The complete lack of LGBTQ+ representation in cannabis is once again a clear indication that the cannabis industry would rather forget its trailblazers than embrace them.
Throughout the 80s and 90s when cis-United States was only concerned about moonshoes or something, an AIDS epidemic was completely devastating the LGBTQ+ community. When Ken Horne passed away on April 24, 1980 in San Fransisco, he was reported to the Center for Disease and Control with Kaposi sarcoma. A year later he would be recategorized as the first victim of AIDS. By the early 80s, word started to spread of a mysterious “gay cancer” with no known origin. As the death toll of AIDS victims rose yearly, the public’s hysteria to a “gay and lesbian disease” began to grow, which resulted in even more friction within the LGBTQ+ community (one that was already becoming divided on one of its causes).
Before I get into this, I think it’s important to stress the seriousness of the AIDS crisis — especially considering that the social stigma surrounding the virus has changed drastically over the past two decades. The understanding and sympathy we now have for pretty much anyone with HIV/AIDS is something that many who were diagnosed during this epidemic would never receive from their loved ones. Before anti-retroviral therapy, getting an HIV/AIDS diagnostic was a death sentence. Many in the LGBTQ+ community were left bewildered as once healthy friends and loved ones quickly became ill with an array of ailments, only to pass away in matter of months. As the fear of “who’s next?” started to creep through the community, HIV/AIDS victims started to find themselves isolated not only from the general public, but also from areas they once considered safe places.
While the 80s progressed, so did the homophobic rhetoric. For many bigoted politicians, the AIDS epidemic gave them something to latch onto and hold up to society as a consequence to stepping out of “traditional values.” In 1987, Reagan made sure government money wouldn’t help a queer epidemic by signing legislation that wouldn’t allow federal funding for any any education campaign that “[promoted] or [encouraged], directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.”
Media outlets in sync with politicians quickly took the same route. Rather than giving complete facts, they gave skewed information to play into the national story that AIDS was a immoral gay illness that could cross over into heterosexual land and end us all. As they excessively used fear and shame, the media fed into the stigma rather than addressing it with facts. Many early anti-AIDS ads left black men unrepresented and thinking that AIDS only affected white gay men. Without the government stepping in and setting a standard, AIDS campaigns just became gimmicky headlines with no substance.
In the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Reagan started healthcare budget cuts and openly showed his complacency towards the crisis — meanwhile, many in the community were left picking up the pieces from a loved one passing or a positive diagnosis. Amongst this group was Dennis Peron, a gay, weed-smoking ‘Nam veteran who lived in California. After he returned home with two pounds of weed from the Vietnam War, Peron made a living selling pot. In the 70s he owned the infamous Big Top Supermarket in California, which openly sold cannabis… while it was still considered a felony. Several arrests later, one of which left him shot in the leg by an undercover cop, a particular arrest in 1990 changed his life.
One evening in January of 1990, Peron and his boyfriend’s Jonathan West home was raided by the police. While officers trashed Peron’s house, they began to harass the couple. Tragically at this time, West was extremely sick from an AIDS-related illness and was suffering from skin lesions on his face and body. The police happily took this opportunity to dehumanize him even more by making a scene and putting on rubber gloves. Dennis Peron was charged later that night with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
As the AIDS crisis swept through San Fransisco, Mr. Peron started to realize the healing benefits of cannabis for those affected — especially after his boyfriend Jonathan West was diagnosed. Six months after that January raid, Peron plead not guilty to the charge. On the day of the trial, an extremely feeble Jonathan West took the stand and testified that the marijuana was his. There’s a much more beautiful description of that day, here. But to make it brief, everyone in the courtroom was left shaken. Shortly after Mr. Wests’ testimony, the Judge ordered the case to be thrown out — and told the police officers who had arrested them that he never wanted to see another case like this again.
Two weeks after the case’s dismissal, Jonathan West passed away from AIDS-related Kaposi Sarcoma. Through his despair, Peron made the decision to use the tragedy of West’s passing as a catalyst to help others who were suffering. After a year of grieving, Peron began writing Prop P, a ballot initiative that would force the city of San Fransisco to declare its support for medical marijuana. Peron said that he “almost single-handedly” gathered all the signatures to get Prop P on that year’s ballot. Whatever the case may be, when it was time for the initiative to be voted on, the San Franciscan public completely backed Peron and passed it by 80%. This caused a domino effect throughout California, which gave way to other cities like Santa Cruz to start passing their own similar bills!
With the help of close friends like “Brownie Mary” Rathbun (seriously, check her out) and many others, Dennis Peron opened the San Fransisco Cannabis Buyers Club in 1992 — the first dispensary in the United States! Even though this was a major win for them, the number of HIV/AIDS victims in San Fransisco had yet to reach its peak— it became the first US city to report AIDS as the leading cause of death amongst men. Soon, The Cannabis Buyers Club became a place of hope and healing for many of its chronically ill members. More than half were affected with HIV/AIDS.
Without the current laws we have that protect HIV/AIDS victims’ rights, it wasn’t unheard of to be fired just for getting tested. And if you had any symptoms, same thing. This left a large portion of those sick with HIV/AIDS jobless, homeless and unable to pay for medication. Peron made sure the Club gave cannabis to those who couldn’t pay for it.
After a handful of years of aiding the San Fransisco public, the weedy collective decided that there was more work that could be done for cannabis in California. Once again, Mr. Peron got to work on drafting another initiative. Prop 215, a measure for medical marijuana in California — and this time, with the help of his colleagues, some millionaires and the public. Unlike his pervious initiative, Prop 215, AKA “The Compassionate Care Act,” was facing pushback right off the bat. With three former Presidents, the Governor, state police and anti-drug groups wanting to stop this measure, Peron could only take Prop 215 to the public to get it passed. He formed a grassroots political action group in 1995 which came together with the local veterans’ community.
The group didn’t get enough signatures to get Prop 215 on that year’s ballot and the deadline was coming up. Thankfully, Dennis Peron had been rubbing elbows with political stars like Harvey Milk for years, so it was no surprise when millionaires like George Soros and Laurence Rockefeller made a few large donations for the cause. The philanthropists paid for professional petition circulators, securing their needed signatures to be on that year’s ballot! In total, they received over 850,000 names and nearly $2.5 million. Their opposition only rose $33,612.
On November 5, 1996, California voters lined the polls while balancing the future of the Compassionate Care Act and those suffering from chronic illnesses. With AIDS taking around 43,000 lives nationally just the year before and antiviral medications costing up to $8,000 a year (*gasp* that’s more than $17,000 now) — cannabis could help bridge the gap between those in their final days and passing with dignity and peace. Later that evening when all votes had been counted, the California public showed they truly cared for their community by passing the Compassionate Care Act with 56% of the vote. This laid the foundation for medical marijuana laws nationwide.
It’s unfortunate that as cannabis legalization has progressed, the bittersweet queer history behind the nations first MMJ laws are completely ignored. Couple this with a complete lack of LGBTQ+ representation and it starts to feel like cannabis has no space for those who built its framework. We can’t continue to let an industry that was started by the LGBTQ+ community exclude us. As another silent HIV/AIDS epidemic begins to creep through those who intersect with the LGBTQ+ community and minority groups, it’s so important we bring the conversation full circle and try to learn from past mistakes, by fighting for safe access in the name of those who didn’t make it and weren’t allowed this privilege.