AIDS and Cannabis: A Somewhat Intertwined History

Allan MacDonell
Allan MacDonell - Content Writer

Apr 02 2021 - 7 min read

In 1981, when doctors in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City noted a handful of young gay men being stricken with severe, unusual illnesses, few who read those reports predicted that a modern-day plague was unfolding in fast-forward time. No one envisioned that the rapidly spreading, highly fatal AIDS crisis would add vitality and clout to the dawning medical marijuana movement.

A June 5, 1981, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control warned that five young homosexual men in Los Angeles, California, had contracted Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a form of lung disease limited to patients with severely suppressed immune systems. A follow-up CDC bulletin alerted the medical profession to a connection between the rare skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma and the Pneumocystis pneumonia. Within days, the New York Times ran a story under the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” and the foreshadowing of the epidemic to come took shape.

The condition, in which immune systems suddenly collapsed and patients were ravaged with sarcoma, pneumonia, and a host of opportunistic infections, was initially dubbed Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). The number of heterosexual hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users and blood transfusion recipients who were succumbing to opportunistic infections stemming from GRID rose at such an alarming rate that the disease was renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Once medical science had concluded what to call the new plague, the much more difficult work of uncovering the origins of AIDS and discovering how to treat it began. With no precedent or guide to work from, doctors were playing tragic guessing games with the never-before-seen syndrome.

The first step in meaningful treatment came in 1983 when a team led by Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris isolated the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as the causative agent of AIDS. The discovery of HIV allowed for blood screening, introduction of safe sex practices and harm reduction guidelines for drug users.

New call-to-action

AIDS Activism Becomes Cannabis Activism

Since the 1960s and earlier, pioneers in the gay rights movement had developed a sophisticated and effective activist network, which coalesced into the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power! (ACT UP.) Under great public pressure generated by ACT UP, an HIV specific antiviral drug called azidothymidine (AZT) was rushed to market in 1985. AZT provided limited suppression of HIV replication. Side effects included appetite loss and gastric distress. At this time, AIDS patients were dying of wasting syndrome (defined as “loss of ten percent of baseline body weight”), anorexia, oral thrush and constant diarrhea. In many cases, the AZT cure was compounding the disease’s appetite loss and gastrointestinal distress.

People with AIDS who were taking AZT reported that smoking marijuana settled the gastrointestinal distress that the AZT compounded and gave them a case of what is technically known as “the raging munchies.” The voracious appetite triggered by cannabis consumption was a lifesaving turn of events for AIDS patients who had before marijuana been physically unable to consume enough calories to replenish diminishing body mass.

Cannabis consumption became a patient approved and endorsed element in any unofficial but effective and lifesaving AIDS treatment protocol.

There Was Only One Problem With Taking Cannabis to Battle AIDS

AIDS patients had discovered the appetite-triggering attributes of therapeutic cannabis consumption years prior to the 1985 introduction of AZT. Robert Randall, who founded Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics (ACT) in 1981, was approached by his first AIDS patient in 1983. Randall’s ACT organization had pushed to protect cancer and glaucoma patients against marijuana arrest in 34 states and to establish the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program for Marijuana.

Registered ACT patients received a supply of marijuana from the nation’s sole federal research cannabis cultivators, a five-acre farm at the University of Mississippi under direction of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

AIDS patients were not eligible to receive marijuana through the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program for Marijuana until 1991. The reasons AIDS patients continued to be subject to arrest for cannabis possession and use were wrapped up in a lack of profit motive and an excess of perverted morality.

In 1979, the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s chief of research and technology, Robert Willette, predicted that, “Since THC is not patentable, it’s going to take a lot of coercion by the government to get a pharmaceutical company to market marijuana.”

Throughout the early 1980s, the ACT and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) petitioned the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for public hearings to address consideration of cannabis as a drug with medical value. The DEA responded by holding internal hearings on the scheduling of cannabis in 1987 and 1988. DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young concluded that marijuana is “an acceptable medical use treatment in the United States.”

DEA Judge Young condemned the denial of marijuana’s medical benefits as “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious.”

On December 30, 1989, DEA Administrator Jack Lawn rejected Judge Young’s recommendation to reschedule cannabis as medically acceptable.

ACT’s Robert Randall responded to the DEA in March 1991 with the launch of a new alliance, the Marijuana AIDS Research Service (MARS). MARS’s streamlined focus centered on supplying AIDS patients and doctors with a template to apply to the Food and Drug Administration for a Compassionate Use marijuana designation.

Three months after a deluge of MARS guided applications from AIDS patients, in June 1991, shipments of marijuana from the University of Mississippi cannabis research farm were “interrupted.” On June 21, 1991, Dr. James O. Mason, chief of the U.S. Public Health Service, announced that the Compassionate Use Program was dead.

“If it’s perceived that the Public Health Service is going around giving marijuana to folks, there would be a perception that this stuff can’t be so bad. It gives a bad signal.” Mason also feared that AIDS patients using marijuana “might be less likely to practice safe behavior.”

Outdoor Cannabis Grow House Kits

The ACT and ACT UP Onslaught for Cannabis and AIDS Activism

Public Health Service chief Mason’s shuttering of the Compassionate Use program, and the language he used to justify his actions, resulted in an AIDS activist campaign to flood the FDA, the DEA and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy with phone calls expressing outrage and disappointment. ACT’s Randall believes that the “agencies did not anticipate the onslaught of public anger. This aggressive telephonic battering had a profound corrosive effect on institutional morale.”

ACT UP staged a “die-in” protest of the compassionate cannabis closure on the steps of the Health and Human Services headquarters, which had a profound effect of creating floods of sympathetic media coverage.

Cast in the light of angry AIDS patients and their furious families and loved ones, Public Health Service chief Mason’s cancelation of compassionate cannabis embarrassed the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and painted it as callous and hypocritical.

The combined forces of ACT and ACT UP forced Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan to decree that, despite closure of the compassionate cannabis program, every AIDS patient enrolled at that time would be supplied cannabis for the rest of their lives. The catch was that the THC would be administered in dronabinol pills, which were much harder for a patient plagued by nausea to swallow than combustible cannabis.

Dennis Peron, a gay cannabis activist and dealer who had been arrested in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco in 1991 is the key player in restoring smokable cannabis to the medical marijuana arsenal. Peron and a roommate named Jonathan, who was in late-stage AIDS, stood trial for possession and use of marijuana. Two weeks after their trial ended, Jonathan died. Seeking revenge for Jonathan’s ordeal, Peron gathered enough valid signatures to place a “Hemp Medications” proposition on a San Francisco City ballot. Prop P 1996 advised “the state of California and the California Medical Association to restore hemp medicinal preparations to the list of available medicines in California.”

Riding a wave of public fury over James Mason’s denial of cannabis to AIDS patients, Prop P 1996 passed with 78 percent voter approval.

San Francisco’s citizens had put the federal government on notice that San Francisco was in direct conflict with national policies regarding medical marijuana use. Dennis Peron quickly opened a cannabis buyers’ club and other San Francisco AIDS and cannabis activists pitched in. When 70-year-old “Brownie Mary” Rathbun was arrested on felony charges for baking cannabis cannabis brownies and supplying them to AIDS patients at San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 86, she remained unrepentant and defiant: “My kids need this, and I’m ready to go to jail for my principles. I’m not going to cut any deals. If I go to jail, I go to jail.”

Television coverage of Brownie Mary’s arrest and perseverance as a cannabis and AIDS activist was supportive and global. Her example prompted Rick Doblin, founder of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), to instigate community based clinical trials of cannabis and HIV as a new avenue of approval for therapeutic drugs.

Dr. Donald Abrams contacted Doblin to collaborate at San Francisco General Hospital to develop a marijuana treatment strategy to combat AIDS wasting syndrome. To begin that collaboration, Abrams and Doblin repeatedly petitioned the National Institute on Drug Abuse, their only legally approved source, for a supply of research cannabis. The NIDA ultimately refused to supply cannabis for a study to reverse AIDS wasting syndrome.

The government’s lack of compassion for AIDS patients dying of wasting syndrome, and the Bill Clinton Administration’s assertion in 1995 that “marijuana should not be used for any purpose” to justify Attorney General Janet Reno’s continued prosecution of medical cannabis users, contributed to the climate that enabled California’s Prop 215 to take flight.

The campaign for Prop 215 was launched by a coalition of patients, suppliers and activists at the downtown San Francisco headquarters of Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club.

Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, passed with 56 percent approval, establishing California as the country’s pioneer legal medical marijuana state.

Currently, more than half the United States have legal regulated sales of medical marijuana products. Many more states, perhaps all 50, may soon have legal medical marijuana, a state of illuminated governance that in every case traces back to the San Francisco offices of a gay AIDS activist’s marijuana buyers’ club.

(Source: “Medical Marijuana and the AIDS Crisis” by Clinton A. Werner, published through Cannabinoid Medicines International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines)

HIV and AIDS as Qualifying Conditions for Medical Marijuana Today

Medical cannabis products can effectively treat many symptoms of HIV/AIDS and side effects of antiretroviral therapies. Medical marijuana’s antiemetic (nausea-beating) and analgesic qualities have been established in numerous academic and medical studies.

AIDS and HIV or symptoms associated with AIDS and HIV are qualifying conditions for medical marijuana in every state that has established a regulated medical cannabis program. To qualify for and obtain a medical marijuana recommendation, consult your convenient and quick Leafwell medical cannabis application guide.

Written by
Allan MacDonell
Allan MacDonell

Contributing commentator Allan MacDonell’s work has been featured in publications ranging from Dazed and Confused UK to the New York Times and Washington Post. He is the author of Prisoner of X, Punk Elegies and Now That I Am Gone, and was a founding editorial director at online outlets including Buzznet, TakePart and Kindland. MacDonell views teaming with Leafwell as an opportunity to encourage the emerging role of legal cannabis as a highly effective medical treatment.

See A Leafwell Physician Today

Get approved for medical marijuana online from a licensed physician. Only pay if you are approved.

Get Started
Leafwell medical marijuana card

Not Sure If Cannabis Can Help You?

Let us know what you are looking to use medical cannabis for, and we will point you in the right direction.

Contact our support