BlogEquality for all: How members of the LGBTQIA+ community changed the course of cannabis history

Equality for all: How members of the LGBTQIA+ community changed the course of cannabis history

10 min read

Lucy MacKinnon

Members of LGBTQIA+ That Changed Cannabis History
Today marks the final day of Pride Month, and although this month is coming to an end, it is important that the sentiment of Pride stands year round. Here at Releaf we wanted to pay tribute to a number of influential advocates and activists that have campaigned for equal love, and equal access to medicine.


In the US, the grassroot movements that fought for these causes became intertwined with each other. As the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay and transgender communities, cannabis activists in San Francisco began to supply patients with cannabis or edibles to help relieve their debilitating symptoms like wasting syndrome, nausea, and pain. 

By sharing resources and rallying alongside each other, these two excluded communities banded together to form a collective, working towards two common goals: health and equality. 

To celebrate the efforts, contributions, and the sacrifices made by members or allies of the LGBTQIA+ community for the advancement of medicinal cannabis, we decided to shine a spotlight on five of the most influential people involved in these spaces – one for each week of the month. 

Harvey Milk 

Born in New York in 1930, Harvey Bernard Milk became the first openly-gay member of Public Office in the State of California, taking the position in January 1978. Using his position as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk spoke candidly and campaigned for both the legalisation of medicinal cannabis and equal rights for every member of society, regardless of their sexual orientation. 

As a fierce advocate for the destruction of anti-gay initiatives that plagued America in the 1970s and 1980s, Harvey Milk became colloquially known as ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’. This area had a large population of gay and lesbian residents, and he gained a lot of the public trust in these areas. 

Although Harvey Milk had given up using cannabis for recreational purposes in 1975, he believed it had incredible medicinal value and continued to campaign for the legalisation of medical marijuana in the states. In 1978 Milk helped to pass Proposition W, a ballot initiative that sought to end cannabis-based arrest by effectively decriminalising the possession and cultivation of cannabis. 

Unfortunately Harvey Milk’s political career was cruelly cut short at 11 months, and Proposition W was dropped when Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in November later that year. 

Dan White, a fellow politician who also sat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, only served five years in prison for the murder of both Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, as these charges were classified as manslaughter. A New York Times article from the time said Dan White “saw himself as the board’s defender of the home, the family and religious life against homosexuals, pot smokers and cynics.” 

Dennis Peron

Dennis Peron is one of the grassroot activists that made pivotal political and societal changes in America during the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s. Famous for his involvement in the legalisation of medical marijuana, Dennis Peron fought relentlessly for equality and humanity. 

Born in the Bronx in 1945, Peron served in the American Air Force before he moved to San Francisco where he supported the openly-gay politician Harvey Milk. During the 1980s Dennis’ partner Jonathon West was diagnosed with HIV, and he began to self-medicate using cannabis. 

With the love of his life managing his HIV symptoms using a criminalised drug, Dennis Peron began to campaign for the legalisation of medical cannabis. Sadly, Jonathon West passed away in 1991. The following year Peron launched Preposition P – an initiative that urged the US government to change their stance on medicinal cannabis. 76% of voters approved. 

Later in 1994 he co-founded the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club which was the first public cannabis dispensary, built from the cannabis collective that had been run in its place by Thomas O’Malley until 1992. The dispensary was subject to police raids and was shut down, Dennis Peron was arrested on a number of occasions and was even shot by the police – but he still did not falter in campaigning for what he believed in.

In 1996 history was made. In November 1996 The Compassionate Use Act, also known as California Proposition 215, came into effect, legalising the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Dennis Peron co-authored this act along with 7 other activists and advocates and in turn was able to legally reopen the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. 

More recently, in 2010, Peron opposed an initiative that aimed to fully legalise cannabis in California. Dennis Peron was against California Proposition 19 because he believed there was no such thing as recreational cannabis consumption, and argued any use of the plant was initiated by some kind of therapeutic motivation. 

Mary Jane Rathbun - AKA Brownie Mary

As many will know, Mary Jane Rathbun became known as Brownie Mary after she began to distribute cannabis edibles to patients suffering from wasting syndrome associated with HIV/AIDS and cancer as a hospital volunteer in San Francisco. 

Mary perfected her edible recipe for a number of years whilst working at the International House of Pancakes, and later in 1974 she met Dennis Peron in a local café and became inspired to assist in his cause. By the early 1980s, it is thought that Mary was baking a batch of around 50 brownies a day, using cannabis that had been donated by fellow members of the cannabis community – but the police soon caught wind. 

In 1981, over 8 kilograms of cannabis as well as 54 baked brownie edibles were found after police raided 57-year-old Mary Rathbun’s home. Dubbed ‘Brownie Mary’ by the press, Rathbun was sentenced to three years of probation and 500 hours of community service, which she rapidly completed within 60 days. The following year she was arrested again by the same officers, this time whilst en route to drop off her baked goods to a friend who was suffering from serious side effects caused by chemotherapy treatment.

Despite being criminalised for her actions, Mary Rathbun continued to bake with cannabis and volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital to distribute her brownies to patients with AIDS on Ward 86, who crowned her ‘volunteer of the year’ in 1984. As well as assisting at patient’s bedsides, Mary fought for them politically working on Proposition P, and alongside Dennis Peron and many other activists petitioning for Proposition 215. 

Proposition P was passed by San Francisco voters in 1991, which recommended to the State of California to make medical marijuana available to those who needed it, and to protect the physicians that prescribed it. At the age of 70, in 1992 Mary was arrested for possession again, but she was acquitted of all charges as the judge saw her actions were motivated by compassion, as opposed to by malice or greed. 

In 1996 despite her ill-health, Mary campaigned alongside Dennis Peron for California Proposition 215 which later became state law. California Proposition 215 legalised the possession and cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes, so long as it had been recommended by a physician. The following year both Mary and Dennis were honoured at the 1997 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade as Grand Marshals for their tireless efforts in advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Dr Donald Abrams

Dr Donald Abrams is a world-renowned HIV/AIDS specialist and oncologist who has been tirelessly researching the disease since the 1980s. As one of the first to study the effects of cannabis on AIDS in a clinical setting in the 1990s, Dr Abrams openly spoke about two topics that were extremely stigmatised at the time in a compassionate, yet factual manner. 

In 1994, Dr Donald Abrams reported his findings publicly at a MAPS conference and went on to request funding and permission from the American Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute of Drug Abuse to conduct further studies. 

Initially his requests were denied, but after carefully rewording his proposal to indicate he would explore the safety of cannabis, as opposed to its medicinal benefits, Dr Abrams was awarded a grant of $978,000. In 2000 the results were finally released, demonstrating safety in short-term use and a potential for increased immunity that was worthy of further exploration. 

As a gay man himself, Dr Donald Abrams found his calling in helping members of the LGBTQIA+ community by using his knowledge and expertise to advance scientific research in the field of HIV/AIDS. As well as being a medical marijuana specialist, Dr Abrams is also a Professor of Clinical Medicine at The University of California and the Chief of Haematology/Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital. 

Dr Donald Abram’s husband of over 25 years, Clint Werner, is also a well-known cannabis activist and the pair met at The University of San Francisco. In 2011 Clint Werner published ‘Marijuana, Gateway to Health’ that explains the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and how its cannabinoid contents work within the body. 

Andrea Tischler – AKA Nurse Mary Jane

Andrea Tischler gained the nickname Nurse Mary Jane after she was inspired by Mary Rathburn’s story. Tischler began to distribute cannabis joints to patients that were suffering with HIV/AIDS at equal rights and cannabis legalisation marches and rallies, she also spent time visiting them once they became inpatients in hospital.

Andrea Tischler felt strongly about helping those affected by the AIDS epidemic and specifically felt the need to stand up for members of the transgender community, who were typically cast out or not accepted by members of the gay community. 

Thinking of how stigmas are perpetuated and how children are conditioned to hold certain beliefs, Andrea Tischler felt children should learn about drugs and medicines from healthcare professionals as opposed to police officers. To combat this, in 1994 Tischler managed to convince her son's elementary school to drop the DARE programme that was designed to scare children and act as a deterrent against drugs. 

The previous year in 1993, Andrea Tischler had been involved in helping to draft and pass the Santa Cruz Medical Marijuana Initiative. This acted as a foundation for the development of a medical cannabis collective in Santa Cruz named the Santa Cruz Cannabis Buyer's Club. 

Andrea Tischler also led The Santa Cruz Citizens for Sensible Marijuana Policy which sponsored an initiative in the early 2000s that called for marijuana violations to become law enforcements lowest priority. In 2006 this ballot, named Measure K, came into action in Santa Cruz after it was approved by over 63% of voters, and shortly after a series of similar ballots were passed across the country.

In 2000 Andrea and her partner Maria Mallek-Tischer opened a bed and breakfast style hotel that catered to medical marijuana patients called The Compassion Flower Inn. The business ran for six years and provided patients with a safe and comfortable place to stay whilst out of town, where they could administer their medication without judgement or fear.


Here at Releaf, we have incredible admiration for these early activists and advocates. Through the accomplishments and the tireless efforts of these individuals, people all over the western world are finally in a place where they can legally access the medication that they need, and love the people that they love. 

Although Pride Month only lasts for 30 days, we believe the sentiment should always remain strong, and these efforts should never be forgotten.

Releaf understands the importance of medical cannabis in treating various medical conditions. With our tailored monthly packages, specialist consultations for medical cannabis, and a unique medical cannabis card for protection, you can access the treatment you need without worrying about the stigma. 

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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With five years of journalism and healthcare content creation under her belt, Lucy strives to improve medical cannabis awareness and access in the UK by producing high quality, credible content.

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