If you walk past the neon green cross into a marijuana dispensary today, it's likely you'll see a wide array of cannabis products, generous budtenders quick to talk about favorite strains, and an altogether feel-good environment.
But that environment stands in harsh juxtaposition with America's first-ever public cannabis dispensary. When the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club opened in 1992 out of a small apartment in the Castro District, the somber setting was one of grave desperation rather than celebration. The AIDS epidemic was decimating both the gay and Black communities across the US in the 1980s and '90s. But a group of LGBTQ+ activists stepped up to spark the legal marijuana movement that continues to this day.
It's important to understand and preserve the role that the LGBTQ+ community played in getting medical marijuana legalized in California, which helped the push to legalize it elsewhere. It's a story of iconic activists who dedicated their lives to advocating for the medical potential of cannabis and fought for the passage of Proposition 215.
It's impossible to dive into the history of Proposition 215 and marijuana legalization without beginning with Dennis Peron, a gay man widely regarded as the Father of Medical Marijuana. Peron died of lung cancer on Jan. 27, 2018, but his legacy as a cannabis and gay rights activist is well-documented and celebrated in both communities.
The Father of Medical Marijuana
Peron was born in New York's Bronx neighborhood but relocated to the Castro District, a historically gay neighborhood in San Francisco, in 1969 after completing a stint fighting in the Vietnam War with the US Air Force. His initial foray with activism as a “yippie,” a term used for radical members of the Youth International Party, is detailed in Brian Applegarth's short documentary, “The Secret Story: How Medical Cannabis Was Re-Legalized in the US.”
In a conversation with Weedmaps News, cannabis activist and Peron's spouse, John Entwistle Jr., spoke about Peron's pivotal role in the election of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the history of California, and his background as a renowned cannabis activist long before the medical benefits of the plant were recognized.
In a feature called “Bay Area Revelations” on KNTV, San Francisco's NBC affiliate, Peron told of opening the Big Top Pot Supermarket in the late 1970s. He illegally sold cannabis to thousands of San Francisco residents from the top two floors of a Victorian house in the Castro District. During this time, Peron became known by local law enforcement and was even shot in the leg by an undercover officer during a raid in 1978, landing him three months in the hospital and another three months in jail.
In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic swept through the US, especially ravaging the gay community in San Francisco. Because the disease was originally thought to only spread among gay men, President Ronald Reagan's administration was reluctant to act due to its conservatism and homophobia, according to “And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic,” Randy Shilts' book on the history of the AIDS epidemic. Reagan didn't publicly say "AIDS" until 1986; the disease had already claimed the lives of more than 16,000 people by then. It was the sudden onset of this devastating and fatal disease that caused Peron to shift his cannabis activism lens from a focus on civil rights to one of compassion.
“At this point, Harvey Milk had been killed and then the AIDS epidemic came, so everyone is doing caregiving and caretaking for those around who need it,” Entwistle said. “Dennis was still dealing and still doing his thing, but the main focus was the AIDS epidemic. The whole community was focused on collectively staying healthy and taking care of those who needed it.”
One of the detrimental effects of AIDS was wasting syndrome, or cachexia, which causes unintended rapid weight loss, as well as weakness, fever, and diarrhea. During the earliest days of the epidemic, people suffering from AIDS had no readily accessible medication or therapeutic relief. The first drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to fight HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, wasn't available to patients until 1987. According to the KNTV feature, Peron realized that cannabis could help stimulate the appetite in AIDS patients, and also help deal with the pain and depression that accompanied the disease.
“The drug that people did have was pot, and it helped,” Entwistle told Weedmaps News. “It helped with the appetite, it helped with nausea, and it helped with the depression, and that's a pretty big deal.”
By 1990, many of Peron's closest friends with AIDS had died, including his partner Jonathan West. This prompted him to focus his attention on legalizing medical marijuana, planting seeds of determination, and at times despair, that would eventually pave the way to the passing of Proposition 215.
“This was done as an act of compassion, Dennis gave up everything,” Entwistle explained. “If he'd just stayed underground and kept his business going, he could have lived as a normal person making a good living. Most people don't sacrifice their means of income to do the right thing.”
Brownie Mary changed the game
After his partner died, Peron was determined to get medical marijuana legalized as a tribute to West. The first successful legislative progress occurred in November 1991, when Peron organized for the passage of Proposition P, a San Francisco initiative calling on the state government to allow medical cannabis use, which received 79% of the vote, as detailed by The New York Times.
This is where a patient's-rights activist named Mary Jane Rathbun, known as Brownie Mary, entered the picture. In the early 1980s, while working as a volunteer for The Shanti Project, which was the first organization to offer medical services to AIDS patients, Rathbun secretly distributed pot brownies to patients before she was caught and forced underground. At 68 years old, Rathbun was arrested in Cazadero, California, on July 25, 1992, for baking marijuana-infused brownies. Already a close friend of Rathburn, Dennis Peron decided to use her legal situation to draw media attention and get coverage for their cause. By the time the media circus was in full swing, Brownie Mary had been found not guilty.
“America was hearing the story of medical marijuana from an older woman who had a working-class background that people could respect and empathize with, surfacing from an epidemic that had really caught the imagination of the country on its own,” Entwistle said. “This was a real game changer.”
How the ballot initiative came to be
That same year, Peron opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first public medical cannabis dispensary in the US Entwistle revealed to Weedmaps News that the medical cannabis club operating out of the Castro District was supposed to be temporary, part of a stunt meant to get Peron busted and bring the fight for medical legalization into the courtroom and back into the media's attention. The apartment was decorated to look like a cafe and dozens of AIDS patients were recruited to be filmed buying cannabis from the club and smoking it when the media came.
Peron initially expected that the media footage of him selling cannabis, which was featured on television news, would lure the police into arresting him. Instead, the television station that aired the segment showing the inside of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club received hundreds of phone calls from AIDS patients, who persuaded Peron to actually open up shop to those in need.
“Dennis had an underground operation that had been running the whole time, so we decided to flip that around and make that the Cannabis Buyers Club,” Entwistle explained. “We raised the stakes. What else could we do?”
Over the next few years, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club largely operated without facing recourse from law enforcement. In fact, according to Entwistle, some local police officers were even advising patients in need to purchase from the club instead of from street dealers. Around this time, Peron also turned his attention to legislative matters, managing to get three medical marijuana measures onto the desk of Gov. Pete Wilson, who vetoed each initiative.
“During this whole time period, the other thing we were doing was lobbying, we were trying to change the law in-house,” Entwistle said. “We went to Sacramento and put bills on the governor's desk, which he vetoed, and that's what led to us going out and collecting signatures for Proposition 215.”
These initial denials from Wilson set the stage for Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, an initiative that would allow patients and caregivers to possess and cultivate marijuana for medical use. The measure was drafted with help from other cannabis advocates across California, such as Dale Gieringer and Willam Panzer. According to Entwistle, they were just able to gather enough signatures to solidify the initiative's place on the state ballot. While Proposition 215 was gaining traction, the Buyers Club was operating out of a 30,000-square-foot building with 8,000 to 10,000 customers weekly.
Once the initiative made it onto the state ballot in 1996, the federal government finally took notice of the club and arrested Peron for possession and transportation of marijuana on Oct. 11, 1996.
“That's when the shit hit the fan,” Entwistle explained. “They decided that the best way to keep Prop 215 from passing was to make the author of the initiative look like a criminal. So they went and busted Dennis and closed down the club.”
While Entwistle believed that the raid was intended to taint Proposition 215, the arrest and media attention ended up giving the measure a six-point boost in the polls. Less than a month later, on Nov. 6, 1996, Proposition 215 passed with 55.6% of the vote.
“It started out as a eulogy for Jonathan and wound up to be a worldwide movement,” Peron said in the 2015 interview with KNTV.
Key LGBTQ+ figures in the fight for legalization
Peron and Rathbun played paramount roles in the marijuana movement, but they were far from the only LGBTQ+ figures to contribute to the medical marijuana cause. Other activists, many of whom were associated with Peron, were also instrumental in helping medical patients access cannabis, advocating for the passage of California's Proposition 215, and continuing the fight today.
Dr. Donald Abrams
Dr. Donald Abrams, an integrative oncologist at the University of San Francisco, was one of the first researchers to study the relationship between cannabis and AIDS. After meeting Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Abrams collaborated with him in 1994 on a research project to demonstrate the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The initial proposal was rejected by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, but after tweaking it into a safety assessment study, Abrams received approval and a $978,000 grant.
When the study concluded in 2000, the researchers found that cannabis was a safe and effective treatment for AIDS patients, reducing the disease's progression against the immune system. Clint Werner, a fellow LGBTQ+ activist and husband of Abrams, is also a notable figure, having authored a compilation of scientific and medical information in 2011 entitled “Marijuana, Gateway to Health.” According to Entwistle, Abrams was instrumental in legitimizing marijuana as a potential medical treatment for AIDS and other conditions.
“If you want to make the point that someone is acting unreasonably, you got to have some concrete points, and Donald Abrams was really good at that,” he explained. “That helped set the stage for what was to come.”
As the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, Harvey Milk was, and continues to be decades after his death, one of the most important figures in LGBTQ+ history. Though Milk was assassinated just 11 months into his term as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (city council), his contribution to cannabis legalization lives on. Just three weeks before his death, Milk helped pass Proposition W, a non-binding ballot initiative that effectively decriminalized the cultivation, transfer, and possession of cannabis. Peron, a close friend who had worked on all of Milk's campaigns for supervisor, drafted the language of Proposition W:
“We, the people of San Francisco, demand that the District Attorney, along with the Chief of Police, cease the arrest and prosecution of individuals involved in the cultivation, transfer, or possession of marijuana."
Milk's political reach helped Peron secure the signatures needed to get Prop W on the ballot. It passed with 56% approval and came briefly into effect before being set aside by the city's next mayor. Though its time was short, Proposition W was the first of many steps California took toward cannabis legalization.
Paul Scott was a student of and fellow grower with Peron at Big Top Farm so it was natural for him to follow in Peron's advocacy footsteps. After the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club was shuttered, Scott, who understood the ravages of HIV/AIDS and its treatment personally, joined the board of one of its first replacements, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. He also founded the Inglewood Wellness Center in 1999 and ran it until 2013. Similar to the San Francisco Buyers Club, this collective helped numerous AIDS and cancer patients gain access to medical cannabis, and also provided support groups for terminally ill patients in Inglewood, California, home to a mostly Black population. Scott also helped found the Los Angeles Black Gay Pride Association and was the LA County Commissioner on HIV and AIDS from 2002 to 2008.
Also following in the footsteps of Peron was a group of activists from Santa Cruz, which includes Valerie Corral, the founder of the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a non-profit medicinal cannabis dispensing collective. According to Entwistle, Corral was also one of the many activists to help with the language of Proposition 215.
'Nurse Mary Jane' Tishler
Andrea Tischler was a lesbian who advocated for medical marijuana and passed out free joints to sick patients throughout the small coastal city while wearing a nurse's outfit (she wasn't one) and a hat featuring a glittery weed leaf. The outfit, and free weed, earned her the moniker Nurse Mary Jane. She worked with other activists to pass 1993's Santa Cruz Medical Marijuana Initiative, a law similar to Proposition P in San Francisco, and also acted as the city's chair for Proposition 215 from 1995 until its passage in 1996.
Another important figure on the scene at the time was Scott Imler, who operated a Santa Cruz-based medical marijuana collective of his own. In 1992 Imler was convinced by Peron, his close friend, to work with Corral, Tischler, and others on Measure A, which became the Santa Cruz Medical Marijuana Initiative, the second local legislation of its kind approved in California.
A Japanese-American born in an internment camp in Wyoming during World War II, Kiyoshi Kuromiya went on to influence the fights for gay rights and access to cannabis for people with AIDS, among other social justice causes. After founding the Philadelphia chapter of the international AIDS political group ACT UP, he went on to create the organization's Standards of Care, the first publication by and for people with AIDS. He also started the Critical Path AIDS Project, originally a mailed newsletter with treatment information for AIDS patients, that grew into an international program, website, hotline, and free internet access platform. As a person with AIDS himself, Kuromiya consumed cannabis for cachexia, the wasting disease, and advocated for research into marijuana and other alternative treatments. In addition to running an illegal cannabis buyer's club and distributing free cannabis to AIDS patients in Philadelphia, he was the lead plaintiff in the US Supreme Court class-action lawsuit seeking to legalize medical marijuana for people with AIDS.
Bottom line on LGBTQ+ rights and cannabis legalization
Through the story of Peron and fellow activists then and now, it's easy to see how LGBTQ+ rights and cannabis legalization have become so strongly intertwined. Not only did both movements start around the same time and strive to squash long-held social stigmas, but it was advocacy in response to the AIDS epidemic that paved the way for medical marijuana and reshaped the way we see cannabis today.
Featured image illustrated by David Lozada/Weedmaps