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Cannabis: From One Pandemic to Another

Dennis Peron Smoking & Smiling

Author: Mitchell Colbert
This article is published in memory of Eddie Rodriguez who suffered because he was denied safe access to cannabis

Dennis Peron Smoking & Smiling
Cannabis Legalization Pioneer Dennis Peron

In honor of World AIDS Day on December 1st, we must remember the cannabis activists that risked everything to get us where we are today. Over the last two decades cannabis has gone from a last resort for dying patients to an essential product helping adults endure a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. While everyone knows California was the first state anywhere in the world to legalize the medical use of cannabis, many people don’t know the story about why it happened and who made it happen.

It all started with the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s that devastated the LGBT community around the U.S. but hit particularly hard in Los Angeles and San Francisco. For many members of San Francisco’s LGBT community alive during the AIDs epidemic, the current Covid-19 pandemic is a harsh reminder of those dark days. Cleve Jones is the Founder of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and expressed his frustration, saying “Both pandemics began with a Republican president in the White House who did not perceive the gravity of the situation, who failed to lead the country.” After listening to AIDS activists, Dr. Anthony Fauci stepped in to redirect federal resources to help dying patients and stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Today, Dr. Fauci is the de facto leader of the federal government’s response to Covid-19 and is tackling the pandemic based off the playbook he helped write during the HIV/AIDs epidemic.

Just as California took the lead on the Covid-19 shelter-in-place, California took the lead with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and thanks to a few brave activists and doctors, medical cannabis was a part of that. One man was a gay pot-smoking hippie Vietnam Veteran named Dennis Peron. While the epidemic spread all around him during the 1980’s, Peron realized that cannabis could ease the suffering of HIV/AIDs patients, stimulate their appetite, and let them have some peace in their final days. Peron was not alone. He was joined by the prolific ‘Brownie’ Mary Rathburn who visited hospitals and hospices handing out medicated brownies to people in need of cannabis. Brownie Mary was a volunteer at SF General Hospital, and like Peron, she was arrested on multiple occasions for giving away cannabis to those in need. Due to her grandmotherly appearance, each arrest served to increase public pressure for cannabis reform. Unfortunately, we have lost both these heroes as Brownie Mary passed away in 1999 and Dennis passed in 2018.

Few doctors took medical cannabis seriously in those early days. For Dr. Donald Abrams at UCSF the HIV/AIDs crisis hit close to home and he could not ignore what his patients were telling him. Dr. Abrams fought the Feds to get approval to do research on HIV/AIDs Wasting Syndrome and found that cannabis was an effective treatment, adding scientific credibility to the efforts of Peron and Brownie Mary.

The HIV/AIDS crisis is also what inspired our very own Lauren Vázquez, The Fired Up Lawyer, to fight for safe access to medical cannabis. Her step-father, Eddie Rodriguez, and mother were both infected in the early 1990’s. In 1997 after much suffering, Eddie passed away. Her mother continues to “live positively” despite the tragedy. As an immunocompromised person, she is at particular risk of Covid-19 and needs everyone to do their part to help stop the spread.

Without the sacrifice of patients and activists, cannabis would not be legal. There would be no safe access, no stores, nothing to stay open as essential businesses during this pandemic. The work is not over and cannabis is still illegal in many states including medical access. To help, you can donate to Americans for Safe Access and the Marijuana Policy Project, two of the most accomplished reform organizations working in all 50 states.

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