In the Darkest Days of AIDS, Cannabis Lit the Way

4 min readDec 2, 2020


By Bridget Hennessey, Vice President, Government Relations, Weedmaps

Today is World AIDS Day — a good opportunity to look at the important role cannabis has played in the tumultuous history of the AIDS pandemic. I will give you the “take-away” from this essay upfront, because it cannot be stressed enough: Cannabis is medicine.

Americans were introduced to AIDS in July, 1981. The New York Times reported a “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” This story is often cited as the first media report on what would eventually be called AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The New York Native, an LGBTQ weekly publication actually reported on it two months prior.

I was two years old in 1981, so I cannot provide a personal perspective on what happened next. But the Seattle-based cannabis journalist Lester Black nailed it last year when he wrote:

In the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was advancing through the gay community at a frightening pace, while the US government and the medical community either looked the other way or grossly stigmatized the people with the virus.

“California was already on its way to becoming an international hotbed of cannabis, with hippies using the consistent sun in the remote northern part of the state to breed new and more potent forms of pot . . . . In the midst of these two forces sat San Francisco, an ultra-liberal city that had both a large gay community and a political history of giving the Feds the middle finger.

Unsurprisingly, the city’s gay community discovered that pot was hugely helpful in treating the symptoms of HIV/AIDS. One witness to pot’s medical value was Dennis Peron . . . . started the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, which later played an instrumental role in California’s 1996 legalization of medical marijuana.”

During the 1980s, an AIDS diagnosis was nothing less than a death sentence — and in most cases, a horrible, painful and lonely death. The disease melted flesh from bone and robbed victims of their sight, their memory and too often, their dignity.

The medications used to treat AIDS seemed toxic — the side effects were often as unbearable as the virus itself. But there was something that countered those powerful side effects and provided immense relief: cannabis. It quelled the incessant nausea, soothed the pain that felt like darts shooting out from inside the skin. It stimulated appetite, subdued anxiety and calmed patients as they came closer to their last breath.

My colleague, Carl Fillichio recalled: “Guys were just skin and bones. But pot, that was like water in the desert — some joy and a brief respite to get through the pain and discomfort, and the endless hours of endless days.”

Paul Scott, the civil rights and cannabis activist paints an even more personal picture: “I was taking 12 pills every day and the side effects were killing me. You have to understand, we were dying and marijuana was all we had. You can’t think back to one without the other.”

That’s it. Right there — Cannabis and AIDS: “You can’t think back to one without the other.”

Cannabis gave people suffering from AIDS undeniable comfort and relief. That gave cannabis medical credibility. But that didn’t mean that it was easy for AIDS patients to get it.

This was the “Just Say No” era of Ronald Reagan, after all. Fillichio, who in the mid 1980s helped organize a series of “Rock Against Reagan” concerts in Washington, D.C. noted: “It was ‘morning in America’ for them, and ‘mourning in America’ for us.” John Entwistle, a gay man and cannabis activist summed it up: “AIDS threw a grenade onto the dance floor.”

Many lay dying but others were running and finding their life’s work. Mary Jane Rathbun, who became known as “Brownie Mary,” baked “magic” brownies for suffering and dying AIDS patients and delivered them with love. Dennis Peron, a gay activist and cannabis advocate, changed the law and opened the country’s first legal medical cannabis dispensary. They were joined by enlightened politicians, sympathetic police officers, caretakers — mostly straight women — and advocates, armies of gays and pot-smokers, and compassionate others.

Brownie Mary died in 1999. Peron in 2018. An AIDS diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.

New drugs have minimal side effects. It’s better certainly, but it’s not over.

It’s never over. There’s something about cannabis that won’t allow some people to say: “OK , we’re done. It is what it is.” Laws are constantly being challenged. Zoning requirements, advertising restrictions, delivery regulations — are all ways to limit safe and convenient access to legal cannabis. There are still more than a dozen states that have no access to any medical cannabis — shortchanging thousands of cancer patients, children with epilepsy and veterans suffering with PTSD. Our work continues.

Learn more about the extraordinary people and fascinating moments in California history previewed in this essay. Read “During the Darkest Days of AIDS, Cannabis was Often the Only Respite a World AIDS Day Special Feature provided by WM Policy




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