For Gay History Month we highlight the LGBT+ cannabis activists who advocated for access to cannabis.
To mark Gay History Month, meet the renowned LGBT+ activists, who fought for access to medical cannabis.
Cannabis activism and queer liberation movement are often interlinked. Due to the HIV/AIDS crisis, a lot of patients relied on cannabis to counteract some of the negative effects of early medications or symptoms of the disease.
We’ve delved into the stories behind three of the most prominent LGBT+ cannabis activists who helped patients access cannabis for medicinal purposes.
Harvey Milk is one of the most prominent figures in the LGBT+ movement. Originally from New York, Milk worked as a naval officer before resigning after being questioned about his sexuality. He relocated to the Castro district of San Francisco to open a camera shop.
At that time, the Castro had become the epicentre of gay life in San Francisco. It had transformed from a working-class area to an openly gay neighbourhood in the 1960s and 1970s, and by 1980 it was estimated that 17 per cent of the city’s population were gay.
Milk went on to establish his camera shop as a community centre, during which time, he met outspoken cannabis activist, Denis Peron. Milk ran several times for election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors becoming successful in 1977, having become recognised as a vocal spokesperson for the gay community. He was the first openly-gay elected official in US history.
While Milk had stopped smoking cannabis during his election campaigns he was pro-legalisation and supported Proposition W, a non-policy proposition that urged the District Attorney and Chief of Police to stop arresting and prosecuting those caught growing, cultivating, selling or using cannabis.
Many in the gay community were using cannabis during the late 1970s and 1980s to cope with the side effects of HIV/AIDs which had begun to cause devastation.
The early-stage anti-retroviral medications such as Azidothymidine (AZT) were expensive and out of reach for a lot of the community, so cannabis provided a cheaper, more natural alternative for patients.
Proposition W. passed by 63 per cent, highlighting the need for cannabis reform, however city officials decided not to push ahead with a change in legislation. This is seen as the precursor to Proposition 215 which eventually passed in 1996 officially changing cannabis laws.
Sadly, Harvey Milk was assassinated in 1978 by Dan white. White, a former city supervisor, was charged with just two counts of manslaughter going on to serve five years in prison.
Denis Peron opened the first medical cannabis dispensary in the 1970s. When he had been in the air force and stationed in Vietnam, he became an advocate for the effects of cannabis – so much so that he brought a big duffel bag of it with him when he returned from Vietnam. He was said to have been introduced to activism by Harvey Milk in San Francisco.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new disease began to spread within the gay community. It was originally named Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Disease (GRIDS) before being changed to Acquired-Immuno-deficiency disease (AIDS) as it is now known today. Peron’s long-term partner, Jonathon West was diagnosed with HIV which prompted Peron to open the first dispensary. Peron had been arrested following a raid at his house but was released after West testified on his behalf that the cannabis was his.
West passed away from AIDS in 1990.
Peron also established the Cannabis Buyers Club that sold cannabis to patients to ease some of their symptoms. As the number of patients grew, the club had to be moved to bigger premises that could accommodate 11,000 patients. It was estimated that more than half were suffering from AIDS but there were a number of cannabis, glaucoma and arthritis patients. The club offered smokeable, edibles, tinctures and topicals before it was shut following a raid in 1996.
Although Proposition W had failed to be implemented, Peron went on to draft the legislation and organise support for California Proposition 215. Also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, it allowed patients with a valid doctor’s recommendation and designated caregivers, to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal medical use.
He died in San Francisco in 2018.
Mary Rathbun was responsible for providing cannabis and care to HIV/AIDS patients in the San Francisco area. She was nicknamed ‘brownie Mary’ as she made cannabis brownies and distributed them for free among the patients who visited her. She had become aware of HIV/AIDS during her time as a volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital, and through Denis Peron who she had helped to set up the first cannabis buyers club.
As a result of her involvement with cannabis, Mary was arrested three times. Following one of the arrests, she moved her bakery into the basement of Peron’s home.
By 1984, she was baking up to 600 brownies per day. Mary used her welfare checks and what little profits she made on buying ingredients to make new batches of brownies for ‘her kids’ as she referred to the patients who visited her. A patient herself, Mary used cannabis to help her osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and colon cancer. She passed away from a heart attack in 1999.