PRIDE & CANNABIS | How LGBTQ+ activists fought two fronts at once

Sam Laird
Jun 5, 2018

Wayne Justmann had been living in San Francisco for only a year when he was diagnosed HIV-positive.

It was July 1988, still the early days of the epidemic. Life-saving treatment options existed, but brought harsh side effects. Justmann recalls nausea and upset stomach caused by doctor-prescribed medications. And he wasn’t alone.

[SEE ALSO: Cannabis brands giving back to LGBTQ+ causes in 2018]

“One of the things myself and others were wondering at that time was, ‘Is the virus gonna kill us or is the medicine gonna kill us?’” Justmann, now 73 years old, says today.

Wayne Justmann (left) and Jeffrey Peron (right), brother of the late Dennis Peron.

Not long after his diagnosis, Justmann started smoking cannabis. It was a revelation. “Wait a minute, this stimulates my appetite a bit,” he recalls thinking. “This eases some of the discomfort I have from my HIV medication.”

Once again, Justmann was far from alone.

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But compassionate care is in jeopardy.

As Pride celebrations take place across California this month and next, revelers can also celebrate legal adult-use cannabis for the first time in history.

It’s a big moment, one that reminds us just how deeply connected the two causes are.

An Eaze Trailblazer chats with people attending the Venice, California, Pride celebration on June 2 [Photo by Tommy Quicksilver]
Medical marijuana paved the way for the adult-use privileges we enjoy in 2018, and a powerful many of the medical movement’s strongest and earliest protagonists were gay-rights activists seeking to help early HIV and AIDS patients like Justmann.

The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, believed to be America’s first public dispensary, became a resource in the early 1990s for Justmann and others with HIV and AIDS. Its purpose was simple: Come in for support and camaraderie, as well as an opportunity to buy the cannabis to ease pain and discomfort. And if you were short on funds? No worries. You’d be taken care of all the same.

“In those days, profit was not as issue,” Justmann says. “What we were concerned with was people’s well-being.”

“In those days, profit was not as issue,” Justmann says. “What we were concerned with was people’s well-being.”

Those early acts of kindness helped create what today are known as “compassionate care” programs, through which growers and retailers donate cannabis to patients who suffer from serious illness of all kinds. Another simple concept: Free medicine for those who need it most but can’t afford it.

But a terrible irony is that adult-use regulations in California are threatening access for the state’s neediest terminally ill patients. And that’s because would-be donors now face the possibility of monumental tax bills.

As one longtime provider of free cannabis for HIV and AIDS patients recently put it: “Lives are on the line.”

‘How would you like to be that person?’

When Justmann was first patronizing the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club in the early 1990s, he met a man named Dennis Peron. Both would go on to long and legendary careers as medical marijuana activists.

Peron was a driving force behind Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot measure that first legalized cannabis for medicinal use in California. But Peron’s devotion to the cause began much earlier and intensified in 1990, when Jonathan West, his lover, died of AIDS.

Jeffrey Peron, left, and Wayne Justmann, right.

“At that point, I didn’t know what I was living for. I was the loneliest guy in America,” Peron told the Associated Press in 1996. “In my pain, I decided to leave Jonathan a legacy of love. I made it my moral pursuit to let everyone know about Jonathan’s life, his death, and his use of marijuana and how it gave him dignity in his final days.”

Another figure behind Proposition 215 was Mary Rathbun, better known as “Brownie Mary,” so nicknamed for her custom of handing out cannabis brownies to AIDS patients at San Francisco General Hospital, where she was a longtime volunteer during the epidemic’s early days.

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This spirit of generosity and compassion was a fundamental part of the medical cannabis movement’s origins, Justmann says.

“I remember Dennis so well,” he says of Peron, who died earlier this year. “He’d say in meetings, ‘How would you like to be the person who didn’t feel well, who needed help, who needed cannabis, but didn’t have the money? How would you like to be that person?’”

California in 1996 became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use, a huge step toward the plant’s normalization, and a slew of states followed suit. In 2017, some 30 years after Justmann was first diagnosed, Californians voted to legalize cannabis for all adult use.

And that’s when the problems began for some of the state’s neediest marijuana consumers.

Patients caught in red tape.

Cannabis donations have been at the core of California’s medical marijuana movement since “Brownie Mary” and the Buyers Club. But on Jan. 1, the calculus changed. Under regulations intended to track every ounce of cannabis in California, even donations for seriously ill patients are subject to sizable taxes.

Justmann, who’s as connected to the cannabis movement as anyone, says “the underground” still takes care of some patients. But not everyone is so lucky. Multiple compassionate care programs have reported putting their operations on hiatus for fear of running afoul of tax regulations.

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Consider Jetty Extracts’ established Shelter Project, which provides free cannabis oils to cancer patients who need it. But sometime after January 1, the project stopped accepting enrollees. “Due to California state cannabis laws and regulations, we are unable to enroll patients in the Shelter Project at this time,” a notice on Jetty’s site reads. “We appreciate your patience as we restructure our compassion program expected to reopen in summer 2018.”

They are hopeful for a reason.

Help is already on the way.

Even critics believe the issue results not from malicious intent toward sick patients, but from imprecise language in the ballot measure that legalized adult use in 2018. But no matter its cause, official efforts are underway to fix it fast.

State Senator Scott Wiener from San Francisco announced a bill in late May that would stop compassionate care programs from having to pay state taxes on cannabis they donate to patients who lack financial means. It has until the end of August to be approved by the state legislature, after which it would go to Governor Jerry Brown to be signed into law.

Eaze booth signup lineup during Pride in Venice, California, on June 2 [Photo by Tommy Quicksilver]
The bill is what’s known as an “urgency measure,” according to a spokesman for Wiener, meaning it would take effect immediately after gaining the governor’s signature.

“Compassionate care programs aid people who are seriously ill and suffering, and we should be helping them thrive, not squeezing them with business taxes that are forcing many of them to close,” Wiener said in a release announcing the bill.

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This would be extremely welcome news to patients such as Justmann, who’s been on the medical movement’s front lines since there was such a thing. He’s seen public attitudes towards both HIV patients and cannabis shift rapidly over the past three decades.

Now, like many, he’s ready for just one small tick backwards to make compassionate care feasible again.

“Is there anything more crazy than saying you can’t give away marijuana?” Justmann asks today, decades after he first sought relief at the old San Francisco Buyers Club. “Is there anything more crazy than saying you can’t give something away to someone who’s in great need?”

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