San Francisco is seeing the highest rate in the country for being, well, high. According to surveys from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more individuals 12 and older smoke pot in San Francisco than in any American city.
Perhaps this isn’t much of a surprise considering that San Francisco is after all the home of the marijuana movement. Still, as common as it may be today to watch Stoners chiefin’ it up under thick clouds of smoke, it is worth remembering that these sights were made possible by the sacrifices and hard work of a small community of people willing to risk their lives and well-being to provide medical treatment to the sick.
Harvey Milk for Cannabis and Proposition W
When Harvey Milk got a haircut and a real job in public service, he had to sacrifice pot and his sexuality. The social and political climate of the 1970s attached great stigma to gays even if it was in San Francisco’s Castro District. San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk would become the first openly gay man to hold office where he was a major presence among advocates for gay rights and medical cannabis patients. In November of 1978 Proposition W passed and Harvey Milk’s voice was once more heard as the City of San Francisco voted to decriminalize medical cannabis.
When AIDS hit San Francisco, there were little treatment options available to those afflicted. The pharmaceuticals prescribed at the time did little to restore hope and in fact worsened the conditions for many patients. Medications such as azidothymidine (AZT) suppresses the body’s ability to produce red and white blood cells which wreaked havoc on the already weakened immune systems of AIDS patients. Medical cannabis, although bearing the stigma and consequences of being a banned substance, found great popularity as an alternative treatment in the battle against AIDS. Pot helped a lot of people find comfort and peace as the AIDS virus slowly destroyed their bodies. The San Francisco buyer’s clubs went beyond advocating: they were among the first organizations devoted to distributing medical cannabis to the patients who sought its treatment.
San Francisco Buyer’s Clubs
The rise of buyer’s clubs in San Francisco, provided an alternative means for AIDS patients to treat their symptoms with this alternative medicine which carried serious risk of jail time regardless of the patient’s state of health. Medical cannabis was a schedule I drug, and those within the buyer’s clubs did so at great personal risks. However, since AIDS was an immediate death sentence the many found the risk worth taking.
Stuff Stoners Like, had the privilege of interviewing Steve DeAngelo, Executive Director of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, CA. DeAngelo has deep roots in the medical cannabis movement and was the co-author of Proposition 215, the California Compassionate Use Act which passed into law in 1996, representing the first law in the nation concerning the use of medical cannabis. “The entire medical cannabis movement,” stated DeAngelo, “owes a direct debt to the gay community of San Francisco.”
Dennis Peron, a legend in San Francisco politics, was an AIDS activist, Viet Nam veteran, marijuana dealer and a close friend and political association of the late Harvey Milk. One night while with his best friend and lover, Jonathan West, Peron encountered the impetus which would supercharge his activism: a police raid at his dying lover’s home. DeAngelo recounts this traumatic event: “The last time they busted me was with Jonathan, he had AIDS. Marijuana was his best medicine. The cops came in one night, while he was dying, and stole four ounces of pot that we had been using as medicine. He was 90 pounds and was weak and frail and covered with Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions. He was the love of my life and I had to watch him from the top floor being beaten, with a gun to his head. And I decided they would never do this again.”
Spurred into action by the overwhelming police brutality endured by the love of his life, Peron organized Proposition P, which passed in November of 1991. Prop. P was meant to be a public declaration of support from the city to its pot-smoking denizens which is reassuring, except that people still got raided and slammed with pot-related convictions. Since Prop P was not a law, many people remained vulnerable to an unsympathetic judicial system intent on prosecuting sick and dying people.
The SAMHSA statistics reflecting greater use of medical cannabis in San Francisco demonstrates just how far out of the shadows we Stoners have come. The passage of the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act of 2015 (MMRSA) is the first piece of medical cannabis legislation has seen since 1996. The social and political landscape is evolving and medical cannabis is increasingly discussed in terms of its medicinal value rather than its outdated and discriminatory image as a public scourge and/or menace to society. The California Medical cannabis movement has gained significant ground since its humble beginnings in San Francisco but the movement could always use more public support.
The medical cannabis movement has come a long way and many people are receiving the treatment and relief they need for illnesses that they did not choose. Stoners, however, can choose how they want to get involved. Getting better informed in current medical cannabis policies is a wonderful start. (https://www.mpp.org/states/california/). Stoners who feel ready to take the political bull by the horns could look up their local legislators and prepare a thoughtful letter in support of cannabis policies. (http://www.legislature.ca.gov/legislators_and_districts/legislators/your_legislator.html)
The most harmful side effect of Medical Cannabis in this period was perhaps the punitive and ruthless attitude adopted by the nation’s courts. The political spheres are beginning to soften up to medical cannabis and it is thanks to the efforts and lives of the patients and activists who found themselves between a difficult and impossible choice: go to jail or die painfully. Unfortunately, society did not progress quickly enough to treat the AIDS patients of decades’ past, but Stoners can take heart at the political landscape which has adopted medical cannabis in earnest.
When laws are enacted, Children and Parents are affected
Parents who wish to treat their child’s ailments with medical cannabis do so at great personal risk to child patient and the parent/adult caregiver. In light of current laws and policies, some of the best advice for parents to follow is to keep their children’s cannabis medication on the down-low which is heart-breaking, at best (http://www.safeaccessnow.org/ca_child_custody). The classification of pot as a schedule I drug means that kids have been taken away from parents due to their so-called substance abuse. Thankfully, courts are beginning to overturn these absurd rulings, but the risks are still there. (http://www.theweedblog.com/california-court-rules-medical-marijuana-is-no-reason-to-take-a-child-away/)
It is worth noting that SAMHSA, which is the source of the San-Francisco-smokes-hella-weed statistics is a public agency within the U.S. Department of Health. According to their website, (http://www.samhsa.gov/about-us) SAMHSA leads “public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation” by providing information and resources to both constituents and policy makers. It does not seem that the SAMHSA survey differentiates between medicinal and recreational use of pot. Moreover, SAMHSA’s page on Cannabis describes the information gathered as “information about the use of illicit drugs […] including Marijuana.” (http://www.samhsa.gov/atod/marijuana) If organizations like these are informing policies with drug-code language such as this, how much longer will patients and caregivers need to wait to be treated as people as opposed to criminals? When will laws consistently humanize patients?
The choice to treat illnesses with medical cannabis is a major decision which should not be taken lightly, even before taking into account the risks of criminal charges. Medical cannabis is very often psychoactive, thus, its effects could mean life-changing self-discoveries which not everyone may be ready for. If you get to this point, just remember: Stoner sez relax; no one has ever died from ingesting cannabis, even if you did happen to overmedicate. AIDS, strict drug laws and other dangers do kill people. A lack of compassion doesn’t help reduce these numbers, though apparently it is enough to push people to the point of doing something crazy like passing landmark legislation to protect the state’s medical cannabis patients in and out of San Francisco.
What better way to repay our debt to the gay communities which berthed the medical cannabis movements than by phoning your locally elected public official in support of sensible medical cannabis ordinances? The 1970s were only five decades ago; what will the social and political landscape look like in five more? Thankfully, us Stoners are here to witness these changes while enjoying great variety and potency in cannabis medicines; however, without public support for sensible medical cannabis ordinances, all of us Stoners risk losing the ground gained by the sweat, tears and blood of Stoners before us. So what of the neo-Stoner emerging in the wake of these renewed efforts? What will history say about us?
By Henry Calderón
What kinds of laws, rules and policies will the neo-Stoner propose? Leave your ideas in the comments!