Cannabis has been a symbol of resistance for so long. Generation after generation the government has criminalized and radicalized this plant, and the substance’s conscious use in many political upheavals, such as counterculture, is not a coincidence. Even as total legalization seems so close to sweeping the country in the next few years, the subject of weed is inseparable from socio economic justice issues.
Bearing this in mind, it isn’t shocking that the cannabis movement and the gay rights movement were and are closely intertwined. The most immediate link is cannabis’ use as treatment for AIDS, which disproportionately impacted the LGBTQ+ community. Given federal and local governments’ reluctance to acknowledge the virus’ existence and impact on a group of people it deemed expendable, those with AIDS turned to weed to ease the symptoms from the disease itself as well as from the drugs they were prescribed, which were often just as harmful. Aside from this connection, the two movements both gained ground around the same time and advocated for disenfranchised, outcast populations, working to completely alter what society perceived as deviant and criminal. Without the rigorous, dangerous work of queer activists, cannabis would certainly not be as (relatively) accessible as it is today.
One such activist who emerged during this time was Dennis Peron, a man who is now considered to be the father of the medical marijuana movement. Peron’s fight for cannabis legalization began in the Castro District of San Francisco during the 1970s, where he coordinated smoke-ins to protest the ban of cannabis. However, soon Dennis’ passion for activism greatly intensified when his partner Jonathan West tragically died from AIDS in 1990. For years Peron watched cannabis help alleviate the horrendous symptoms the virus produced in his loved one, and in 1991, one year after West’s death, Peron founded what was effectively the first dispensary—the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. In 1996 he co-authored the infamous Compassionate Use Act, also known as Proposition 215 which allowed for the use of medical marijuana. Proposition 215 passed with 55% of the vote, making it the first medical marijuana program to be passed at the state level. The success of the Compassionate Use Act in the face of federal prohibition set off a chain reaction that took place across North America and laid the foundation for the legalization efforts we now benefit from in the US and Canada.
Although the most prominent, Peron, who died in 2018, was not the only HIV/AIDS activist who helped pave the way for medical marijuana. Another notable figure was Kiyoshi Kuromiya—who was born in an internment camp where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II—served as a personal assistant to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s, and helped lead the Gay Liberation Front. Kuromiya was an openly gay delegate to the Black Panther Convention and one of the founders of the AIDS activist group Act Up. Following his own diagnosis, Kuromiya explored marijuana as a treatment for the illness. Further, like Peron did in San Francisco, Kuromiya ran an underground cannabis buyers’ club in Philadelphia to help treat AIDS patients. And before his passing in 2000, Kuromiya acted as the lead plaintiff in a Supreme Court case calling for the legalization of medical marijuana.
These two viewed the HIV/AIDS epidemic for what it really was: a public health crisis. While national leadership actively ignored the virus, these incredible activists persevered in serving a community that was in desperate need of compassion and relief. Facing personal risk to make cannabis available as a way to manage HIV/AIDS symptoms—together with concurrent issues like anxiety and depression—these two early activists helped, and continue posthumously to help, countless people living with the virus. And they helped set in motion an effort to legalize cannabis that continues today. The work of Peron, Kuromiya, among so many others, made it possible for California to become the first US jurisdiction to legalize medical cannabis—paving the way for the many marijuana policy wins we have seen around the country in more recent years.
Today, cannabis use among queer folks is considerably higher than it is for straight folks — not because of HIV, but because of the myriad mental and physical illnesses LGBTQ+ people experience at a higher rate. According to the 2015 data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, sexual minority adults are more than twice as likely to use marijuana when compared to heterosexual adults. Almost a third of sexual minority adults (30.7%) reported using marijuana in the past year, compared to 12.9 percent of heterosexual adults. These higher rates of marijuana use coexists with the higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, homelessness, and physical pain that LGBTQ+ people experience due to marginalization and oppression.
We’ve come a long way in regard to both the gay rights and cannabis legalization movements, but now is not the time to rest. We still have a long road ahead of us. Cannabis continues to be federally listed as a Schedule I drug, and more than seventy countries still criminalize homosexuality. In the spirit of Pride month, we at Rebelle have elected Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition as the recipient of our CGP Cares charity drive. BSCC supports the well-being of LGBTQ+ people of the Berkshires through outreach, community positive events, as well as opportunities for political and educational activities. Now through June 30th, Rebelle will match every dollar donated to Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition.