Cannabis and LGBTQIA+ cultures each have a history of existing in the shadows long before they entered the mainstream. Today we enjoy a plethora of quirky cannabis users and loveable LGBTQIA+ characters depicted across popular media, but it was not so long ago that both of these communities were stuck in a position driven by stigma, marginalization, and discrimination.
What many people do not know is that in addition to the overlapping need to bust dated stereotypes and legal advocacy in order to live freely in their lifestyle choices, there was an overlap in the momentum built on patients’ rights to use cannabis for their medical needs. This momentum centered largely upon the frightening AIDS epidemic that spanned the late-1970s through the 1990s.
How Did the AIDS Epidemic Impact Cannabis Legalization?
In the late 1970s, the world witnessed a surge in a mysterious new virus that largely affected gay men, intravenous drug users, immigrants, and minorities. By the early 1980s, the Center for Disease Control proclaimed Ken Horne of San Francisco as America’s first AIDS fatality, with the populous atrociously dubbing the phenomenon as “the gay disease” or “gay cancer.” In 1992, AIDS had become the leading cause of death among American men aged 25 to 44.
Many ascribe the delay in government intervention to the fact that it primarily impacted stigmatized communities (not unlike cannabis prohibition). However, the persistence of the LGBTQIA+ community, patients, medical providers, and advocates forced the AIDS epidemic into the limelight, where it could no longer be ignored. Organizations went so far as to coordinate “Die-Ins,” in which silent masses would lie down in public spaces signifying those who have and would die of AIDS under the status quo. You can read a full timeline of the AIDS epidemic at History.com.
The intersection between HIV/AIDS and cannabis consumption arose from the symptoms of both an HIV/AIDS diagnosis and the side effects of the treatment process (which began as a series of chemotherapies).
HIV/AIDS patients report using cannabis to alleviate:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Neuropathic pain, headaches, and muscle soreness
- Loss of appetite, known as wasting syndrome or cachexia
- Anxiety and depression
It is no surprise that nearly all of today’s state medical cannabis programs include HIV/AIDS as qualifying diagnoses for a medical cannabis card.
Comrades in Stigmatization, Marginalization, and Discrimination
We are indebted to the fearless advocates that came before us for this progress to not only recognize HIV/AIDS within the law and in a manner related to legal cannabis use. These bold leaders put their personal and professional lives at risk to stand up for the legal rights and protections many of us enjoy today.
Larry Kramer’s landmark play, titled “The Normal Heart,” depicts the variety of individuals who demurred at the thought of speaking out about AIDS, even as it grew to be the most likely cause of their own demise. These individuals were terrified of losing their income, health benefits, reputation, and loved ones.
As recently as this millennium, America has witnessed cannabis patients and advocates garner a similar kind of fear and hate. In the interview collection, The Grass Ceiling, parents describe being harassed by fellow PTA members for treating their child’s life-threatening epileptic seizures with medical CBD. Jane West, now a highly successful entrepreneur in the cannabis industry, began her climb by being fired from her job for speaking out about the benefits of cannabis on the local news.
According to Out.com, “AIDS activists are the unsung heroes of the legalization and medical marijuana movement.” One such figure was Dennis Peron, who was arrested for cannabis in his San Francisco home. At trial, it was determined that the cannabis actually belonged to his boyfriend, who died just two weeks later of AIDS-related complications. Spurred by the event, Peron went on to become a leading advocate of legal access to cannabis for HIV/AIDS patients.
Peron gathered votes for California’s significant Prop P, which then allowed him to launch the Cannabis Buyers’ Club (where patients could legally purchase medications not yet approved by the FDA). You can read about Peron’s journey in his book: Memoirs of Dennis Peron: How a Gay Hippy Outlaw Legalized Marijuana in Response to the AIDS Crisis.
It is courtesy of such advocates who bore the brunt of the fear and hate that comes with fighting for progress that we can now enjoy our lifestyles without such risk and adversity. The LGBTQIA+ and cannabis communities are fortunate to have been founded by such compassionate and fearless leaders.