Throughout June, Californians can buy a cannabis-infused gummy that looks and tastes like rainbow sherbet. When they do, San Mateo-based edibles company PLUS will give money to a nonprofit that advocates for incarcerated people who are trans and gender-variant.
Customers who buy upscale joints or cannabis flower this month from Venice-based Stone Road will be supporting the LGBTQ Freedom Fund, which covers bail for LGBTQ people behind bars.
And for every limited edition can of cannabis-infused Blueberry Mint Acai Sparkling Elixir sold this month by the company ReCreate, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Equality of California will get $1.
Companies from all sectors are increasingly marketing products that celebrate Pride Month, and cannabis companies are no exception.
But there’s a deep connection between the cannabis industry and the LGBT community that longtime activists hope stays front and center long after the rainbow labels fade from this year’s product lines.
“The genesis of the cannabis movement, gay people served at the heart of it,” said Michael Koehn, 75, of San Francisco, who’s been waging parallel fights for civil rights for LGBTQ people and cannabis consumers since he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985.
While Koehn is still fighting for both causes close to his heart, he said he’s also ready to pass the torch to a new generation of activists. And he said he’s seen enough from those young folks to feel optimistic that they will build on the work he and others started not long after the first AIDS cases were reported 40 years ago Saturday, on June 5, 1981.
It’s a charge many cannabis companies say they take to heart, as they recognize the debt their recently legitimatized industry owes to LGBTQ activists while aggressively pushing for greater equity and representation of diverse communities in California’s licensed cannabis sector.
“It’s such a new industry that we don’t face the same history of old-fashioned ideas we have to overcome,” said Laura Michelson, spokeswoman for PLUS. “There’s a lot of opportunity to get it right quicker.”
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana 25 years ago. But Koehn’s husband, David Goldman, 70, of San Francisco, said, “If it hadn’t been for activity among gay folks, we wouldn’t have had medical cannabis on the ballot in 1996.”
The connection between the two counterculture movements goes back decades, with key activists long advocating for civil rights and greater acceptance of both communities.
In 1978, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the country, helped pass a proposition that encouraged local law enforcement to stop arresting and prosecuting people for growing, distributing and possessing marijuana. It’s viewed as the first marijuana decriminalization bill passed in the nation.
But it was changes to federal law more than a decade later that Goldman said really helped drive cannabis activism from the LGBTQ community and its allies.
Under an investigative drug program set up by the Carter administration, people could apply to get cannabis for medical conditions from the University of Mississippi, which is the only place authorized by the federal government to grow marijuana for research. And as the AIDS epidemic exploded in the 1980s, patients were clamoring to get cannabis through the federal program.
“Cannabis was the only thing that all of them took that worked to combat their nausea and anxiety and pain,” Goldman said.
Koehn saw that effectiveness firsthand.
In 1985, his boyfriend was diagnosed with AIDS. Koehn said he saw how cannabis helped his partner keep food down and improve his quality of life until his death just a few months later.
After Koehn tested positive for HIV, he enrolled in a study in San Francisco where he took strong experimental medications three times a day. He was working as a gardener for the city’s parks department at the time and said cannabis helped him fend off nausea and fatigue.
“I was able to go to work because cannabis helped me make it through the day.”
Recognizing that effectiveness, the Federal Drug Administration in 1991 approved the use of Marinol – a prescription pill containing synthetic THC, the chemical in cannabis most known for its mind-altering effects – to treat appetite stimulation in patients with AIDS-related weight loss. So that same year, the federal government stopped letting AIDS patients get cannabis from the University of Mississippi, directing them to instead ask their doctors to write prescriptions for Marinol.
The problem, Goldman said, is that other chemicals found in cannabis not only mitigate the dysphoria caused by THC but also help reduce inflammation, ease anxiety and treat other conditions caused by AIDS and medicines to treat the disease.
With their only legal option for whole-plant cannabis cut off, AIDS activists started taking to the streets of San Francisco, in particular, to push for access to medical marijuana in California.
Around the same time, Dennis Peron started advocating for medical marijuana access.
Peron was a friend of Milk’s who had been active in both San Francisco’s gay and underground cannabis communities for years. But after he was arrested by San Francisco police in 1990 over marijuana in his home for his partner, who was dying of AIDS, Peron decided to fight to change laws in California.
He first helped pass San Francisco’s Proposition P in 1991, which allowed doctors in the city to recommend medical marijuana to patients. Then in 1994 – with help from Mary Jane Rathbun, a hospital volunteer who became known as Brownie Mary because she passed out cannabis-infused brownies to AIDS patients, and other activists – Peron started the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, which functioned as the state’s first medical marijuana dispensary. And in 1996, Peron co-wrote Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana in California.
There was mixed support among Prop. 215 supporters for Proposition 64, which legalized recreational cannabis in 2016. Peron, who died of lung cancer in 2018, didn’t support the measure because he believed all cannabis consumption was medical and that the law was too favorable to corporate cannabis.
But Prop. 64 launched California’s regulated cannabis industry, ushering in a new generation of leaders who are still waging parallel fights for the LGBTQ and cannabis communities.
Lex Corwin was just a few years old, growing up in New York City, when California legalized medical marijuana.
After he started getting into some trouble as a teen, his parents sent him to a farm school in rural Vermont, where he learned to love agriculture. Corwin and a friend planted their first cannabis plants near his parents’ Connecticut home, on land owned by a 93-year-old woman named Edith. She lived on Stone Road.
When Corwin graduated high school, Pew Research data shows less than half of Americans supported gay marriage and legal cannabis. Today, both have support from roughly two-thirds of Americans. And 28-year-old Corwin now owns Stone Road cannabis company in Venice, which sells curated joints, cannabis flower and concentrates throughout the country.
The company’s popular Instagram feed regularly features work by LGBTQ artists, queer imagery and hashtags such as #gayistheway.
“I’m gay and a lot of my friends are gay creatives, so naturally it’s easy to have work and content that tinges a little bit queer,” he said.
Stone Road products also are sold in places like Oklahoma, where Corwin said he knows such imagery might not be as accepted. He recalled losing 250 followers in one day after they posted a picture with a partially dressed, very hairy man. But he said, “If the work is good and the image makes you think, ultimately we did our job. And you don’t have to love it.”
Corwin said the cannabis and LGBTQ communities make good allies because members of each know what it feels like to be excluded, so they naturally lean toward being inclusive. Cannabis culture has even adopted language from the LGBTQ community, including “coming out of the green closet” to describe telling family and friends that you’re a cannabis consumer or work in the industry.
There also is widespread support in the LGBTQ community for cannabis legalization because it’s understood that all marginalized communities have been disproportionately hurt by the war on drugs, said Samuel Garrett-Pate, spokesman for Equality California. That’s particularly true, he noted, for LGBTQ people of color, such as Black trans women.
Like so many sectors built largely by marginalized communities, regulated cannabis is still dominated by straight, white, cis-gender men. But Corwin said there are a growing number of LGBTQ people in the industry. And he said there’s been a massive push over the past year in particular, since George Floyd’s murder sparked widespread calls for social justice, to increase representation of queer people, women and people of color at all levels of the industry.
When it comes to the explosion in promotions around Pride Month, Garrett-Pate said the cannabis industry has long supported the LGBTQ community year-round. But much of that support happened quietly over the years due to federal laws against cannabis, so he said it’s exciting to see public support from companies now.
“Giving back to a community that helped pave the way for legalization is an important thing to do,” he said.
Partnerships between cannabis companies and nonprofits that support the LGBTQ community still remain “overly complicated,” though, Garrett-Pate said, due to the continued criminalization of cannabis at the federal level.
A nonprofit that PLUS chose to support during Pride Month last year, for example, had to find a new fiscal sponsor in order to accept the $60,000 the edibles company raised to help LGBTQ nightlife workers sidelined by the pandemic, according to Michelson. That’s because the original sponsor relied in part on federal grant money that could have been in jeopardy if it was tied to donations from a cannabis company.
Corwin said he does sometimes cringe at how corporations use Pride Month to promote products, clearly eager to tap into the $1 trillion in annual buying power of the United States’ LGBTQ community and its even larger community of allies.
“If consumers want to support queer people they should back companies that all year round give back and do good work,” Corwin said.
But Goldman said he’s happy to see the flood of support, even if the intentions are sometimes purely commercial.
“I think it’s fine that corporations now support our civil rights,” he said. “It means we’re integrated into society. And someday it won’t matter whether you’re gay or not. It will just matter if you’re kind.”
There is of course pushback from some members of each community against being linked to the other movement.
In the LGBTQ movement, there are members who oppose legal cannabis and don’t want the public to link being gay with consuming drugs of any kind. There also is a contingent of longtime marijuana farmers who have a more libertarian bent and aren’t as welcoming to LGBTQ colleagues.
But Goldman said he feels a majority of people in both communities are accepting of the other. And he feels strong unity around the need for the next phase of advocacy for both LGBTQ people and for cannabis consumers.
After all, he said, you don’t pass one civil rights law and claim victory.
“It’s an evolution.”
Source: Orange County Register