture. In many ways, AIDS brought about a recognition of gay rights and brought to light the curative properties of cannabis that may not otherwise have been achieved.
Today, cannabis is legal in 11 states for adults over the age of 21, and legal for medical use in 33 states, and is also recognized as a remedy for epilepsy, to reduce side effects of chemotherapy, and for chronic pain. Despite its benefits in the medical world and the rise in contemporary social acceptance today, the struggle to re-establish the legal use of cannabis has not come easy for the majority of marginalized communities in the US. It’s so important that we recognize who all of those communities are and give them the honor and platform they deserve in this conversation!
To learn more about this story check out, Burning Down the House - a documentary that will soon be released shows the parallel histories of the vilification of the gay community and the vilification of cannabis by the US government throughout the 20th century, classifying homosexuality as a psychological disorder and inciting a racial bias on the use of cannabis, even down to coining the term “marijuana” as part of a pervasive anti-Mexican sentiment in the early 20th century. BDTH dives into these parallel histories, revealing the interconnectivity of movements, the necessity for people to come together for a common cause, how those most-marginalized and vilified by systems of government and mechanisms of social control, are often the ones who pave the way for a better future for all because they have nothing to lose, nothing to prove.