It might seem unsurprising that the circles of gay rights and cannabis activism overlap. Both are historically progressive causes that grew alongside each other on the West Coast in the late 20th century and advocated for disenfranchised groups that were demonized by society at large and the conservative right.
But there is a more direct link that exists between the vectors of cannabis and gay activism. Without the efforts of gay activists in the ’80s and ’90s, cannabis law reform would likely not have progressed as far as it has in recent decades. Those efforts were, by far, the greatest step that has ever been taken toward changing policies and perceptions surrounding marijuana.
HIV/AIDS and Marijuana
Cannabis has arguably been used as a medicinal herb for centuries, but its healing properties were mostly overlooked or completely lost with modern prohibition. After decades of being seen strictly as a recreational substance of ill repute, the first voices to remind the culture at large that the drug could be medically beneficial were gay rights activists looking to raise awareness about the then-controversial AIDS epidemic at a time when many doctors were loathe to even acknowledge the disease’s existence.
Activists claimed that cannabis could treat symptoms associated with the disease and began pressing for reform in the late ’80s. Unlike today, they did so against a monolithic government without the benefit of anything even resembling populist support.
Here are some of the underappreciated heroes of medical cannabis legalization:
This movement would have been impossible without the influence of a New York native named Dennis Peron, who would go on to become known as the “father of medical marijuana” to other activists. Peron was born in 1945 in the Bronx. He served in the Vietnam War and began advocating for cannabis legalization in the ’70s.
As a gay resident of San Francisco’s Castro District in the ’80s, he was at the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. He began to advocate for the use of cannabis as a medicine to treat the devastating disease after he witnessed his partner’s symptoms of nausea, pain and wasting syndrome ease with the drug’s use.
When his partner died in 1990, he became a full-time marijuana activist. In 1991 Peron helped pave the way for modern medical cannabis programs by spearheading the movement to decriminalize medical marijuana in California, helping to pen the successful Proposition P—which pushed the state to officially accept marijuana as a medicine. In 1993 Peron co-founded the first medical cannabis dispensary in the country along with his political comrade (and later, husband), John Entwistle, and activist Mary Jane Rathbun.
The Cannabis Buyers Club invited TV crews to film as he weighed out medical cannabis and sold it to patients. According to an interview with the Herald Tribune, the plan was for Peron to get arrested so he could present the medical efficacy of cannabis in a court of law. But the cops never showed up, and the group had a new business on their hands instead.
A mere two years later, Peron co-authored Proposition 215, California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996, the first medical cannabis measure to pass in the U.S., along with Entwistle and Rathbun. The legislation faced stiff opposition and Peron and crew faced harassment and raids by police in the days leading up to its passage.
Mary Jane Rathbun
Another cannabis advocate with deep ties to the ’90s California gay community was Mary Jane Rathbun, known as “Brownie Mary.” Rathbun was born in Chicago in 1922. She spent time fighting for different social causes before moving to San Francisco during World War II. In the ’90s her matronly appearance of curly gray hair, large square glasses and conservative attire made for extreme photographic irony as she shouted pro-pot slogans alongside college hipsters and burnouts at cannabis rallies.
Brownie Mary was a regular face at the Shanti Project—the first agency to treat HIV/AIDS patients—and other AIDS wards around San Francisco, reportedly handing out up to 600 brownies a day to suffering patients. Secretly, those brownies were loaded with cannabutter.
Rathbun was ultimately arrested three times for her brownies. After the third arrest in 1992, at the age of 69, she testified before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who approved a resolution to make medical cannabis possession arrests the lowest priority for police. The board even declared August 25 “Brownie Mary Day” to honor her.
Rathbun helped found the aforementioned Cannabis Buyers Club, and she co-wrote Proposition 215 along with Peron and Entwistle.
The founder of Los Angeles Black Gay Pride Association, Paul Scott, was also there at the start of the medical cannabis movement in San Francisco. He was a board member of one of the first medical cannabis dispensaries to open after the Cannabis Buyers Club was shut down: the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club.
Scott had been diagnosed with HIV and turned to cannabis as an alternative to his regular treatments. He went on to found a cannabis clinic in his hometown, Inglewood, that served terminally ill patients and those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
He’s still a leader in both the medical cannabis and LGBTQ rights activism scene. In a 2019 interview with Washington Blade, Scott said cannabis legalization is still an LGBTQ issue. “It’s still an LGBT issue, because it’s still not accessible to everybody everywhere,” he said. “HIV/AIDS is still high in black populations in the South. And they can’t get pot. They still have to break laws. So absolutely it is.”
Without the efforts of these heroes, the landscape surrounding cannabis legalization would look completely different today. The very term “medical cannabis” might not be as prevalent if it weren’t for the attention it garnered as a treatment for HIV/AIDS.