HIV Activists Pushed For First Medical Cannabis Laws

Due to cannabis prohibition, essentially no one had heard of medical cannabis forty years ago.  The federal government criminalized cannabis drive to crush civil rights activism. The war on drugs was a war on people of color.  By the 1980s, AIDS had killed a number of people, especially among the LGBTQ and other marginalized communities such as the homeless, sex workers, and IV drug users.  Recipients of blood transfusions also died until the medical community isolated the HIV virus and its antibodies and came up with ways of testing for both.

Aids patients tended to lose appetite and ”waste away”.  The early HIV antiviral cocktails entailed taking multiple pills a day which caused extreme nausea and vomiting.  Patients noted that smoking marijuana alleviated these symptoms and increased appetite. Patients informed their doctors, who suggested to additional patients to smoke marijuana.  Becoming too thin increased the patients’ vulnerability to opportunistic infections. HIV attacks the immune system, and by a person not eating, the immune system decline speeds up and makes the person vulnerable to a host of infections.  Any medication which enables HIV patients to eat more helps. Thousands of HIV patients smoked cannabis to cope with HIV symptoms. San Francisco was ground zero for the American HIV epidemic. And it was there HIV activists fought hard to legalize medical marijuana in California, as the federal government at this time largely ignored the HIV crisis.

The First HIV Activists

The most prominent activists were Mary Jane Rathburn (aka Brownie Mary) and Dennis Peron.  The two were HIV positive themselves, and members of the LGBTQ community. They made marijuana very available to HIV suffers.  When the police arrested them for supplying illegal substances, they fought in court and explained to medical boards why they were taking cannabis.  Dennis Peron specifically built the Cannabis Buyers Club for HIV patients to obtain cannabis for medical purposes.

HIV Activists Form Organizations

Brownie Mary made cannabis-infused brownies for years.  Originally she sold them to supplement her income as a waitress.  After she noticed that they helped AIDS patients, she donated brownies.  People would give her free cannabis and she would use her own money to purchase the baking supplies.  The police arrested her three times. The district attorney eventually dropped all charges against her. Brownie Mary volunteered at the Aids wards of San Francisco General Hospital.  As a result, she became friends with many in the HIV community, including physicians. One of her friends, Donald Abrams, was a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco and at the San Francisco General Hospital.  She inspired him to conduct formal research into cannabis as a treatment for HIV. After the third attempt, the National Institute on Drug Abuse funded his studies on treating HIV with cannabis.

The police arrested Dennis Peron and his partner Jonathan at their home for cannabis possession. The courts freed both men when they explained to the judge that cannabis treated their conditions.  Unfortunately, Jonathan died two weeks after their trial. As a result, Dennis pushed ahead with his activism and got 78% of the voters in San Francisco to approve the legalization of medical marijuana.

People such as Peron and Brownie Mary who got the ball rolling for research into medical cannabis were not people of means or scientists.  At various points in their lives, the general public disparaged them as drug dealers. And yet they fought until they got the medical system and the legal system to acknowledge the healing power of cannabis and to do research into cannabis as a medication.  Peron got medical marijuana legalized in San Francisco first, and this would ultimately lead to medical marijuana being legalized in other areas.


California is the most populous state in the nation. Many global trends start in California, as it is the most populous state in the world’s largest economy.  Moreover, events in California have major national and international impact. After Dennis Peron fought to normalize and legalize medical cannabis, he spoke to ACTUP in New York about pushing cannabinoid treatments.  Similar stories around the nation galvanized activists.

Kenny and Barbra Jenks were an HIV positive couple who were dying of massive weight loss.  Encouraged to smoke joints by people in an HIV support group, they discovered after smoking joints they had the munchies.  After growing their own marijuana at home, they were arrested and accused of being heroin addicts growing weed to support their habit (Kenny was a hemophiliac).  Again they fought the charges until they were dropped. Consequently, they formed a group called MARS in Florida which fought to ensure medical marijuana access to patients there. By the 1990s, California voters had approved the state’s first medical marijuana laws.  Brownie Mary was instrumental in the passing of Proposition 2015, also known as the Compassionate Care Act.

The Gratitude We Owe HIV Activists

While people take medical cannabis today to treat whatever illness they are suffering from, or take recreational cannabis for pleasure, everyone should think of the warriors who made legalization possible. Those who fought the ignorance and stupidity of cannabis prohibition. While many of these people have been dead for a while, some of them are still living.