While marijuana still remains illegal on the federal level, acceptance of the plant is on the rise: In October 2017, a Gallup poll indicated that 64% of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana—the highest number since the annual poll was first conducted in 1969.
It’s easy to forget in this modern, adult-use era of cannabis consumption that the right to use the plant was (and in some places, still is) hard fought, initially by some of the most marginalized members of society: the activists and leaders of the LGBTQ movement.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, doctors in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco began noticing unusual illnesses among young men with same-sex partners. Researchers eventually concluded that the illnesses had to do with a breakdown of the immune system. They eventually gave the syndrome a name: acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), but they were still at a loss on how to treat it.
This, compounded by the government’s slow response to the crisis, meant that there were no specific drugs to address AIDS, and few available ones to deal with the consequences of immune system breakdown. As a result, the LGBTQ community suffered tremendously: From January 1981 to March 1982, there were 290 reported cases of compromised immune systems in the U.S. (the terms HIV and AIDS didn’t exist yet), the majority of which occurred in men with same-sex partners. By 1989, 100,000 people in the U.S. were living with AIDS.
Faced with this epidemic, people with AIDS (PWA) and their allies, many of whom were also pioneers of the gay liberation movement, began to mobilize. “Almost overnight, gay rights activists became AIDS activists, fighting not for equality, but for existence,” writes Clinton A. Werner in his 2001 essay, “Medical Marijuana and the AIDS Crisis.”
PWA and their supporters began to research possible treatments in other countries, where guidelines weren’t as stringent as those set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). By 1987, the first “buyer’s clubs” for these treatments emerged in San Francisco and New York, giving people access to these alternative therapies.
In the same year, the FDA also approved a drug called azidothymidine (AZT). While it was effective and manageable for some patients, for others its side effects only seemed to worsen the already debilitating symptoms of AIDS, which included nausea, fatigue and cachexia.
Marijuana has been around for centuries, and many seem to be naturally attuned to the plant’s benefits. So, it should come as no surprise that cannabis’s anti-emetic and pain-relieving properties were quickly used throughout the AIDS community for symptom relief, according to the autobiography of Dennis Peron, the late marijuana activist. However, cannabis was—unsurprisingly—one of the therapies that buyer’s clubs weren’t allowed to sell.
Dennis, who was a prominent figure in the San Francisco LGBTQ community at the time, watched many of his friends succumb to AIDS early on in the epidemic. He notes one incident in which an acquaintance was suffering in the hospital, unable to consume marijuana for fear of repercussion from the hospital’s staff.
Dennis and his friends paid him a visit, barred the doors to his room and sat with him all day, smoking cannabis and keeping him company. He recalls the incident as a turning point, in the way he and his friends viewed the plant.
“Suddenly we realized that this oh-so-controversial weed wasn’t just a safer alternative to liquor and hard drugs as we had been using it, but was actually a real therapeutic medicine in its own right. … I saw that the AIDS crisis had made this obvious to anyone who thought about it for even two seconds,” he writes.
Dennis and his friends weren’t the only ones attuned to how cannabis could help people living with AIDS. Bob Randall, a glaucoma patient, wasn’t a part of the LGBTQ community, but he was a strong marijuana advocate and credited the plant with helping him keep his vision.
Bob became the first legal medical marijuana patient in the U.S. via the Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) program, which allowed the use of drugs not yet approved by the FDA under special circumstances.
When the epidemic hit, a person with AIDS named Steve L. reached out to Bob; he wanted to gain admission into the Compassionate IND program for cannabis, with his doctor as a sponsor. The process took months, but Steve was approved and received his cannabis on Jan. 25, 1990—just 18 days before he would succumb to the disease.
Bob wrote an obituary for Steve in High Times magazine; it was noticed by Barbara and Kenny Jenks, a young couple with AIDS. Kenny was a hemophiliac who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion and then subsequently transmitted it on to his wife. They were low-income with few health-care resources. They’d been using cannabis to help with their symptoms until their trailer was raided, and Kenneth was sent to jail.
In Bob’s eyes, Barbara and Kenny were the perfect spokespeople for promoting the use of medical marijuana for AIDS. They were a young heterosexual, monogamous couple that the majority of society could empathize with.
Together with Bob, the couple was approved for the Compassionate IND program, and as a group they started the Marijuana/AIDS Research Service (MARS), an organization that was specifically dedicated to helping AIDS patients navigate the Compassionate IND program’s complicated application process.
MARS was met with enthusiasm in the AIDS community, and the FDA began to receive many applications. However, in 1991, the Compassionate IND program was closed—inciting furor in the public and helping fuel support for Dennis Peron’s next steps.
The AIDS epidemic pushed the concept of medical cannabis into the public’s consciousness. While Bob and the Jenkses fought for medical marijuana access via the federal government, Dennis’s partner Jonathan West was in the late stages of AIDS and using cannabis to manage his symptoms. The police received a tip that Dennis was selling cannabis and proceeded to raid the couple’s home.
Dennis was arrested, and at his trial, Jonathan testified that the cannabis found in their home was his, and that he was using it for medical purposes. Based on this testimony, Dennis was released. Sadly, however, Jonathan passed away two weeks later.
The whole ordeal inspired Dennis to fiercely advocate for medical marijuana access and legalization. Soon after his release from prison, Dennis drafted Proposition P, which he describes as “a eulogy to my Jonathan and to all the young gay men lost to this epidemic.”
Proposition P was the nation’s first medical marijuana initiative. It urged the city of San Francisco to make enforcing cannabis laws the lowest priority. It also urged the state of California to restore “hemp medical preparations” to the list of available medicines in California and listed a broad category of symptoms for which cannabis could be used.
Proposition P passed with 80% of the vote.
Now out of jail, Dennis and a few collaborators were making runs around San Francisco, delivering cannabis to PWA. Overwhelmed by demand, they saw a need for a distribution center.
Thinking about the buyers’ clubs that already existed for alternative therapies, Dennis wondered if one could be created specifically with the idea of providing marijuana to PWA. Even with the passing of Proposition P, such a concept was still illegal; but he wondered, what if he did it anyway, got arrested and subsequently filed a court case arguing that selling cannabis was a medical necessity?
If Dennis and his collaborators won—and he believed they had a decent chance, they would set a new precedent that would legalize the distribution of cannabis to PWA. Gutsy as ever, and riding the wave of their recent success, Dennis and his team set out to do just that.
They set up a store in his garage and invited a media outlet to film their first sale. The story was aired on public television.
They waited for the police to arrive—except the cops never did. Instead, what they got was PWA contacting the news station to find out where the club was and how they could buy cannabis.
And just like that, the Cannabis Buyers’ Club, the nation’s first medical marijuana dispensary, was born.
According to Dennis’ memoirs, once the group realized that the San Francisco police weren’t coming to get them, they set out to provide medical marijuana as well as use the Cannabis Buyers’ Club to shape public opinion.
The dispensary was a press magnet, and the activists gave the media everything they needed to cover a good story: freedom to film, good visuals and most importantly, many PWA who had stories about how the plant was helping them.
“This ongoing series of reports helped synchronize public opinion with the needs of the AIDS patient community directly. These interviews reinforced the crucial message that marijuana is medicine,” writes Dennis.
Dennis knew that if there was ever any hope for legalizing medical marijuana in California, he’d need the public’s approval.
The Cannabis Buyers’ Club eventually grew too big to be contained in Dennis’ little apartment. The club moved to a larger location in San Francisco, where Dennis could cater to more patients and foster a community of like-minded activists.
It was here, through a network of patients, activists and cannabis suppliers, that Proposition 215, a California law that legalized medical marijuana, would come into fruition. On Nov. 5, 1996, California voters approved the law with 55.6% of the vote. Oregon, Alaska and Washington would do the same two years later.
By garnering public support and cleverly using their networks, LGBTQ activists led by Dennis Peron were able to change the public’s perception and bring medical marijuana to the masses. These folks were willing to go to great means—facing jail time and even death threats—to ensure that patients could access the medicine they needed. It’s a struggle that we easily forget today, but one that we should remember and honor, especially as we navigate this new era of cannabis consumption.
Photo credit: Cannabis Reports