Dana Larsen: An open letter to Paul Therien of the Q Hall of Fame on cannabis and Pride

Dear Paul, Thank you for your open letter of April 24 to me and others involved in the Vancouver 4/20

The pro-cannabis group Sensible B.C. has joined the Vancouver Pride parade to show solidarity with those who’ve been persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Credit: Charlie Smith


Dear Paul,

Thank you for your open letter of April 24 to me and others involved in the Vancouver 4/20 cannabis protest. I’m sorry it has taken me a few weeks to respond, but I wanted to give your thoughtful letter the detailed and considerate reply it deserved.

First I want to thank you for the work you’re doing at the Q Hall of Fame. I had not heard of your group before, but after exploring your website I see that you are doing good work in documenting and commemorating the brave people who have worked and sacrificed to advance the cause of equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. I agree that it is important that we don’t forget our history, and that those who have led the cause for human dignity and freedom should be commemorated.

The main concern you raise in your letter is that you see the cannabis movement as trying to ‘hitch on the tails’ of the Pride movement. I hope that my letter will encourage you to look at this from a different perspective. I hope to show you that the cannabis movement being inspired by the success of the Pride movement is a good thing, and a sign of respect and support. I hope to convince you that you should be pleased to see how the bravery and dedication of LGBTQ+ activists has given inspiration to activists pushing for cannabis reform and other kinds of positive social change.

You bring up ‘arguments from the pro 4/20 side that has equated these events with the Pride events’. When speaking with the media, I do sometimes draw parallels between the Pride Parade and our 4/20 protest, but I would never say that these two events are exactly the same.

If a reporter asks me ‘Will you cancel 4/20 after cannabis is legalized?’, I sometimes reply ‘Did they cancel the Pride Parade after gay marriage was legalized?’ It’s a quick soundbite to explain that there are still many reasons to gather, protest, and celebrate a movement even after a law gets changed.

Other times I might point out that the Pride Parade began as a protest against government attacks on a vulnerable community, but now has mayors and prime ministers marching in solidarity, and that I hope one day our 4/20 protest can enjoy the same kind of transformative success.

Obviously, there are very significant differences in the origins, history, and current status of Pride and 4/20, but there are also clearly some similarities which unite both events.

Both Pride and 4/20 began as radical protests by a community suffering from persecution by government and police, and both have evolved into becoming large, mainstream cultural events. Both started as protests in a couple of big cities and have spread across the country to now be celebrated in many cities and towns. It’s also true that ‘LGBT advocacy and cannabis legalization represent two of the fastest evolving public opinion issues in contemporary society.‘ I don’t see how acknowledging these parallels does any disservice to the activism and sacrifices of the Pride pioneers.

More importantly, and more interestingly, if we look back just a few decades we see that the cannabis movement and the LGBTQ+ movement are actually deeply intertwined. It’s not unreasonable to say that the whole medical cannabis movement really began as an offshoot of the gay rights movement!

The father of legal medical marijuana, Dennis Peron, became a hero to many with his activism, which was inspired by the death of his partner as a result of AIDS. Credit: Cary Newman

The medical cannabis movement is an offshoot of the gay rights movement

North America’s medical cannabis movement really began in California during the 1990s as part of the gay rights movement and a response to the AIDS crisis. America’s very first medicinal cannabis outlet was in San Francisco’s Castro District, one of the first ‘gay neighborhoods’ in the country. It was called ‘The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club’ and was opened by Dennis Peron, a gay man, in 1992.

Dennis Peron, known as ‘the father of legal medical marijuana,’ dedicated his cannabis activism to his partner Jonathan West, who died of AIDS in 1990. Peron had been a long-time activist against the Vietnam War and was also a close friend of Harvey Milk, the visionary civil and human rights leader who became one of America’s first openly gay elected officials by winning a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, before being tragically assassinated in 1978.

For Dennis Peron, and for many many others in the gay community at the time, gay rights activism, AIDS activism, and cannabis activism were all intertwined and part of the same cause. “This is about more than marijuana,‘ Peron would say. ‘It’s about compassion. It’s about America. It’s about how we treat each other as people.” Sometimes he would say it more succinctly: ‘This isn’t about pot. It’s about love.’

I had the honour of meeting Dennis Peron a few times at different events over the years. He was a passionate, charismatic, loving, and gentle man, whose dedication and accomplishments have always served as a real inspiration for me over my career as a cannabis advocate. I’m still proud of an article we published about Peron in Cannabis Culture magazine in 1998, back when I was the editor. We profiled his long career as he was closing his ‘Cannabis Cultivator’s Club,’ and called him ‘Saint Dennis of San Francisco‘, a title he richly deserves.

(One of Dennis’s key allies was a woman named Mary Jane Rathbun, widely known as ‘Brownie Mary‘. She was a hospital volunteer who was arrested three times for giving homemade cannabis brownies to AIDS patients. She persisted, and eventually got support from the City of San Francisco to distribute cannabis brownies to people with AIDS.)

In 1991 Peron wrote Proposition P, which was passed by the city of San Francisco and effectively decriminalized medicinal cannabis in the city. In 1995 Peron wrote California’s Proposition 215, which was passed the next year in a historic vote to remove penalties from medical cannabis at the state level. This allowed hundreds of medical cannabis clubs to open up in California.

Medicinal cannabis clubs for AIDS patients in California became known as ‘Compassion Clubs’. Vancouver’s first medical cannabis outlet was the BC Compassion Club Society, founded by Hilary Black in 1997, after she had been directly inspired by seeing the clubs and activism in San Francisco. Canada’s modern dispensary scene would never have happened without the pioneering efforts of Dennis Peron and other gay activists in California.

We should celebrate and build on the connections between the Pride and cannabis movements

Sometimes our cannabis community forgets the debt we owe to the LGBTQ+ community, and I am someone who works to remind my community of this history, and to show our gratitude to the Pride movement for helping pave the way. I appreciate how your letter has given me the opportunity to bring this up again, and talk about how our two movements are deeply intertwined.

I agree with Charlie Tetiyevsky, the author of an article that reminds the cannabis community ‘You can thank gay activists for medical marijuana.’

The article is really worth reading, especially for the moving tale of how ‘a human chain of AIDS patients’ once protected the S.F. Cannabis Buyer’s Club from a police raid, their arms linked in a circle around the whole city block to defend the club.

Tetiyevsky chides members of the cannabis movement who ‘have started to forget its undeniably LGBTQ roots’, and calls out the homophobia and exclusion that still sometimes shows up within the cannabis community. I fully agree with these sentiments and try to incorporate them into my work and advocacy.

I also like the comments in the article by Dan Karoska, who runs a monthly queer weed dance party called Puff. He calls for ‘the re-awakening of queer and LGBTQ representation in cannabis,’ and says “in many ways the marijuana community and the LGBTQ community are similar — a fringe community that not all people accept that used to be illegal.’

In India, there’s a ‘Support Don’t Punish’ day of action against the war on drugs. Credit: Osymandius

A choice versus being born

Paul, in your letter you write that the Pride movement and the cannabis movement cannot be compared, because the cannabis movement ‘was born of a desire to be able to partake in the ingestion of a substance’ while the Pride movement was ‘born of the direct and state sanctioned discrimination of people because of their sexual orientation’. You also write that ‘people who identify as LGBTQ+ are discriminated against not because of a choice that they made, it is because they were born’.

I agree that people are generally born with innate sexual orientation, there’s many interesting studies into this subject. However, is ‘born that way‘ really the crux of the Pride movement? If it turned out that some members of the LGBTQ+ community were not ‘born that way’ but had made a choice to be LGBTQ+ would that justify any discrimination and persecution against them? Of course not!

Isn’t the ultimate expression of the Pride movement the idea that people should be free to express and experience their sexuality in whatever manner they choose, with or without any adult consenting partners they choose? While it’s true that people are generally born with innate sexual preferences, it’s also true that there are many people who choose to have same-sex or non-heteronormative sexual experiences for reasons other than their innate biology. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about anyone’s sexual expression, regardless of how they were born.

And while it’s true that cannabis use is a choice, for many people it’s just not that simple. Is cannabis use really just ‘a choice’ for the family of a child who has epilepsy and whose only relief comes from using the illegal extracts of this plant? Or could we say that child is being discriminated against and forced to suffer not because of a choice that they made, but just because they were born a certain way?

Other things could also be called ‘just a choice’, like a hairstyle, or how you dress, or how you pray. But for many people these choices are fundamental to their identity, so fundamental that they are willing to undergo severe punishments and even death to protect that choice. For example, to these Rastafarians who have spent years in torturous solitary confinement solely because of their dreadlocks, their hairstyle is more than just ‘a choice they made’. Wearing dreadlocks is a fundamental aspect of their self identity, so important to them than they are willing to sit alone in a small box for years to defend it.

I would agree that for many cannabis users, cannabis is just a fun, trivial thing and not a key part of their self identity. But there are also many people for whom the cannabis plant is the sacred tree of life, an integral part of their culture and their sense of self. For instance, there are many millions of people around the world who revere cannabis as part of a formal religious tradition, whether they are a worshipper of Shiva in India, a Rastafarian in Jamaica, or a member of Canada’s own cannabis-based Church of the Universe.

There are also many millions of people like me, who do not belong to a formal cannabis church, but who see our relationship with cannabis as intensely personal and integral to who we are. Despite very harsh penalties, lengthy jail sentences, and even the threat of death, our community’s understanding and appreciation of the benefits of cannabis make us willing to make these great sacrifices just so we can grow this sacred herb and share its healing benefits with others who need it.

Also, when we look at racial disparities and other inequalities in how cannabis and other drug laws are enforced, we see that these laws are often not truly imposed for what people do, rather they are often used an excuse to punish people for who they are.

The prohibition imposed on the coca leaf is a direct attack on spiritual traditions of Indigenous peoples in Bolivia and Peru. Credit: Dwayne Reilander/Wikimedia Commons

Human rights abuses, prison, and punishments

I hope you don’t mind if I broaden the discussion at this point to include the whole ‘war on drugs’ and not just cannabis prohibition. Just like the Pride movement is about much more than just gay men, so too is our movement about much more than just cannabis. The root of the cannabis movement is about ending prohibition, not just of the cannabis plant and the culture around it, but all the sacred medicine plants that have been prohibited in the global ‘war on drugs’.

You bring up horrific abuses still suffered by the LGBTQ+ community in many parts of the world, including concentration camps and conversion therapy. I agree that these are shocking human rights violations, and also agree wholeheartedly that we need to work together in Canada and around the world to stop any punishments and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. This is a fundamental human rights issue.

But I would also say the same about the harsh punishments and human rights violations imposed on drug users in Canada and around the world. The lengthy jail sentences, the public humiliations, the torture, the executions. Indeed, there is virtually no place on earth where growing, sharing, or using plants like cannabis, coca leaf, or psilocybe mushroom doesn’t result in loss of liberty, often with severe sentences or sometimes death.

I would point to the current opioid overdose crisis, with a death toll and cultural significance on par with the peak of the AIDS crisis. Many researchers, activists, and politicians have drawn obvious parallels between these two crises. Both are a deadly consequence not of the act itself, as neither gay sex nor opiate use is intrinsically dangerous or even harmful, but of public policy and social pressures, which result in people making unsafe choices they shouldn’t ever have to make. Many observers point out that the opioid crisis is changing public perceptions and laws about drug use in a similar manner to how the AIDS crisis transformed public attitudes and laws around homosexuality.

Is the death toll from the opioid crisis less important than the death toll from the AIDS crisis, because one group was ‘born that way’ while the other group ‘made a choice’? In this case, I don’t feel like that distinction is really relevant or useful to make.

I would also point to the recent history of countries like Bolivia and Peru, whose Indigenous people have grown and revered coca plants for thousands of years as a sacred plant ally that plays an integral role in their society, culture, medicine and religion. The prohibition on the coca leaf, imposed on them by the colonial governments of European imperialists, is a direct attack on their cultural and spiritual identity. To those Andean peoples that use coca leaf as a medicine and a sacrament, the prohibition of the coca plant denies their entire culture the basic, fundamental human right to exist.

For a final, truly terrifying current example, look at the Phillippines, where a horrific war on drug users was launched by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. The president has urged his citizens to murder drug users, resulting in over 20,000 state-sanctioned murders so far. About 4,000 accused drug users have been murdered by police and at least 16,000 more have been murdered by street vigilantes. This is nothing less than a state-sanctioned genocide, what the Chicago Tribune has called ‘A genocide of dehumanized drug users’, by a government that wants to deny these people their basic, fundamental human right to exist.

The pro-cannabis group Sensible B.C. has joined the Vancouver Pride parade to show solidarity with those who’ve been persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Credit: Charlie Smith

We should stick together

Finally, I’d like to add that I would love to see closer collaboration between the Pride movement and the anti-drug-war movement.

One of the reasons I sometimes bring up the Pride parade when talking about 4/20 is because of my admiration for the accomplishments of the LGBTQ+ community, and our desire to move forward along the path it has opened up. Like many people, I am thrilled by the success of the Pride movement, and seek to build on that success and emulate those victories in other areas of positive social change.

Also, drug prohibition laws disproportionately affect the Pride community. Partly because LGBTQ+ people seem to be more likely to use illegal drugs, but mainly because drug laws are always applied far more strictly to already marginalized communities.

This is one of the reasons why American activist groups like the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National LGBTQ Task Force have explained that the war on drugs is an LGBT issue, because ‘Police bias, abuse and profiling of LGBTQ people—especially trans women of color—means more LGBTQ people are targeted by law enforcement.’ The National LGBT Taskforce has made opposing drug prohibition a high priority, saying that ‘the war on drugs is war on people’ and adding that ending the drug war is necessary to ‘secure full freedom’ for LGBTQ+ people.

These two groups, along with the National Center for Transgender Equality, have called for drug sentencing reform and also all signed a recent letter to President Trump opposing increased penalties for drug offences.

The National Center for Transgender Equality also points out that the expanded policing and incarceration that comes with the drug war is ‘especially perilous for transgender people’. The fact is, the war on drugs makes it much more likely for members of the LGBTQ+ community to be harassed, arrested, and incarcerated. When in prison, they are more likely to be mistreated and sexually victimized.

It’s also worth noting that it’s usually the exact same people fighting against human rights for the Pride community that are also fighting against human rights for drug users. Indeed, prohibitionists and homophobes have long lumped drug users and LGBTQ+ people together as ‘deviants‘ and ‘criminals’.

Over the years, many of the same fear tactics have been used to demonize LGBTQ+ people and drug users. The claim that drug users and LGBTQ+ want to recruit your children, the claim that drug users and LGBTQ+ are simply immoral people, the claim that drug users and LGBTQ+ spread disease, the claim that both are innately criminal or mentally ill. Even the idea that these groups of people simply deserve to die.

Further, using homophobia to attack cannabis use has been a longstanding and common tactic among prohibitionists. Carlton Turner, Ronald Reagan’s ‘drug czar’, told Newsweek in 1986 that homosexuality ‘seems to be something that follows along from marijuana use’. He also claimed that cannabis ‘leads to homosexuality… and therefore to AIDS’.

The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs also fought to maintain the criminalization of both homosexuality and cannabis use, tying the two issues together and saying they both lead to ‘depravity of the individual‘.

The homophobic (and herbaphobic) tactic of attacking cannabis by claiming it leads to homosexuality continues to this day. Here’s a fairly recent anti-cannabis ad from MTV, which uses fear of gay incest to try and scare young people away from using cannabis!

(And of course, even if cannabis use did somehow ‘turn people gay’, what would be wrong with that?)

The Ottawa Journal

All human rights are important

I hope my letter has helped clarify my stance and ideas around these issues. The 4/20 movement is inspired by the achievements of the Pride activists. I believe we honour those pioneers when we seek to learn from their tactics and emulate their success.

To be clear, I would never say that ending global drug prohibition is ‘the same as’ the Pride movement, because it is not the same. But I would say that the two issues are intertwined, as are many other human rights issues. Indeed, I would also say that racism, sexism, homophobia, and the war on drugs are all deeply interconnected and intertwined. Those that fall on the intersections of these issues are marginalized, most of all.

The global drug war is a worldwide catastrophe which has caused countless drug overdose deaths as well as mass imprisonment, police corruption, government corruption, attacks on Indigenous cultures,

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