Chem Tales: The Spark of a Movement Burns On

Activist John Entwistle discusses the shared legacies of gay rights and medical marijuana.

This column wouldn’t exist without John Entwistle.

Along with his partner, the late Dennis Peron, Entwistle advocated for medical marijuana patients back when that could land you in jail. Most famous for their efforts to ensure the landmark passage of California’s Proposition 215 in 1996, he and Peron were never interested in profit.

Instead, their activism was born of compassion. As the HIV/AIDS epidemic intensified in San Francisco, Peron and Entwistle realized cannabis had immense medicinal value. So in 1992, they opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club — the first public dispensary in the U.S. Over the years, they faced innumerable battles with law enforcement, ultimately seeking to change the laws to protect patients.

Suffice it to say, much has changed since the San Francisco Buyers Club welcomed its first patient. As of 2019, the likes of Coca-Cola and Philip Morris are licking their chops and counting the seconds until the U.S. makes cannabis fully legal. Jim Belushi is growing weed, for some reason. Manufacturers produce edibles with soy- and gluten-free options.

At a moment when some are voicing concern that Pride celebrations have been co-opted by corporate entities eager to earn good will through empty gestures, the enthusiastic participation of cannabis companies is rightfully due for some scrutiny. It wouldn’t be fair to give all of them a blanket pass, but in Entwistle’s estimation, there is a common history to celebrate.

“It wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the AIDS epidemic,” he says. “This was a gay response to an epidemic. It was the gay community that legalized marijuana.”

The story of this monumental victory is complex. For Entwistle, it began in 1972.

“That’s when everybody came to San Francisco,” he explains. “‘By ‘everybody,’ I mean every gay person in America who didn’t want to get killed where they lived — and every pothead.”

Another pivotal moment arrived in 1976, when San Francisco voters approved Proposition T. That measure established district elections for city supervisors, grouping the Haight Ashbury and Castro together into what was then District 5. (Until then, and again from 1980-2000, the 11 supervisors were elected at-large.) The voting power afforded to what Entwistle terms “the two most oppressed groups of white men in America” led to the unprecedented election of Supervisor Harvey Milk only two years later.

Entwistle is bothered by what he feels are retroactive efforts to downplay or erase the role of medical marijuana from this narrative. He points to noted gay rights activist and Milk mentee Cleve Jones as an example of someone who has, as he sees it, refused to acknowledge the importance of cannabis to everything they were able to accomplish.

“Cleve doesn’t like to think about that very much,” he says. “I hate to attack him personally like this, but it’s about time somebody called that guy out on it. He couldn’t get through the day without smoking pot, and yet he’s behind all of these various movies and projects that are painting the gay community as lukewarm on pot. They’re not respecting the role that marijuana played in the election of Harvey Milk.”

As someone who was involved in medical marijuana before the term “industry” could logically even be applied, Entwistle isn’t shy about sharing his solutions for how to fix things. He has connections to that industry, too: Vaporizer manufacturer PAX made a pledge earlier this month to donate $50,000 to San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society. A portion of the funds will be used to mount an exhibit honoring Peron’s legacy.

“It’s really great to see that the industry is starting to celebrate its roots,” Entwistle says. “It’s starting to recognize Dennis, its gay and lesbian roots, and the fact that a coalition brought birth to this industry.”

Through his role as the executor of the Dennis Peron Legacy Project, Entwistle has two top priorities at the moment. The first is state Senator Scott Wiener’s SB 34, which would restore a tax-exempt status to cannabis donations. The second is to eradicate the unregulated market not through force but instead with economics.

“It has to be resolved in one of two ways,” Entwistle explains. “Either they have to be wiped out by force, which is physically impossible — it’s a non-starter, it’s stupid to even think that — or we have to restructure our industry and get the prices down to eliminate the structural basis for the black market.”

That’s a tall order, but even though Entwistle has been demanding change for decades, he’s not about to stop now. Just recently he got some defunct MUNI tracks removed near his home after witnessing them lead to a number of accidents. That may be small potatoes when compared to an industry operating within the world’s fifth-largest economy, but there was a time when medical marijuana was relegated to a single San Francisco apartment — Entwistle’s.

“We’re the people who elected Harvey Milk,” he says of his generation. “We’re the people who legalized marijuana, and we’re the people that are going to save this damn planet because it needs some saving right now. It needs a lot of love. There’s a lot of work to do, and we have to get to it.”

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