The cannabis industry is a mosaic of every group of people that has ever touched the plant.
Consider its diverse medicinal roots from the East, its melanated history bringing it to the West, societies of women embracing its natural relieving properties, the arduous battle of the War on Drugs that stigmatized it in the United States (which communities of color are still grappling with today), and its long marriage with the LGBTQ+ community in the fight for legal medical cannabis.
From activists and scholars to public figures and celebrities to regular people, the cannabis community is full of intersectional identities – all of which have had a major impact on the way we and our clients do business as an industry.
As we celebrate Pride Month, we reflect on the essential role that the LGBTQ+ people have played on the road we are paving to legal cannabis.
For years, the cannabis and LGBTQ+ community were well-acquainted with marginalization. Both groups carried a heavy stigma and existed on the outskirts of what was considered the social norm.
This shared trauma made the two communities allies for decades, but it was the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 80s and 90s that solidified the relationship between them.
What was the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
In the early 1980s, cases of AIDS began cropping up, predominantly in gay men, across the five continents. According to Avert, a UK-based HIV educational charity, it is likely that in this period, between 100,000 and 300,000 people would have already been infected.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, can vary in type and severity from person to person, and some people may not have any symptoms for many years. The infection is defined in three stages: acute primary infection, the asymptomatic stage, and symptomatic HIV infection. It is in the third stage that a person’s immune system becomes severely damaged and they are said to have ‘AIDS’ or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
In this third stage, patients suffer from a number of challenging symptoms including weight loss, chronic diarrhea, night sweats, fever, persistent cough, mouth and skin problems, regular infections, and serious illness or disease.
By 1990, over 700,000 were living with the disease, and hundreds of thousands had died from it – and yet it was largely ignored by mainstream political establishments. Due to severe homophobia and the belief at the time that only gay men could get AIDS, the LGBTQ+ community was unable to receive any meaningful institutional support.
At the same time, LGBTQ+ people were already using cannabis regularly. In fact, several studies have consistently shown over the years (including as recently as 2018) that LGBTQ+ communities use substances such as cannabis at a disproportionately higher rate than individuals that identify as straight.
To manage their current reality, those living with AIDS turned to cannabis to treat their symptoms. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, patients also used cannabis to counteract the side effects of any supportive prescription medications. However, with the plant still being illegal, accessing good-quality, medical cannabis was difficult.
Cannabis Activists: Dennis Peron, Paul Scott, and Brownie Mary
Activists within the LGBTQ+ community were quick to fight for their community. In fact, they were instrumental in paving the road to legal medical cannabis.
Proud gay activist, cannabis enthusiast, and Vietnam Air Force veteran, Dennis Peron in particular began to stir up a community of LGBTQ+ cannabis advocates in San Francisco.
As the crisis intensified across the world and at home in the United States, Peron’s partner Jonathan West was dying of AIDS. Cannabis helped ease his final months, and Peron then became determined to educate the masses about the positive effects of cannabis.
Soon, he had an army of advocates with him, fighting for the right to openly consume cannabis medically. In 1991, Peron began to collect signatures to legalize medical cannabis within San Francisco’s city limits. The city ballot passed the measure with an 80% approval rate. In response, he continued the fight.
Peron wrote Proposition 215, a bill proposing the legalization of cannabis for medical use throughout all of California, in 1996. Although the bill received massive opposition, strong support came from medical professionals, cancer survivors, and HIV/AIDS patients. Ultimately, the Compassionate Use Act passed with 55.6% of the vote in 1996.
With this, it wasn’t long before other states followed suit and began to legalize medical cannabis. It was a massive step forward for cannabis, and it began with one gay man’s effort to honor the memory of his partner.
Paul Scott (R) with Denis Peron (L) at the Big Top Farm
But, Peron wasn’t alone in his fight. Paul Scott, another activist and Peron’s student, played an integral role in providing intersectional support to his community. Scott helped found the Los Angeles’ Black Gay Pride organization and created the first medical cannabis facility in Inglewood to help terminally ill patients through support groups and safe, legal access to cannabis. Today, he continues to advocate for social equity and queer people of color in the industry.
Mary Jane Rathbun, AKA Brownie Mary
Allies stepped in to support the LGBTQ+ community during this time as well. Fellow cannabis rights activist Mary Jane Rathbun secretly distributed cannabis-infused brownies to patients in hospitals.
At the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Rathbun baked nearly 600 brownies a day, earning the nickname “Brownie Mary”. She was arrested multiple times, to the point that the city of San Francisco resolved to make medical cannabis possession the lowest priority offense.
While Peron, Scott, and Rathburn do receive credit for their work in legalizing medical cannabis, less recognition is given to the LGTBQ+ community as a whole who mobilized for the cause.
Supporting the LGBTQ+ Cannabis Community
As with other marginalized groups, there is still much work to be done to build a more just and equitable industry.
States that were early adopters of LGBTQ+ inclusion and those with more established legal cannabis communities are often pioneers of such support as we begin to see inclusive social equity programs rolling out.
In Massachusetts, for example, businesses certified by the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce receive priority licensing by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. Owners of Terpene Journey, Tom Bogacz and his husband, Justin Eppley, said in an interview with the Rainbow Times:
“While the process can be challenging, the CCC has done a great job of being inclusive of LGBTQ people…[They] also track the number of LGBTQ business owners in the industry among other traditionally underrepresented people. Most states don’t have this level of commitment to diversity and transparency.”
Priority licensing and commitment to equity and inclusion on an intersectional plane helps move businesses forward in a community of other diverse groups, economic empowerment applicants, and social equity program participants.
Meanwhile, cannabis brands, ancillary businesses, and consumers have a responsibility to be active allies by supporting marginalized communities with their dollars and continue to fight for further decriminalization.
Daniel Saynt, the founder of a media brand, NS-FW (New Society for Wellness), that specializes in cannabis and sexual wellness content, said, “It’s one thing to co-opt rainbows. It’s another to put your money where it matters. If a brand is giving back to a cause, it makes for a more authentic collaboration and helps further LGBTQ support outside of Pride month.”
Cannabis users and members of the LGBTQ+ community have each fought equally hard for both legal recognition and equity. And we all continue to fight. That’s why we’ve rounded up our favorite LGBTQ+-owned cannabis brands for you to support:
LGBTQ-Owned Cannabis Brands to Support
This LGBTQ+ owned and operated cannabis brand sells citrusy flavored cannabis beverages. With fun branding and a very unique website, Calexo is quick to captivate your attention.
Woman and LGBTQ+ owned and operated, Madame Munchie is an edible brand inspired by owner Kim Geraghty’s experience growing up in France. Her handcrafted macarons and other French delicacies contain high-quality ingredients and top-shelf flower.
Peak Extracts is the first women-owned extraction company in Oregon. CEO Katie Stem and COO Katie Black are partners in business and life. From tinctures, chocolate, extracts, and topicals, this duo is dedicated to helping you find your peak.
This Los Angeles-based brand features cannabis products with a focus on treating anxiety, depression, and other issues that the LGBTQ+ community often faces. Founded by Leon Mostovoy and a fellow trans man and gay rights’ activist Buck Angel, Pride Wellness also runs a giveback program with the Los Angeles LGBT Center. With every purchase, they give back $1 to the center.
Sonder is a queer-owned cannabis company with sun-grown plants from California. All of Sonder’s cannabis is grown on family-run farms in Mendocino County and tended to by master growers using sustainable farming practices.
The People’s Dispensary
The People’s Dispensary (TPD) is a West Coast chain run by women to provide a brighter future for marginalized communities through cannabis. The group is dedicated to challenging past stereotypes and ideas about cannabis use and enjoyment, and empower and transform communities that have been historically harmed by the criminalization of cannabis.
Join Us in Supporting the LGBTQ+ Community
All in all, appreciating and recognizing the LGBTQ+ community is not confined to Pride Month. The best way to be active allies in the cannabis industry is to support businesses, non-profits, and equity programs with our time, money, voice, and energy.