In 1976 San Francisco voters passed Proposition T, dividing San Francisco into districts and creating the city’s first neighborhood-specific Board of Supervisors. The move united the Castro and Haight Ashbury neighborhoods, all but ensuring that a hippie or a gay person would be elected to the board. Soon after, Harvey Milk stopped smoking weed to run for elected office. “I decided this was all too important to have it get wrecked because of smoking a joint or being in a raid at some bathhouse,” he said in Randy Shilts’ biography of Milk, The Mayor of Castro Street.
One doesn’t need to search too long to find historical ties between the cannabis legalization movement and the fight for LGBTQ+ equality here in the Bay Area. Dennis Peron, a gay man, founded the nations’ first public cannabis dispensary in San Francisco in 1991, and coauthored Prop 215, legalizing medical cannabis in California, in 1996. Clint Werner and his partner Dr. Donald Abrams are responsible for some of the first investigations into cannabis’ medical use. Mary Jane Rathbun, an ally of San Francisco’s gay community in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, became famous for her clandestine pot brownie operation.
All of this activism was, of course, spurred by the horrors of the HIV/AIDS crisis as it ripped through the Castro’s thriving community. Treatments for HIV/AIDS at the time were sometimes more toxic than the disease itself, and many gay men instead turned to pot as medicine. These activists weren’t just fighting for a legal high — they were also fighting for their lives.
It is because of gay activism that Californians have a regulated cannabis market. However, that doesn’t mean that LGBTQ women and nonbinary people have not, for a long time, been just as central a part of the fight for legal cannabis as the men who’s names are better known. As is the case with most social justice movements, queer women and nonbinary people have been essential in shaping the regulated cannabis industry.
“We encouraged everyone to participate in what we were doing as far as getting 215 passed, attending meetings and marches and the like,” says Wayne Justmann, who was the nation’s first licensed medical cannabis patient and who lobbied for Proposition 215. In fact, he says some of the most dedicated cannabis activists at the time were queer women — specifically, the sex worker activists who were advocating for the decriminalization of prostitution. Justmann says many lesbians who were not sex workers supported the movement as well, arguing that there were no divisions between “responsible adults,” who wanted to take part.
Justmann remembers working alongside women like Robin Few, founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA), and Margo St. James, co-founder of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE) and for whom the St. James Infirmary is named, for example. Their involvement was also, in part, linked to the HIV/AIDS crisis — while gay men often fell victim to the disease, so too did many sex workers. Sex Workers have also historically supported LGBTQ movements, largely because of the overlap between the two demographics. Recalling days marching through the Castro with Margo St. James, Justmann remarks “with pot and pussy, you never knew what was going to happen.”
The lack of divisions between queer groups speaks to the sentiments of the time. For example, before creating COYOTE, Margo St. James created WHO, which stood for “Whores, Housewives, and Others.” “Others,” she said, was meant to stand in for “lesbian,” because the term was still taboo for women to use publicly.
Today, queer women lead the fight. In fact, queer women and nonbinary people — and specifically those who are Black and brown — are responsible for some of the greatest achievements in California regulated cannabis of the last five years. Oakland’s Social Equity program, which is the first of its kind in the country, was spearheaded by Black and brown queer people at organizations like Supernova Women and The Hood Incubator. Chaney Turner, a Black nonbinary woman, is the Cannabis Regulatory Commissioner for the City of Oakland. Amber Senter, a Black lesbian, just started one of the two first shared-use, equity cannabis manufacturing spaces in the country.
“This industry was started by — and I’ll use this term very loosely here — misfits,” says Amber Senter. Cannabis is emblematic of American counterculture, she elaborates, and outcasts have always gravitated towards the cannabis industry. Thus, it makes sense that even the legal industry attracts a disproportionate amount of LGBTQ people and BIPOC. This industry, she says, is made up of “people that didn’t fit into other industries, because people who use cannabis definitely march to the beat of a different drum.”
Of course, the LGBTQIA+ community itself is diverse, as exemplified by the ever-lengthening list of terms we use to identify ourselves. Nobody identifying as queer has the same lived experience as anyone else’s. However, cannabis culture has historically been inclusive, often celebrating those differences in a pointedly political manner. From cannabis feminism to cannabis equity programs, a plethora of movements are using cannabis to tackle larger societal problems like sexism, homophobia, transphobia and racism. Rather than letting this diversity define cliques within the cannabis industry, many participants see this as a major facet of the industry’s strength. Today, most of the queer women who have made a name for themselves in the industry have done so by running the organizations fighting for inclusivity, or working in the ranks of companies which are notably mission-driven.
“We cannot talk about the state of cannabis without talking about the intersection with LGBTQ people, we can’t talk about it without talking about women’s representation, we can’t talk about it without talking about social justice, equity, pay gaps, and classism,” says Lita Cenali, a pansexual woman who is Director of Operations at cannabis infusion technology company Vertosa. Vertosa not only gives 1 percent of revenue to social equity programs, but also partners with nonprofits and deploys their team members to aid various social justice initiatives in the industry. “Cannabis is a great unifier in that it can heal wounds, and it can bring people of different backgrounds together,” she says.
Andrea Brooks, a gay woman and founder of the curated cannabis delivery service Sava, for example, is a champion for fair housing, LGBTQ representation, and disability advocacy. She notes that “cannabis is still counterculture, and queer communities are considered counter culture.” While this connects LGBTQ women and nonbinary people to the other marginalized groups they often advocate for, it also helps to explain why so many sexual minority people turn to cannabis as medicine. “I think in these communities there can be a distrust of the medical establishment, and a deeper connection to plant medicine,” she says.
Tracey Mason, the lesbian co-founder of the cannabis-infused wine company House of Saka, also says that as a founder she is particularly sensitive to BIPOC, LGBTQ, and female customers because she says she knows what it’s like “coming up and coming through and industry that has oftentimes held us back.” She says women’s fight in the industry is long from over, citing that women receive only 0.6% of total cannabis investment. “We’re so keenly aware that we are operating in a man’s world,” she says.
Trans women, especially, have broken through far less than cisgender women — something Cenali specifically mentioned when talking to the Weekly. As can be expected, queer women in the cannabis industry continue keep an eye open for who is left out, so they can make room. “I want cannabis to be a space of radical inclusion,” she says. “Queer women, we want to go above and beyond to support each other,” says Brooks, echoing the sentiment.
Moving forward, queer women and nonbinary people can be trusted to keep putting their energies towards greater inclusion and success for the most marginalized. Even without the recognition, queer folks have done so for years.
For those queer people looking to join the cannabis movement, Amber Senter and others like her will be waiting with open arms. “This place was made by us,” she says. “Feel welcome, and like you belong here, because you do.”