This month, as we celebrate Pride, it’s important to remember our roots. These include the LGBTQ+ leaders who laid the groundwork for many of the drug policy wins we enjoy today, and those for which we are still fighting. One that might come as a surprise is marijuana legalization.
In fact, some of the earliest known marijuana victories were led by LGBTQ+ activists, particularly those of color, as a way to provide healing and solace to the many within our community that lay dying, without any known cure or long-term treatment, of HIV/AIDS.
And yet today, as we see the fruits of their labor—with marijuana now legal for adult use in 11 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 33 states for medical use—Black and Brown queer and trans people are conveniently left out of the conversation. Even worse, we are criminalized at a much higher rate than our white counterparts.
For example, in DC, where I live—and where marijuana has been legal since 2015—Black people make up the vast majority, at about 90 percent, of all marijuana arrests. Nationally, 87 percent of LGBTQ+ youth of color report interactions with law enforcement, in comparison to 33 percent of their white counterparts. As an African-American and Latinx gay man living with HIV, I know this reality to be especially dangerous.
Many studies demonstrate that cannabis can and does help improve the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS. A 2019 study found that almost 80 percent of all HIV/AIDS patients have used marijuana at some point in their lives. But since police continue to criminalize and profile the LGBTQ+ community, it is not safe for us to get this medicine that can really help us to survive and thrive. This is yet another example of the drug war operating directly against health, science, equality and compassion.
The marijuana industry should acknowledge the labor and vision of early HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ activists.
To add insult to injury, decades of criminalizing Black and Latinx people for possessing and selling marijuana have—in addition to exacerbating broader economic injustices—systematically and financially shut out many people of color from the legal marijuana industry. A market that was born off the backs of the most marginalized is now dominated by white, straight cis men. This is not what justice looks like.
The marijuana industry and those making the lion’s share of profits from it should acknowledge the labor and vision of early HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ+ activists.
One of the most celebrated early marijuana activists was Dennis Peron, a self-described gay hippie. Peron embraced the counterculture movement of the late ‘60s, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that he became a true political activist. His partner, David West, was diagnosed with AIDS, and together they explored using marijuana as a treatment for the virus’s symptoms. In 1990, when West died, Peron shifted his focus to drug policy reform.
In 1991, Peron organized the passage of Proposition P, which introduced medical cannabis to San Francisco. He then opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club, a medical dispensary initially intended for HIV/AIDS and cancer patients. And in 1996, he co-authored Proposition 215 in an effort to legalize medical cannabis throughout the state of California—which passed, despite shameful efforts by state narcotics officers to arrest Peron during raids on his dispensary.
Although the most prominent, Peron, who died in 2018, was far from the only HIV/AIDS activist who paved the way for medical marijuana. Notably, for example, Kiyoshi Kuromiya—who was born in an internment camp where Japanese-Americans were held during World War II—served as a personal assistant to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s, and helped lead the Gay Liberation Front.
Kuromiya was an openly gay delegate to the Black Panther Convention and one of the founders of the AIDS activist group Act Up. Following his own HIV/AIDS diagnosis, Kuromiya explored marijuana as a treatment for the disease. Further, like Peron did in San Francisco, Kuromiya ran an underground cannabis buyers’ club in Philadelphia to help treat AIDS patients. And before his passing in 2000, Kuromiya acted as the lead plaintiff in a Supreme Court case calling for the legalization of medical marijuana.
Kuromiya and Peron viewed the HIV/AIDS epidemic for what it really was: a public health crisis. While national leadership actively ignored the virus—in part because of homophobia and the perceived association between gay men and HIV/AIDS—these two activists persevered in serving a community that was in desperate need of compassion and relief.
Facing personal risk to make cannabis available as a way to manage HIV/AIDS symptoms—together with co-occurring issues like anxiety and depression—these two early activists helped, and continue posthumously to help, countless people living with the virus.
LGBTQ+ people, Black people and HIV-positive people must be centered in marijuana policy reform.
And they helped set in motion an effort to legalize cannabis that continues today. The work of Peron, among many others, made it possible for California to become the first US jurisdiction to legalize medical cannabis—paving the way for the many marijuana policy wins we have seen around the country in more recent years.
Today, we are the closest we have ever been to seeing the end of federal marijuana prohibition in the United States. But LGBTQ+ people, Black people and HIV-positive people must be centered in marijuana policy reform—both so our voices and efforts are not scrubbed from history, and so that we are not left behind when it comes to the benefits and profits of legalization.
With intentionality, marijuana policy reforms and harm reduction efforts can and should actively serve the people who helped make them happen.
This article is the fourth of a four-part series to mark Pride Month, exploring the intersections of drug policy and LGBTQ rights and produced in collaboration with the Drug Policy Alliance. (DPA has previously provided a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.)
The first article in this series was “How the Drug War Is a Tool to Criminalize LGBTQ+ People.” The second was “Decriminalizing Sex Work and Drugs Central to Trans and LGBTQ+ Rights.” And the third was “Solidarity, Not Charity: Mutual Aid in LGBTQ+ Drug-Using Communities.”