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LGBT Rights, AIDS Patients' Rights and Marijuana Legalization

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"The 1985 Gay Pride was so depressing. Don't get me wrong: We were still out there and celebrating our community. But there were so many people who were at the '84 Pride that didn't survive to the '85," recalled Robert while he walked his pitbull Maybelle through the Mission.

Rob has lived in San Francisco off and on for decades, running between San Francisco, Los Angeles and Michigan. "When I first came to San Francisco, I was a naïve, gay 19-year-old from Michigan. I soon found myself living with two older gay men who showed me the town, introduced me to people and gave me a place to live. They and their friends became like a family to me. Then they all started dying at the height of the AIDS crisis, just dropping left and right."

Rob gave a little tug absently while we walked to Dolores Park as Maybelle played with a puppy. "I was scared I was next. These were the days when they were still calling AIDS things like 'gay-related cancer.' One night I just walked out at 1 a.m. for Los Angeles without saying goodbye when I was scared enough to leave." By the time Rob came back a few years later, a lot of the people he considered family were already dead and buried, including the men he lived with.

Rob's experience, the fear and loss, is unfortunately representative for those members of the LGBT community who survived this crisis in San Francisco.

Although the legalization of medical marijuana has been a hot topic over the past decade or so, any serious smoker knows marijuana as medicine is nothing new: During the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, many would smoke or ingest cannabis to help alleviate the symptoms, such as the wasting syndrome, caused by AIDS (something still done today).

Long before there were antiretrovirals and other effective medicines for AIDS being commonly used, characters like the loving, grandmotherly "Brownie Mary" Rathbun became famous as they offered "compassion" (in her case, pot brownies). This was often the only medicine some patients had to alleviate the symptoms and pain associated with the disease.

The very name "compassion," which has become associated with the free or discounted giving of cannabis to patients, is derived from the fact that the federal government began its own medical marijuana project. This program, the FDA's 1976 Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program, or "Compassionate IND," offered relief to AIDS patients, as well as those suffering with other diseases like glaucoma and bone tumors. The program was closed to new applicants by George H. W. Bush in time for his reelection campaign after thousands of AIDS patients began applying.

The closing of the Compassionate IND program, the opening of the first dispensaries like the Cannabis Buyer's Club (CBC), and the AIDS patients being ignored and in pain were all happening at a time when stoners and the LGBT community were seen as reviled degenerates to be largely ignored by the public. Congress was still openly holding legislative sessions to fight the "gay agenda," which AIDS was still very closely associated with, and Michelle Bachmannesque levels of anti-gay crazy were the norm.

The anti-gay sentiments in Congress did not stop Brownie Mary from offering free, home-baked compassion to those (mostly LGBT) patients suffering from AIDS in the hospital that she volunteered in. It did, however, help law enforcement crack down on many who were suffering, and Brownie Mary herself was arrested several times.

Because of these crackdowns, there were many AIDS patients who still had to go to the shady venues of the black market to find their medicine. "They were being hustled and beaten and ripped off in parks and alleys and Civic Center. This was dangerous for someone who was able-bodied. Can you imagine how it would be for someone dealing with AIDS' wasting syndrome?" asks Val, who began working in CBC soon after Prop 215 made it legal under California state law.

"The patients would come in and be so frail and so sick and so grateful that someone would just touch them and comfort them, because this was during the era when everyone was getting kicked out on the streets," Val continued. "A lot of people were homeless because people were panicking and kicking out tenants and roommates and lovers when they found out this person was sick with AIDS or HIV. Because of this, and because of federal law, people were often afraid when they first came that the lists would be found and they would be discovered. But they were desperate enough to come anyway."

Despite the fact that the CBC was opened legally under Prop 215, it was still illegal under federal law and would still occasionally be raided.

"They knew that the people in the dispensaries were almost exclusively LGBT with AIDS back then, and so they could go in for an easy sweep of gay people buying marijuana who were too sick to fight back whenever they wanted. At CBC there were several floors, and on the second floor there were several young men living there who worked as security," recalled Val.

"When the feds came one morning at 5 a.m., they broke in right through the windows and scared these guys to near death. They knew the feds could show up one day at the door with papers, but they went SWAT team on these guys out of the blue. A lot of LGBT people had to go back to the alleys and parks after dark while we were closed, and some of them got hurt because of it."

While the times have changed and the characters have certainly changed, the basic themes have not: AIDS patients are disproportionately LGBT, they are in pain, and cannabis is often the best medicine with the least severe side effects that allows people to live a happier, healthier, more productive life. Do we really have to send the SWAT team after today's Brownie Mary over her compassion again?