The next time you relax over a glass, a joint, or a dab of your favorite recreational tonic, I want you to ask yourself a question: “Who had to die so I could have this?”
It will be an uncomfortable thought, but if your drug of choice is cannabis, it is necessary, whether your flower was sustainably grown in Mendocino or came from the cartel. For the experiment with ending cannabis prohibition in America to begin here in California and spread to most of the country, people had to die. In marijuana's case, those people were gay men — specifically, gay men dying from complications of AIDS in droves in apartments in the Castro, in an overwhelmed San Francisco General Hospital, and in childhood bedrooms in hometowns across flyover country.
Robert Jacob was one of them.
He was 15 in 1992 when, as a runaway living at a Larkin Street Youth Services shelter in the Tenderloin, he found out he was HIV positive.
Try to remember that era. The Tom Hanks movie Philadelphia, the red awareness ribbons, and the mainstream notion of AIDS as a real problem to solve weren't out yet. (For that matter, very few people were “out” yet.) Almost the entire country still thought of AIDS as something bad that happened to “other people.” It wasn't quite the death sentence it had been in the 1980s, when American medicine didn't know — and the American government didn't care — what to do about it, but it also wasn't far off from those very early years of the AIDS epidemic.
Except Jacob didn't die. He's here today, running a business and sitting on the City Council in Sebastopol in Sonoma County. To get to this point, he had some help. It included retroviral drugs and a local medical profession that was engaged, yes, but something else, too: the same secret ingredient that was in the brownies a former waitress passed around the AIDS ward at SFGH. As if by magic, that secret ingredient allowed the men who were wasting away to eat a bit and suddenly find relief.
It's really very simple: Legal marijuana doesn't happen without the AIDS epidemic.
Millions of Americans thought outlawing a plant was a silly idea from the onset, but without gay men dying in the early years HIV/AIDS, fixing that mistake wouldn't happen. AIDS patients who swore cannabis helped them, and people like “Brownie” Mary Rathbun (her name ought to be a household word in every cannabis circle), who gave it to those patients despite busts and threats of prison are what led to today's multibillion dollar cannabis industry.
Along with death, real outrages were also required. A San Francisco police narc squad had to seize a 4-ounce stash of marijuana that a longtime San Francisco cannabis dealer named Dennis Peron had set aside for his dying partner. To acquit Peron, his partner, Jonathan West, had to drag his withered body into court to testify that the cannabis was his. It was one of West's last acts on earth before he died two weeks later.
That scene led San Francisco voters to approve a medical marijuana initiative, Proposition P, in November 1991, which — after Peron became even more open about giving marijuana to anyone who needed it — led to the action (and inaction) in the state Legislature that preceded the passage of Proposition 215, the country's first law allowing medical cannabis, in 1996.
There's also a case to be made that only the gay community would have first embraced marijuana as legitimate therapy. “The gay community is one of the most liberal subcultures that we have,” Jacob told me recently. “I don't know if cancer patients would have reached out to cannabis in the same way.”
It's hard to find an LGBT presence in the cannabis industry now. The Castro has only one medical cannabis dispensary, and LGBT executives run only two of San Francisco's nearly 30 dispensaries (Jacob's SPARC and The Green Cross, operated by founder/CEO Kevin Reed). You'll find more Giants flags than rainbow flags at cannabis clubs.
Dab culture and discussion of the ways to separate THC from plant material into space-age substances of ever-increasing potency have eclipsed talk of helping patients. This change has been in the works for a while, but it took off right about the time people stopped talking about the marijuana movement and started referring to the marijuana industry — namely, in 2013, after Colorado and Washington approved recreational use of cannabis.
“It's all about the patients,” Reed told me, “until it's about the profits.”
At worst, marijuana is generally regarded in places like California as a relatively benign plant. At best, it is recognized as a wonder drug we're just beginning to understand — with still-untapped medicinal and psychological benefits for cancer patients, sufferers of PTSD, and people with chronic pain and other afflictions that suck the joy out of life.
But during Pride week and on Pride weekend, it's appropriate to give thanks where it is due. If you're high this weekend, remember who passed you that blunt.