The Queer History of Cannabis: The Start of the Legal Industry

As Pride 2020 comes to a close, it’s important to remember that support for the POC and LGBTQIA+ communities are necessary and needed year-round. And when it comes to cannabis, its history is a bit more queer than you may realize.

Ever wonder what were pinnacle points in cannabis history that birthed the legal U.S. cannabis industry? One thing is for sure: the queer history of cannabis is smothered in the oppression of BIPOC, POC, and the LGBTQIA+ communities. 

The 1980s AIDS epidemic

AIDS Pandemic emergency

Prior to the AIDS epidemic, where the majority of AIDS patients were gay men, America solidified itself as a homophobic nation. Homophobic laws created loopholes to treat the LGBTQIA+ community unethically. The unethical treatment led to the Stonewall riots in 1969. This history directly affected the perception and sentiments of the AIDS epidemic. It also influenced the long battle of resistance by the federal government towards the pro-cannabis initiatives.

In 1983, San Francisco opened up the first AIDS clinic in the world at the SF General Hospital where AIDS patients constantly told health professionals that they found solace in cannabis as it helped reduce the severity of negative symptoms. 

In this same year, a glaucoma patient named Robert Randall and his wife Alice O’Leary created Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT). Two of their greatest accomplishments were the establishment of the Compassionate Investigational New Drug program for cannabis (IND) and urging state legislatures to pass legislation to protect medical cannabis users from arrest and prosecution. 

In March 1991, ACT announced a new endeavor: Marijuana/AIDS Research Service (MARS). The main object of this service is to provide AIDS patients and their doctors with a uniform template with which to apply to the FDA for an IND.

Shortly after MARS was created, Dr. James O Mason, Chief of the US Public Health Services and former Director for Center of Disease Control announced the closure of the Compassionate Use IND Program, claiming there was no evidence cannabis worked as a medicine. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy didn’t agree with Mason’s decision and challenged the termination of the IND program. They decided to terminate the IND program with the exception that medical cannabis be provided to current recipients for the rest of their lives. However, the only medical cannabis available was the synthetic THC drug, dronabinol.

Clinical trials became a third avenue of drug approval and so doctors treating AIDS patients became researchers to collect clinical data. Dr. Donald Abrams and Rick Doblin collaborated to design a protocol for a study of cannabis to treat AIDS-wasting syndrome. They wanted to compare patients taking dronabinol and patients smoking cannabis. The research could not be done until they could attain cannabis flower from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Cannabis Clubs

Legal Cannabis Retailer

Around this same time, in the Castro district of San Francisco, cannabis dealer and AIDS activist Dennis Peron was growing and selling cannabis to mainly HIV-positive persons in the community. His apartment was raided and he and his housemate/partner, Jonathan (who was in the late stages of AIDS), were psychologically and physically abused then arrested. Peron and Jonathan went free after explaining to the courts the effectiveness of cannabis against wasting. Peron was inspired to continually provide aid to those in need, so he bore the idea of cannabis clubs. 

The first step he took was gathering enough signatures to reinstate cannabis as a legitimate medicine in the state of California. This took form under Prop P which later developed into the approved Prop 215.

The collaboration of grassroots efforts, doctors and staff of the AIDS ward at the SF General Hospital (most notably Dr. Donald Abrams) led to wider acceptance of cannabis as a medicine for AIDS. It took three submissions by Dr. Abrams to gain permission from NIDA to conduct a study that scientifically legitimized cannabis as a potential medicine. Once the approved third attempt was made, Dr. Abrams was able to successfully prove medical cannabis’ potential. Leading to a seamless process to provide AIDS patients with cannabis. 

How the cannabis industry can uphold the legacy and history

The bipoc and queer history of cannabis is an historic pillar that led to cannabis legalization. We need to continue honoring these communities that never stop being marginalized and need year-round visibility and support. 

One of the most pivotal AIDS activists and leaders of the LGBTQIA+ community was Marsha P. Johnson. She was a black trans woman and a lead organizer and liaison/caregiver for BIPOC LGBTQIA+ youth. Her body was found in the Hudson River after attending her last Pride celebration in New York in 1992. Beautiful and bold leaders like Ms. Johnson remind us that our battle towards justice and equality is still in the works. We need to continue to be a part of holding people accountable, doing the research, sharing the research and having conversations about it. From there we can hopefully urge tangible changes in law and culture.


How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we’re all in this rat race together.” – Marsha P. Johnson, Pay It No Mind documentary







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