The modern marijuana movement has its roots in queer culture. We can trace the connection between cannabis and the LGBTQ+ community all the way back to its beginnings in compassionate care and American activism.
Over the last 30 years, the cannabis and LGBTQ+ movements have shifted from counterculture into the mainstream.
Some of the first recorded intersections between cannabis users and LGBTQ+ folks lie in the hippie movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, when cannabis cultivation and use was rampant. One of the most notable groups of the hippie era, the Merry Pranksters, were well-known for using cannabis as well as LSD, mescaline and amphetamines, as Tom Wolfe documented in his seminal book the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. A huge number of hippies were based in San Francisco, where the corner of Haight and Ashbury was at the center of 1968’s “Summer of Love,” and would later become a central location for gay culture in San Francisco that remains significant today.
In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and in 1978, he defeated Proposition 6, a city initiative that would have made it mandatory for schools to fire gay teachers and vocal allies. Just before he was assassinated in November 1978, Milk and his friend Dennis Peron, a gay cannabis activist and entrepreneur, passed Proposition W, a non-binding ballot initiative that effectively decriminalized the cultivation, transfer, and possession of cannabis that was approved by 56% of voters. It was not implemented, but it was the first of many steps that California took towards legalizing cannabis.
LGBTQ+ folks move compassionate care forward
Possibly the most devastating time in recent history for LGBTQ+ people, especially for gay men, began in 1981 with the AIDS crisis. The first mention of the disease as an auto-immune disorder didn’t come until 1982 — before then, the disease was referred to as a rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. At that point, it was classified as a gay-related immune deficiency (GRID), but in 1983 there were major breakthroughs when researchers from the National Institute for Health determined that AIDS was caused by contracting HIV. We now know that HIV can be transmitted through transfusions and intravenous drugs, as well as unprotected sex, but back in the early ‘80s the disease was seen solely as a gay disease and a gay plague.
Enter Mary Jane Rathbun, better known as Brownie Mary. Rathbun was friends with Dennis Peron, who operated a cannabis establishment out of his apartment known as Big Top. Peron and Rathbun worked together in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when Peron stocked his market with Rathbun’s medicated brownies. Rathbun became notable for giving away her brownies to AIDS patients, which she was arrested for twice. She once told a Sonoma County district attorney who was attempting to charge her with a possession felony, “If the narcs think I’m gonna stop baking brownies for my kids with AIDS, they can go fuck themselves in Macy’s window.”
Rathbun was known for always carrying brownies in her bag for anyone and everyone in need, and her distribution of medicated treats is remembered as one of the prime examples of cannabis used as compassionate care. Her legacy proved to be important for the perception of cannabis for medical use.
In the early 1990s, Peron opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first medical cannabis club for California medical patients; the establishment was subjected to numerous raids. He was monumental in mobilizing towards Proposition P in 1991, which essentially made it policy in the City of San Francisco to testify to the California medical board that medical cannabis use should not be prosecuted in California. Proposition P opened the floodgates for movement on medical cannabis in California, and Peron pushed forward with that momentum for Proposition 215, California’s 1996 medical cannabis voter initiative. Proposition 215 offered legal protection for Californians to access cannabis until Proposition 64 passed in 2016, legalizing cannabis use for anyone over the age of 21. Peron died just weeks after Prop. 64 went into effect in 2018.
Medical marijuana and the LGBTQ+ movement during the Bush era
When the Clinton administration implemented the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in 1994, it started a culture of silence around holding an LGBTQ+ identity. The general attitude around queer folk at the time shifted towards “it’s cool if you are, but we don’t want to know about it,” which we now know was detrimental to queer folks, especially the younger ones.
According to a study conducted by JAMA, suicide rates among high schoolers went down by nearly 4 percent after same-sex marriage policies were enacted, but 49 percent of students who were bullied for the perception of non-normative identity experienced suicidal ideation. This data suggests that it’s reasonable to believe that queer people not being able to be out or socially accepted is one of the larger health risks associated with queerness. “Not presenting [as queer or being out as queer] can be emotionally debilitating,” says Anna-Rose of True Social Equity in Cannabis in Chicago. Anna-Rose, who is a queer woman in a same-sex marriage, says that not being out nor living your truth “can feel like dying inside.”
In the ‘90s, strides were made towards crafting medical cannabis policy in the U.S. A study titled Chronic Cannabis Use in the Compassionate IND Program suggested that “cannabis smoking, even of a crude, low-grade product, provides effective symptomatic relief of pain, muscle spasms, and [glaucoma].” This quality of life increase was experienced with pre-rolled product from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that often contained seeds and stems.
One of the common reasons cited for medical cannabis use is mental health issues, and there are countless studies that illustrate disparate mental health outcomes among the queer population, so we don’t consider it a jump in logic to say that medicinal cannabis use is higher amongst LGBTQ+ folks compared to the rest of the population.
Between 2000 and 2008, several more states enacted medical cannabis programs, including Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Montana, Vermont, Rhode Island and Michigan. Between 2000 and 2004, Vermont became the first state to both enact medical cannabis and allow same-sex civil unions. In 2004, Massachusetts would become the first state in the union to fully legalize gay marriage; it enacted a medical cannabis law in 2012, and remains one of the most regulated legal cannabis markets in the country.
In 2007, Washington and Oregon, rights for same-sex domestic partnerships were granted through the repeal of a constitutional ban; both states passed medical cannabis laws in 1998. In 2008, California had roughly six months of legal gay marriage until voters passed Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage but allowed domestic partnerships to stay. In 2009, Maine also had a brief period of legal same-sex marriage, and in 2010, the District of Columbia legalized both same-sex marriage and medical cannabis.
Ultimately, this time was trying for both cannabis reform and same-sex marriage rights. Many rights-granting decisions on same-sex marriage were quickly reversed in many states, and this was not helped by conservative outlooks on the issue from Congress and the Bush White House. Despite advocacy groups and physician groups recommending the acceptance of medical cannabis, as well as cannabis rescheduling and reclassification, federal agencies and courts decided that they were set on keeping cannabis out of reach, criminalized and severely limited for the people that needed it most.
The present-day intersection of cannabis and the LGBTQ+ community
If there’s one place you’re guaranteed to find marginalized queer folks, it’s at protests. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, many hippies were on the LGBTQ and asexual spectrums — at the very least, hippies lived a life with a less rigid experience regarding gender roles, sexual orientation and relationship structures. During the Stonewall uprising and subsequent protests, Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans women who was a major activist for gay rights and against the AIDS crisis, was known for “throwing the first brick.”
Since the start of the Obama era, we’ve seen queer people continuing to fight for representation, as exhibited by Occupy Wall Street being partially a fight for same-sex marriage rights. Those rights were finally afforded across the country by the Supreme Court in 2015 after more than half a century of fighting.
LGBTQ+ folks were crucial allies in protests around important issues including the Southern Sioux Dakota Access Pipeline; the wave of police brutality following the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO; the Women’s March; and the BLM protests in 2020, the latter two also serving as major awareness campaigns for trans rights.
In the cannabis sphere, queer folks can be seen at the forefront of major labor fights and preventing mass corporate consolidation. Currently, the most important battleground for both the fight for queer rights and cannabis equity is Florida, which is undergoing an arduous fight over equity licenses, as well as a stripping away of queer rights in education under the Don’t Say Gay law. As an industry with a high turnover rate and one which has patients who are dependent on the products of that labor, cannabis industry equity is one of the key factors that determines the quality of the cannabis being produced.
“True Social Equity in Cannabis helps people that have been on the legacy market, and we believe those people should have the access to ownership,” says Anna-Rose. “We're an activist organization that wants to hold corporate cannabis to account for monopolization of cannabis because it is a world health and safety issue.” We wrote in our cannabis industry employment piece about how cannabis facilities are often run by managers who either can’t discern or don’t care about producing and selling high-quality cannabis. Anna-Rose says that the monopolization and exploitation of cannabis workers will essentially replace the war on drugs as cannabis becomes more legalized and commodified.
The future of social equity in cannabis
Organizations like True Social Equity in Cannabis, United Weed Workers and House of Flowers are run by 2SLGBTQIA+ (the inclusive acronym for two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) folks who fight for justice in these causes because we know what it’s like to feel unheard and misrepresented. The bulk of queer folks understand entrepreneurship as a key to ending exploitation as it coincides with social acceptance in our capitalist society.
Groups that fight for cannabis equity believe that using cultural identifiers historically associated with people of marginalized identities, such as people of color, queer folks and disabled folks, is appropriation, and that such appropriation should be redressed with ownership and equity in the cannabis industry rather than exposure and cash settlements.
This Pride Month, we implore readers to be mindful of how companies that use 2SLGBTQIA+ people and symbols to market products to us, and to critically view their campaigns with an eye on how much those organizations are giving back to marginalized communities. Brands like Rainbow House Seed Co. and Stone Road are able to proudly market themselves based on their queer identity, which is a legitimate win for 2SLGBTQIA+ people worldwide as it represents massive strides past a more predatory era, and a hope that the next generation of queer folks will be able to live their truth.
Queer-owned Stone Road launched a new line of infused pre-rolls, with the proceeds going to queer youth organizations. The company is also donating 10 percent of all June profits to homelessness-prevention organization New Alternatives NYC, and hired five queer photographers to shape the marketing with their own images of diversity and inclusion.
While companies like Stone Road that market towards 2SLGBTQIA+ folks are giving back to communities in a tangible way, other collaborations err more on the appropriation side. Infused beverage company CANN, working with Weedmaps, put a bunch of celebrities on a digital banner ad to draw awareness to the Don’t Say Gay law while supporting Equity Federation, with no clear indication of whether proceeds would be donated, nor whether they would match customers’ donations.
Ultimately, the fight still rages for 2SLGBTQIA+ social equity, cannabis legalization, and cannabis market equity. It’s evolved from an intersection in counterculture, to an intersection in medical necessity, to an intersection of labor rights and economic mobility. Wherever the protest might be, you can be sure there will be queer people there: loud, proud, with flags in hand, speaking up for any cause that ensures a future where people can live their best lives without being forced into a normative box.