Cannabis legalization is a global phenomenon. Even people who don’t consume cannabis know that it’s more accessible than ever in the United States and that national legalization is on the horizon.

What many people don’t know is that the cannabis movement is tied directly to the fight against HIV/AIDS begun by LGBTQ+ activists during the 1980s.

There is an essential relationship between AIDS activism and the regulated cannabis industry. On December 1, World AIDS Day, we acknowledge that history and explore ways to fight AIDS and support people living with HIV today.

How AIDS Activism Led to Cannabis Legalization

A little over 40 years ago, doctors began to identify a frightening phenomenon among young, gay men. A growing number of these men were inexplicably contracting a lung infection known as Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) along with rare secondary infections. Many of these men were dying, and no one understood why.

These were the first of many thousands of people who contracted HIV between 1981 and the country’s egregiously slow response to its crushing impacts. The apparent connection between AIDS and the gay community created a stigma that left AIDS patients in the dark and accelerated the virus’ spread.

Gay people faced tremendous discrimination in the 20th century. Anti-sodomy laws were still on the books, liquor laws classified public gatherings of gay men as “disorderly,” and gay marriage was illegal. Most of the public regarded the emergent disease as a joke or divine punishment for “immoral” behavior. Doctors and public officials avoided discussing the epidemic, calling it the “gay plague” even though heterosexual people, women, infants, hemophilia patients, and people who used needles to inject drugs were contracting the virus as well.

President Ronald Reagan did not even mention the term AIDS publicly until 1985 — five years after the virus had torn its way through the country, especially devastating the LGBTQ+ community. When Reagan finally gave a substantial public address about AIDS in 1987, the virus had taken 20,849 people’s lives.

People on the front lines of the gruesome war against AIDS took matters into their own hands. In California, that fight initiated the slow but steady end of cannabis prohibition we are witnessing today.

People like Dennis Peron, founder of the first medical cannabis dispensary in California, saw the palliative effects cannabis had on AIDS patients. Cannabis doesn’t cure the virus, but it has been known by many for the relief from the nausea, anxiety, and physical pain AIDS patients suffer with this qualifying condition. Peron and his spouse, John Entwistle, fought tirelessly to legalize medical use of the plant, driven to relieve the overwhelming suffering their loved ones endured.

Paul Scott, president of LA Black Pride and former chairman of the Oakland Cannabis Buyer’s Cooperative, saw the toll HIV and AIDS took firsthand. As a former nurse, he witnessed the abysmal treatment the medical field offered AIDS patients: spartan wards, isolation, physical distance, and disgust. Scott left nursing and started several medical cannabis cooperatives.

By 1996, the aggressive activism from the gay community for medical marijuana resulted in the addition of Proposition 215 to the ballot. Co-written by Dennis Perron, Prop. 215 legalized medical cannabis in California. Forty years later, it is legal in 39 states, and there is bipartisan support for cannabis legalization at the federal level.

The Fight Against AIDS Isn’t Over

Since its discovery, AIDS has taken the lives of over 35 million people. It is one of the most devastating pandemics this world has seen, but HIV and AIDS remain misunderstood and under-prioritized even though they affect so many people:

  • Globally, 37.7 million people were living with HIV in 2020.
  • Nearly 1.2 million people in the United States live with HIV.
  • 36,801 people received an HIV diagnosis in the U.S. in 2019.
  • Black people account for 42% of HIV diagnoses in the U.S.
  • Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) make up 69% of HIV diagnoses in the U.S.

These numbers show that HIV disproportionately impacts Black people and MSM. Black people comprise about 13% of the US population but account for 42% of HIV diagnoses. MSM make up between 3% and 7% of the population but 69% of HIV diagnoses.

This data does not mean that Black people and MSM are inherently less responsible than people of other races or sexual preferences. Instead, it is evidence of isolation-producing structural inequities resulting from racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Anyone can contract HIV, but people discriminated against for their race or sexual orientation are more vulnerable to medical neglect that leads to greater complications from the virus. AIDS activists have spent the past three decades fighting to end discrimination, improve education, and remind the government and the public that lives are still at stake.

4 Ways to Combat AIDS on World AIDS Day (and Every Day)

We can join the fight against AIDS and support people living with HIV all year long through simple but intentional actions:

  • Learn from the HIV and AIDS community. Reading and listening to people living with HIV or AIDS and their loved ones is the best way to enter into allyship.

  • Wear the red ribbon. Wearing an HIV-awareness red ribbon publicizes your support, encourages much-needed conversations about HIV and AIDS, and erodes the stigma associated with the virus.

  • Get tested. HIV and AIDS do not discriminate. You can get tested at a doctor’s office, health clinic, family planning clinic, health department, and most medical and health facilities.

  • Promote HIV and AIDS awareness in marginalized communities. AIDS disproportionately impacts people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Targeting marginalized communities with education efforts, testing facilities, medical assistance, and other supports provides an equitable share of resources needed for survival.

The cannabis industry stands on the foundation AIDS activists constructed even as they battled against intense discrimination and illness. This World AIDS Day, we acknowledge that labor and say thank you.