From Dennis Peron to Laganja Estranja – the queer community has historically been at the forefront of the fight for cannabis legalisation. Statistics show that queer people tend to consume cannabis at higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts. One study suggested that homosexual men and women were approximately four to six times more likely to smoke cannabis, with the highest rates of consumption being among bisexual women.
It is no coincidence that modern cannabis consumption patterns have played out this way. While some may say that this correlation is due to a higher propensity for risk taking among the LGBTQ+ community, the reality is much more nuanced than that.
Historically the overlap between cannabis users and homosexual people has created space for resistance and mutual aid. Being gay and consuming cannabis were both framed as taboo in the mainstream, especially in the 1980s – and cannabis played a major role in the HIV epidemic. The symptoms and side effects of prescribed medication were ameliorated by cannabis, while weed was also an important part of palliative care for AIDS patients.
The cannabinoids present in marijuana – in particular THC – quelled nausea, soothed pain and stimulated appetite, thus greatly improving the quality of life of those living with HIV/AIDS.
“I was projectile vomiting. I was in pain all the time. I was sick all the time. I began using marijuana because of the medicine [to treat AIDS]. I was taking 12 pills every day and the side effects were killing me,” said Paul Scott, a veteran who worked as a nurse in Los Angeles hospital AIDS wards in the early 1980s.
He added: “You have to understand, we were dying and marijuana was all we had. You can’t think back to one without the other.”
It was the LGBT community that fought for Proposition 215 and the Compassionate Use Act, which eventually paved the way for further decriminalisation in San Francisco and beyond.
We have many individuals to thank, including Mary Jane Rathbun, who later became known as “Brownie Mary”. She baked cannabis-infused brownies for suffering and dying AIDS patients and delivered them to the hospital wards.
Dennis Peron – a gay activist and cannabis advocate – opened America’s first legal medical cannabis dispensary in 1996, making him known as the father of the medical marijuana movement. Mary and David later collaborated on a book titled ‘Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook and Dennis Peron’s Recipe for Social Change’.
The connection between the two communities persists today. Jay Jackson – who goes by the stage name Laganja Estranja – is a drag queen and cannabis activist. She appeared in Ru Paul’s Drag Race Season 6, launching her career into the mainstream.
She told leafie that PTSD is a big factor in why the LGBT+ community still consumes cannabis at higher rates than the rest of the population: “Growing up, you’re different. You’re often ostracised and placed in a minority group. And cannabis is not only a way to bring you together with like minded people, but it’s also a way to really medically help with those traumas that you face as a young adult or child.”
Growing up, you’re different… cannabis is a way to really medically help with those traumas that you face as a young adult or child
Research found that over 11% of queer youth who participated in a 2012 study met the criteria for PTSD – compared to 3.9% in the general population. Furthermore, 31% of the LGBTQ+ sample reported suicidal behavior at some point in their life, compared with just 4% of the general population. These statistics have resulted in higher rates of substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate and self-soothe.
“In general, queer culture has a lot of drug and substance abuse and I think cannabis can be a great harm reduction technique,” Ms Jackson added.
Studies suggest that cannabis can help people living with PTSD. In a study, researchers from the John Hopkins School of Medicine in Chicago and the University of California San Diego monitored two groups of post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers over one year. One group used cannabis to manage symptoms while the other group didn’t. Symptoms were assessed at the beginning of the study, and every three months finding that the patients who used cannabis were 2.5 times less likely to have PTSD than those who didn’t. Sleep disturbances – a common feature of PTSD – have been shown to reduce with the use of THC and CBD, although further research is needed into the causes of this relationship. Similarly, certain cannabinoids have been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and stress.
The fight for cannabis legalisation has come a long way since the 1980’s – with Biden pardoning all federal level simple cannabis possession charges last week. But more work remains to be done – the Last Prisoner Project (LPP) estimates that over 30,000 people are still incarcerated for cannabis offences, despite it being legal in some form in 37 US states. The fight is far from over.
“It was brown and black people who first brought hemp to [the US],” explains LPP founder Steve DeAngelo. “And then it was championed by those with HIV, those that society chooses to forget.
“We will not rest and we will not stop until the last cannabis prisoner is set free.”