Pride Month: Celebrating ties between California’s cannabis and LGBTQ movements

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Throughout June, Californians can buy a cannabis-infused gummy that looks and tastes like rainbow sherbet. When they do, San Mateo-based edibles company PLUS will give money to a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people who are trans and gender-variant.

Customers who buy upscale joints or cannabis flowers this month from Venice-based Stone Road will be supporting the LGBTQ Freedom Fund, which covers bail for LGBTQ people behind bars.

And for every limited edition can of cannabis-infused Blueberry Mint Acai Sparkling Elixir sold this month by the company ReCreate, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Equality of California will get $1.

Companies from all sectors are increasingly marketing products that celebrate Pride Month, and cannabis companies are no exception.

But there’s a deep connection between the cannabis industry and the LGBT community that longtime activists hope stays front and center long after the rainbow labels fade from this year’s product lines.

“The genesis of the cannabis movement, gay people served at the heart of it,” said Michael Koehn, 75, of San Francisco, who’s been waging parallel fights for civil rights for LGBTQ people and cannabis consumers since he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985.

While Koehn is still fighting for both causes close to his heart, he said he’s also ready to pass the torch to a new generation of activists. And he said he’s seen enough from those young folks to feel optimistic that they will build on the work he and others started not long after the first AIDS cases were reported 40 years ago Saturday, on June 5, 1981.

It’s a charge many cannabis companies say they take to heart, as they recognize the debt their recently legitimatized industry owes to LGBTQ activists while aggressively pushing for greater equity and representation of diverse communities in California’s licensed cannabis sector.

“It’s such a new industry that we don’t face the same history of old-fashioned ideas we have to overcome,” said Laura Michelson, spokeswoman for PLUS. “There’s a lot of opportunity to get it right quicker.”

Historic ties

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana 25 years ago. But Koehn’s husband, David Goldman, 70, of San Francisco, said, “If it hadn’t been for activity among gay folks, we wouldn’t have had medical cannabis on the ballot in 1996.”

The connection between the two counterculture movements goes back decades, with key activists long advocating for civil rights and greater acceptance of both communities.

In 1978, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the country, helped pass a proposition that encouraged local law enforcement to stop arresting and prosecuting people for growing, distributing and possessing marijuana. It’s viewed as the first marijuana decriminalization bill passed in the nation.

In this June 26, 1978 file photo, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk greets the crowd as he rides in a convertible in San Francisco’s seventh annual gay freedom parade. Along with advocating for civil rights for LGBTQ people, Milk also spearheaded the movement for cannabis legalization in California. (AP Photo/File)

But changes to federal law more than a decade later are what Goldman said really helped drive cannabis activism from the LGBTQ community and its allies.

Under an investigative drug program set up by the Carter administration, people could apply to get cannabis for medical conditions from the University of Mississippi, which is the only place authorized by the federal government to grow marijuana for research. And as the AIDS epidemic exploded in the 1980s, patients were clamoring to get cannabis through the federal program.

“Cannabis was the only thing that all of them took that worked to combat their nausea and anxiety and pain,” Goldman said.

Koehn saw that effectiveness firsthand.

In 1985, his boyfriend was diagnosed with AIDS. Koehn said he saw how cannabis helped his partner keep food down and improve his quality of life until his death just a few months later.

After Koehn tested positive for HIV, he enrolled in a study in San Francisco where he took strong experimental medications three times a day. He was working as a gardener for the city’s parks department at the time and said cannabis helped him fend off nausea and fatigue.

“I was able to go to work because cannabis helped me make it through the day.”

Recognizing that effectiveness, the Federal Drug Administration in 1991 approved the use of Marinol – a prescription pill containing synthetic THC, the chemical in cannabis most known for its mind-altering effects – to treat appetite stimulation in patients with AIDS-related weight loss. So that same year, the federal government stopped letting AIDS patients get cannabis from the University of Mississippi, directing them to instead ask their doctors to write prescriptions for Marinol.

The problem, Goldman said, is that other chemicals found in cannabis not only mitigate the dysphoria caused by THC but also help reduce inflammation, ease anxiety and treat other conditions caused by AIDS and medicines to treat the disease.

With their only legal option for whole-plant cannabis cut off, AIDS activists started taking to the streets of San Francisco, in particular, to push for access to medical marijuana in California.

Around the same time, Dennis Peron started advocating for medical marijuana access.

Peron was a friend of Milk’s who had been active in both San Francisco’s gay and underground cannabis communities for years. But after he was arrested by San Francisco police in 1990 over marijuana in his home for his partner, who was dying of AIDS, Peron decided to fight to change laws in California.

He first helped pass San Francisco’s Proposition P in 1991, which allowed doctors in the city to recommend medical marijuana to patients. Then in 1994 – with help from Mary Jane Rathbun, a hospital volunteer who became known as Brownie Mary because she passed out cannabis-infused brownies to AIDS patients, and other activists – Peron started the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, which functioned as the state’s first medical marijuana dispensary. And in 1996, Peron co-wrote Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California.

There was mixed support among Prop. 215 supporters for Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis in 2016. Peron, who died of lung cancer in 2018, didn’t support the measure because he believed all cannabis consumption was medical and that the law was too favorable to corporate cannabis.

But Prop. 64 launched California’s regulated cannabis industry, ushering in a new generation of leaders who are still waging parallel fights for the LGBTQ and cannabis communities.

Representation today

Lex Corwin was just a few years old, growing up in New York City when California legalized medical marijuana.

After he started getting into some trouble as a teen, his parents sent him to a farm school in rural Vermont, where he learned to love agriculture. Corwin and a friend planted their first cannabis plants near his parents’ Connecticut home, on land owned by a 93-year-old woman named Edith. She lived on Stone Road.

When Corwin graduated high school, Pew Research data shows less than half of Americans supported gay marriage and legal cannabis. Today, both have support from roughly two-thirds of Americans. And 28-year-old Corwin now owns Stone Road cannabis company in Venice, which sells curated joints, cannabis flowers and concentrates throughout the country.

A woman puffs on a fake marijuana cigarette during the NYC Pride Parade in New York, Sunday, June 26, 2016. Ties between the cannabis and LGBTQ movements go back decades. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The company’s popular Instagram feed regularly features work by LGBTQ artists, queer imagery and hashtags such as #gayistheway.

“I’m gay and a lot of my…

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