By Tyler Koslow
If you wander past the neon green cross symbol into a marijuana dispensary today, it’s likely you’ll see a wide array of cannabis products, generous budtenders quick to talk favorite strains, and an altogether feel-good environment.
But the modern dispensary is 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. And we wouldn’t have the marijuana legalization we have today if it wasn’t for a group of activists who helped spark the legal marijuana movement amid an AIDS epidemic that wreaked havoc among LGBTQ and communities of color across the United States in the 1980s and ’90s.
The role that the LGBTQ community played in getting medical marijuana legalized in California is important to share. 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
A Bronx, New York-born Vietnam War veteran, Peron relocated to the Castro District in 1969, a historically gay neighborhood in San Francisco, after completing his stint with the United States Air Force. His initial foray with activism was 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.
Peron detailed to KNTV, the San Francisco Bay Area NBC affiliate,” in a feature called “Bay Area Revelations” how in the late 1970s, Peron opened the Big Top Pot Supermarket on the top two floors of a Victorian house in the Castro District, where he illegally sold cannabis to thousands of San Francisco residents. 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 U.S., especially ravaging the gay communities in San Francisco. Originally thought to only spread among gay men, President Ronald Reagan’s administration was reluctant to act due to the adminstrations conservatism and homophobia, according to “And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic,” Randy Shilts’ book on the history of AIDS epidemic. Reagan didn’t publicly say the word “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 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved anti-HIV drug, called zidovudine (AZT), 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 closet friends with AIDS had died, including his lover 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.”
How The Ballot Initiative Came to Be
After his lover 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. As a volunteer for The Shanti Project in the early 1980s, 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 marijunana-infused brownies at her nephew’s house. 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.”
That same year, Peron opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first public medical cannabis dispensary in the U.S. Entwistle revealed to Weedmaps News that the medical cannabis club operating out of the Castro District was supposed to be temporary; it was 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 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 Republican 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 somewhere from 8,000 to 10,000 customers weekly.
Once the initiative made it on the state ballot in 1996, the federal government finally took notice of the Buyers Club and arrested Peron for possession and transportation of marijauna on Oct. 11, 1996.
“That’s when the shit hit the fan,” Entwistle Jr. explained. “What they did was, 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 Enthwistle 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 Fight for Legalization
Peron played a paramount role in the marijuana movement, but he was far from the only LGBTQ figure to contribute to the medical marijuana cause. Other gay and lesbian activists, many of whom were associated with Peron, were also instrumental in helping medical patients access cannabis and advocating for the passage of Proposition 215.
Dr. Donald Abrams
Dr. Donald Abrams, an integrative oncologist at the University of San Francisco, was one of the first researchers to study the interaction between marijuana and AIDS. After meeting in 1994, Abrams collaborated with Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), to outline a research project that would demonstrate the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The initial proposal was rejected by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), but after tweaking it into a “safety assessment study,” Abrams received approval along with 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 queer activst 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.”
Part of a direct descendant from Peron’s advocacy tree, Paul Scott operated a medical marijuana collective in Southern California called the Inglewood Wellness Center from 1999 to 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 to cope. Scott, who is African-American, also founded L.A.’s Black Gay Pride organization and was the Los Angeles County Commissioner on HIV and AIDS from 2002 to 2008.
Valerie Corral, ‘Nurse Mary Jane’ Tishler, and Scott Imler
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, and Andrea Tischler, a lesbian who advocated for medical marijuana and passed out free joints to sick patients throughout the small coastal city.
According to Entwistle, Corral was one of the many activists to help with a language of Proposition 215. Tischler, who was known as “Nurse Mary Jane,” usually sported a nurse outfit with a hat featuring a glittery weed leaf on it. She worked with other activists to pass the Santa Cruz Medical Marijuana Initiative in 1993, a law similar to Proposition P in San Francisco, and also acted as the city’s chair for Proposition 215 from 1995 to 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 file an initiative similar to Prop P in Santa Cruz called Measure A, which ended up passing and becoming the second local medical marijuana initiative approved in the state.
Through the story of Peron and fellow activists of that era, 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 the AIDS epidemic that helped pave the way for medical marijuana and reshaped the way we see cannabis today.
“Cannabis has always been a way to connect members of the ‘outsider community’ … people on the fringe of society. And that certainly has been part of the relationship between weed and members of the LGBTQ community,” said Carl Fillichio, Vice President of Policy Communication for Weedmaps.
“There is no doubt that people like Dennis Peron and Mary Jane ‘Brownie Mary’ Rathbun were instrumental leaders in LGBTQ rights and HIV/AIDS healthcare, but they also played a critically important role in the realization and acceptance of cannabis as legitimate medicine.”
To learn more about how the LGBTQ community revolutionized marijuana legalization in the U.S., check out the “Dose of Compassion” exhibit at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed. For ticket information, visit themuseumofweed.com.
Featured image illustrated by David Lozada/Weedmaps