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The Queer History of Cannabis Legalization

Queer culture and cannabis culture have shared history for decades, and the LGBTQ+ community has produced some of the most prominent names in the cannabis legalization movement. In many ways, the story of cannabis legalization cannot be told without including the influence of the LGBTQ+ community. During Pride Month and all year round, we at Ethos want to share and celebrate the history of how these medical cannabis pioneers came to be.

Cannabis legalization as a response to the AIDS epidemic

Cannabis has a long history as medicine in cultures around the world, but it was made illegal in the U.S. from coast to coast since Prohibition in the 1930s. By the late 1980s, though, the AIDS epidemic was a looming crisis, one which particularly affected the LGBTQ+ community.

From San Francisco, CA, one of the epicenters of AIDS activism, rose champions of medical cannabis who knew of its potential therapeutic power to offer relief and support to patients living with HIV/AIDS. Cannabis helped manage both the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and the debilitating side effects of the medications available at the time.

Cannabis is now accessible to millions in the U.S. because of those who advocated for AIDS patients. Four of these influential figures are:

Dennis Peron

Dennis Peron, who began advocating for cannabis legalization in response to the AIDS epidemic, was a founding member of the San Francisco Buyers Club, the first public cannabis dispensary in the U.S. After the death of his partner, who succumbed to AIDS in 1990, Peron organized support for the passage of San Francisco’s Proposition P, which requested the state government’s blessing that medical cannabis be permitted in the city. Peron also helped to write California Proposition 215, the measure that California voters eventually approved in 1996 to create the first medical cannabis program in the country. Peron died in 2018.

Paul Scott

Paul Scott is one of the first board members of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, one of the early medical cannabis organizations modeled after the San Francisco Buyers Club. He later owned the Inglewood Wellness Center, which he operated from 1999 until 2013. Scott dedicated his activism to ensuring cannabis was accessible to the Black community affected by HIV/AIDS. In addition to his work in the cannabis community, Scott is the founder of LA’s Black LGBTQ+ Pride, and he served as Los Angeles County’s Commissioner for HIV/AIDS from 2002 until 2008.

Mary Jane Rathbun

Brownie Mary, a key member of the San Francisco Buyers Club, is an icon of the legalization movement. Born Mary Jane Rathbun, Brownie Mary baked and gave away cannabis-infused brownies to AIDS patients at the San Francisco General Hospital. She touted her own consumption of cannabis as well, saying that it helped her relieve pain associated with osteoarthritis.

Brownie Mary was arrested three times while advocating for medical cannabis legalization in California, generating support and media attention for her cause. In fact, her cause attracted so much attention that it prompted researchers to look into the potential therapeutic benefits of phytocannabinoids for HIV/AIDS patients. In the end, the City of San Francisco relented and allowed Brownie Mary to bake and distribute her cannabis-infused brownies. Brownie Mary died in 1999.

Dr. Donald Abrams

Dr. Donald Abrams is an integrative oncologist at the University of San Francisco. He is one of the first researchers to study HIV/AIDS, and particularly the impact of cannabis on HIV/AIDS patients. Abrams is also known for being one of the first researchers to secure a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the impact of cannabis, and its synthetic counterpart dronabinol, on AIDS patients. That study demonstrated clinically that cannabis could help control nausea and vomiting, and may impact HIV’s progression in the immune system.

Medical cannabis and the LGBTQ+ community

Of course, medicinal cannabis is still widely consumed by HIV/AIDS patients, and it’s considered an eligible condition to receive a medical cannabis recommendation in most states with these programs. But as our understanding of cannabis grows and LGBTQ+ visibility and acceptance expands, it’s evident that medical cannabis may be particularly helpful for a variety of symptoms and conditions.

For example, cannabis could offer me potential health benefits, which are especially important for those who identify as queer. LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation that may be connected to conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Research found that 18% of queer youth who participated in a 2012 study met the criteria for major depression and 11.3% for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Further, 31% of the LGBTQ+ sample reported suicidal behavior at some point in their life. When compared with the general population rates of 8.2% for major depression, 3.9% for PTSD, and 4.1% for suicidal ideation, the severity of the situation becomes clear.

Fortunately, research into phytocannabinoids suggests they could be used to alleviate symptoms associated with PTSD. Studies into cannabis and PTSD have shown that cannabis consumption may reduce the intensity of flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts, while also potentially improving the quality of sleep

Researchers have also observed cannabis’s potential as an anxiolytic, or stress alleviating agent. Studies suggest that the CB1 receptor, which is found in the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS), is responsible for the regulation of anxiety. However, studies also suggest too much THC could actually prompt feelings of anxiety; more balanced THC:CBD ratios appear to be more effective at alleviating stress, though more research is needed to understand the precise mechanism of action.

The LGBTQ+ community and the cannabis industry: tightly intertwined

Accessibility to cannabis as medicine has always been the primary driver of the legalization movement. As we continue to learn more about cannabis and how to better apply it to treat both physical and mental health conditions, we can recall the important role the LGBTQ+ community played in progressing cannabis reform.

The queer community always has been, and continues to be, represented in the cannabis industry. From medical cannabis patients, to queer leadership in the cannabis business community, to the advocates revered and respected by the industry, to pop culture personalities like Laganja Estranja who seamlessly blend the cannabis and queer communities, visibility and celebration are treasured values year-round, not just each June during Pride Month.

And we celebrate not only the legends of the legalization movement, but also our associates, team members, partners, and friends who are helping to build a post-prohibition world. Join us in a celebration of these historic efforts all June by reading the personal stories of our associates and what Pride and cannabis mean to them. 

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