Caring for the neediest AIDS patients during the worst years of the epidemic began the struggle for legal cannabis but legalization has put those programs in jeopardy.


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The cannabis legalization and LGBTQ+ movements have historically been linked together in their fight to end stigma and attain legal recognition and acceptance. In fact, the fight for legal cannabis originated with the response of the LGBTQ community to the AIDS crisis. As San Francisco celebrates Pride this weekend, now is the time to examine this long relationship rooted in compassion and how legal cannabis has left behind the most vulnerable. 

Related: FDA Begins Evaluating Cannabis Scientifically

Two movements connected.

By the early 1990’s, life-saving drugs were available to treat HIV, but with the horrible side effects of pain, nausea and appetite loss. Cannabis was a lifeline for many who suffered,  easing their symptoms and dramatically improving their quality of life. 

The need for reliable, affordable access to cannabis was clear. Compassionate activists responded by opening underground dispensaries to meet the needs of the community. The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, believed to be America’s first public dispensary, offered patients access to cannabis and a support system. Patients suffering a terribly stigmatized, life threatening disease found a safe haven to spend time with one another and receive relief from their pain. No patients were ever turned away, regardless if they could not afford to pay.

An early pioneer providing free medicine for AIDS patients was Mary Jane Rathbun, known as “Brownie Mary” for the cannabis brownies she famously handed out in the AIDS ward of San Francisco General Hospital. “Compassionate Care” programs that provide donated cannabis products to low-income medical patients have been the soul of the movement for legal cannabis since the beginning. This dedication to patient access fueled the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996 that legalized medical cannabis in California. Devotion to suffering, low income patients is the foundation on which our entire industry is built, yet full legalization in California has put compassionate care programs at dire risk.

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Compassionate Care is imperiled. 

In January 2018, Prop 64 went into effect, making cannabis legal for all adults in California over the age of 21. It was a major moment for the cannabis community which ushered in a new era of normalization and access. But an unintended consequence of Prop 64 has made it nearly impossible for Compassionate Care programs to provide free medical access to cannabis for those in the most need with the least means. 

All donated product — even to impoverished patients who are seriously ill — are now subject to high taxes. This makes Compassionate Care programs financially impossible for businesses and nonprofits. Many programs, like Jetty Extracts’ Shelter Project, that have successfully connected patients with donated cannabis have closed or been severely limited as a result.

Related: Cannabis Companies Embrace Pride Month

Looking forward.

It is a sad irony that by de-stigmatizing and legalizing cannabis, we have hurt the very people who were the community’s first champions. The cannabis community is coming together to correct this oversight. Efforts are underway but they are not happening fast enough. State Senator Scott Weiner of San Francisco has introduced Senate Bill 34, The Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Compassionate Care Act, to make donating cannabis to low income patients financially viable, but it’s been a year-and-a-half since Prop 64 went into effect. Low income patients have not had compassionate access to free, legal cannabis since. Every day that goes by without passage of the bill is another day where sick or dying patients suffer in needless pain.

This Pride, we recognize and celebrate the leadership of people like Senior Scott Weiner who are calling on the California Legislature to pass this bill and reinstate a framework that allows compassionate care programs to do their essential work. The LGBT community, particularly those affected by HIV/AIDS, fought for a legal cannabis industry and we, in turn, need to fight for them.

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