By Fran Hutchins and Carl Fillichio
Happy Four Twenty–the U.S. cannabis industry’s unofficial “day.”
The meaning behind 420 is as simple as it is complex. It is both pinpointedly specific and vastly broad. Local and universal. If “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” is the call to arms for the cocktail crowd, “It’s 4:20 p.m. everywhere” might be the counter from cannabis connoisseurs.
420 has a quintessential cannabis origin–youthful, slightly outlaw, mildly clandestine. California centric. And as usual, ultimately involves The Grateful Dead.
Historians trace the 420 phenomenon to 1971 and a group of high school friends from San Francisco’s North Bay area who coined it as a secret meeting code (“after sports practice”). From there, they’d plan their search for a cannabis trove supposedly planted in the area. Through personal and professional relationships the friends had with members of the Grateful Dead, 420 was introduced to more people and caught on vis-a-vis a notoriously eclectic touring rock band.
Since then, 420 has become synonymous with celebrating all things cannabis–the history, the people and their power, and all the politics of the plant. It should come as no surprise that 4/20 and 4:20 have been unofficially designated as the day and time to celebrate.
The LGBTQ+ community is integral to everything that 420 is about. We have played a significant role in patients’ and mainstream medicine’s acceptance of cannabis as legitimate medicine, and over the past decade have been a critical element in the successive legalization wins in states across the country.
LGBTQ+ history intersects in many ways with cannabis legalization activism, and historic moments of cannabis legalization have been made by queer people.
Both communities also share a powerful and effective tool — the act of coming out — to change hearts and minds.
And most notably, it was a member of our community, working to save the lives of our community, that created the first of what is now nearly 8,000 medical and adult-use cannabis dispensaries in the United States. Yes, there is plenty of LGBTQ+/420 stuff for us to get excited about.
But the story of the first medical cannabis dispensary in the United States is probably among the most important.
In March of 2020, state governments across the U.S. began to shutter businesses in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. Governors of both parties in states with medical cannabis programs deemed dispensaries essential and kept them open, just like pharmacies. The message was clear. Cannabis is medicine.
The coronavirus pandemic provided cannabis with its medical legitimacy. But it was the AIDS pandemic some thirty years before that gave us a glimpse of cannabis’s tremendous medical benefits.
Americans were introduced to AIDS in July 1981 when The New York Times reported a “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” In its early days, an AIDS diagnosis was nothing less than a death sentence. 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 at that time 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, and subdued anxiety.
But that didn’t mean that it was easy for AIDS patients to get it. Denis Peron — who had been selling cannabis illegally for 20 years — decided it was time to ensure that the people needing cannabis should not risk arrest. He threw himself into legalization, starting with “Proposition P” — the referendum effectively decriminalized growing, selling and using small amounts of cannabis for medical purposes within San Francisco’s city limits. Eighty percent of residents voted in favor of it in 1991.
Soon afterward, Peron opened something of a dispensary and smoking lounge in a one-bedroom apartment in the Castro. Members quickly outgrew the rooms. The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club (SFCBC ) moved two more times to larger spaces in the Castro. Each time, the SFCBC accommodated more patients and filled the community’s acute needs. The dispensary expanded to include edibles and tinctures, for example, and progressive politics entered the mix. Through all that change, Peron worked on legislation that would make medical cannabis legal in all of California, not just San Francisco. California became the first state to allow medicinal cannabis use when voters passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996. Cannabis is now legal in California for both medicinal and adult use.
Peron died in 2018. Today, the entire U.S. cannabis industry is worth $61 billion, with medical cannabis making up almost $17 billion. Medical cannabis is forecasted to be worth more than $46 billion by 2027. And to think, it all started by a gay man, in a “gayborhood”, to help other gay men who were dying of what was then called a “gay cancer.”
We probably don’t think of Dennis Peron when we walk into our cannabis dispensary in California, Illinois, Colorado or the additional 35 states across the country that allow safe, reliable and regulated medical cannabis to people who need it.
And maybe today, the “stoner’s holiday,” is the day we start.
Fran Hutchins is Executive Director of the Equality Federation, an advocacy accelerator for state-based LGBTQ+ organizations. Carl Fillichio is a vice president at Weedmaps, the tech platform powering the global cannabis industry.