Many people in the marijuana reform scene don’t know that the legalization effort was born during the AIDS crisis. This isn’t some “Oh, one gay dude decades ago helped with pot law reform.” This is a “gay culture actually made this entire thing possible.”
In the United States, the medical marijuana movement traces its roots back to California. In 1996, the state passed Prop 215, creating the first (somewhat) regulated system for medical marijuana in the US. This bill defied federal law and showed the world that people, at the grassroots level, could take control of this plant. We didn’t need permission from the US Congress; we could use our states’ rights to get this done. As the years unfolded, other states followed suit. Today, over half of all US states permit some form of medical marijuana, and roughly half a dozen states have legalized recreational sales for marijuana, too.
The brains behind Prop 215 is Dennis Peron, a gay man who, since 1969, fought for Americans’ access to marijuana. Initially, he just brought pot to the US, but in the 1970s he became a key advisor to Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual elected official in US history.
During Milk’s tenure, Peron and Milk pushed for Prop W, which decriminalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana – but only in San Francisco. It passed, becoming one of the first decriminalization moves for cannabis, just as Nixon’s War on Drugs was being passed on to President Gerald Ford.
As the Reagan era rolled around, Peron saw his loved ones pass away during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic first hit, doctors didn’t know what it was. It was originally called “gay cancer,” and no one knew how to treat it, control it, or even how to contain it. Keep in mind, the Reagan Administration initially refused to even acknowledge the AIDS epidemic was happening, and it took even longer for medical scientists to receive grants to start investigating the cause of the disease. HIV/AIDS patients literally wasted away while the US government ignored the problem. Marijuana offered some relief, more than what was available from prescription medications.
During this time of fear, turmoil, and unabated frustration, Peron lost was his longtime partner, Jonathan West. And it’s West’s story that really brought medical marijuana to the national spotlight.
One day, West and Peron were raided by a narcotics squad. Peron was charged for the pot, but West agreed to testify in Peron’s defense since, after all, the marijuana was for treating West, not Peron. West had to testify in person, and by this point he’d gone into the disease’s final stages. The public was aghast at the sight of HIV’s ravages, but public outcry soon followed: apparently, Americans don’t like seeing sick people get prosecuted for finding terminal relief in marijuana. It was insanity, and it took West’s public appearance to get people talking about it.
West passed away a couple of weeks after his testimony. From that point on, Peron focused entirely on medical marijuana as way to secure and expand people’s access to the plant. One thing led to another, and eventually Peron got behind Prop 215. And the rest is history.
Now, historically, Peron gets much of the credit for legalization – and rightly so. But Peron didn’t lead the charge toward medical marijuana entirely on his own. Because cannabis was very much illegal during the 1980s and most of the 1990s, HIV/AIDS patients broke the law in order to use pot. The vast majority of these patients, particularly in California, were gay. They established underground networks to share seeds and plants – what would eventually become today’s “caregiver” system – in San Francisco and Los Angeles to alleviate the suffering of gays dying from AIDS.
Or, as one writer from SF Weekly put it, “Legal marijuana doesn’t happen without the AIDS epidemic.”
Editor’s Note: OutWire757 has joined forces with Virginia NORML to support marijuana reform. This op-ed from last year explains the connection between that effort and the LGBTQ rights movement. Help us continue that partnership by joining us on the Big Green Cruise for Marijuana aboard the Spirit of Norfolk next week!