The AIDS Epidemic and Compassionate Cannabis Care

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In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, very little was known about the virus. Still, it was clear the chronic pain, nausea, and wasting associated with the illness were debilitating. Compassionate cannabis activists were some of the first to step up and offer aid to those suffering. They provided education and support and worked tirelessly to raise awareness about this devastating disease and the relief that cannabis could provide.

In this blog, we’ll talk about the role that cannabis played in helping people living with HIV/AIDS cope with their symptoms and live a better quality of life. From integral milestones to modern-day care, we’ll explore the compassionate side of cannabis and how it has helped countless individuals during their darkest days.

Understanding AIDS

Before we get into the history of cannabis and AIDS, let’s take a moment to review what the virus is and how it affects people. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a retrovirus that attacks the immune system. It leaves the body unable to fight off infection or disease. This can lead to AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is a set of symptoms and illnesses that occur when the immune system breaks down.

AIDS Symptoms

AIDS is a progressive illness that can cause various conditions. Some are physical, while others are psychological or involve lifestyle changes. 

Common AIDS symptoms include

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Extreme and unexplained tiredness
  • Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
  • Memory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders
  • Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
  • Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it shows the severe and wide-ranging impacts of HIV/AIDS.

The AIDS Epidemic and Early Treatment in the 1980s

In the early 1980s, news outlets began to report on a new and devastating illness affecting gay communities nationwide. By 1982, when the CDC formally recognized AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) as an official diagnosis, it had already become associated with certain death for those diagnosed — there were no causes or cures known then, and conventional medication lacked any means of mitigating its awful symptoms. This is where marijuana activists, however, saw potential in the plant.

With limited resources and a strong will to make a difference, they pushed forward with research on the effects of cannabis on AIDS-related conditions like pain, wasting syndrome, and nausea. In addition to providing vital information about marijuana’s medicinal properties, these compassionate advocates also raised awareness about the need for better care and compassion towards those suffering from this illness.

The Reagans’ era of “Just Say No,” should have been a time for serious political discourse on the therapeutic use of cannabis. Unfortunately, this only reinforced its stigma among many in society who were trying hard to demonstrate how effective marijuana could be as a treatment. 

For full context, we must also acknowledge the key factors that made cannabis so crucial in the battle against AIDS.

Retroviral medications were not helpful — often causing worse symptoms

The mainstream medications prescribed to AIDS patients were either problematic stop-gaps or untested experiments that hoped to manage symptoms. Since pharmaceutical medicine had no answer to a disease we couldn’t figure out the cause of, the new treatments or suggested substitute medications would often make patients feel even worse than the disease alone.

The cocktail of pills they were given would make them vomit and lose any appetite, which becomes very dangerous when you’re already dealing with losing body mass and muscle due to wasting syndrome. This resulted in many HIV/AIDS patients desperate for something to help them cope with the disease’s symptoms and improve their quality of life.

This is where cannabis stepped in — it provided relief from nausea and increased appetite, helping patients stomach their medication and keep up with necessary nutrition that would otherwise seem impossible.

The early beginnings of cannabis medicine

By the middle of the 1980s, pioneers like Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary had been providing cannabis to those afflicted for over a decade and had come to understand exactly how it helped to ease their patients’ suffering. But, beyond that, the nation was just beginning to understand the role of cannabis and was ready to explore it further (kinda).

A quick timeline of the 80s:

1981 — 1985: US Gov Sells Marinol Patent to Unimed, FDA Approved for Nausea

In 1981, Unimed gained the Marinol patent and sought approval as a treatment for nausea. In November 1984, their application was denied due to insufficient evidence. Undeterred, they mustered up more data that convinced the FDA of its efficacy and were granted permission one year later. The DEA followed suit with an affirmative ruling shortly after June 1985.

Developed by Unimed, Marinol is the industry name for dronabinol — a lab-made version of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of marijuana’s most potent psychoactive components. FDA approval in May 1985 was obtained with an intended use to address nausea and vomiting related to cancer chemotherapy in those who didn’t respond favorably to conventional antiemetic treatments.

Later on, another approval came from FDA that allowed it to be prescribed for weight loss associated with AIDS patients’ anorexia. Coming out on the market as capsules labeled in Schedule II, Marinol has been serving its purpose ever since its first release!

1986 — Anti-Drug Abuse Act Increases Penalties for Marijuana

By signing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, President Reagan firmly established mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. This law was passed in tandem with the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and included harsher penalties for marijuana possession or trafficking, which were based on the quantity involved.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act initially mandated that the penalty for possession of 100 marijuana plants was equivalent to possession of 100 grams of heroin. A revised version of this law then instated a ‘three strikes, and you’re out’ policy, meaning those with multiple drug convictions could spend life in prison — or worse, be punished by death if classified as a ‘drug kingpin.’

1988 — DEA Judge Francis Young Suggests Weed Be Placed in Schedule II

In 1988, Francis Young, an administrative law judge, was requested by the Drug Enforcement Administration to review NORML’s 1972 entreaty relating to rescheduling marijuana. After analyzing all evidence presented before him, he concurred that in light of its effectiveness for treating nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy treatments — and a lack thereof for glaucoma/pain management — it should be shifted from Schedule I to Schedule II.

1989DEA Administrator Overrules Francis Young, Cannabis Remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance

In December 1989, DEA Administrator Jack Lawn disregarded the ruling of administrative law judge Francis Young. If this rescheduling had occurred, it would have enabled qualified physicians to legally prescribe smoking cannabis as a treatment for specified health conditions. This decision was based primarily on two beliefs: that marijuana had an extremely high potential for abuse and lacked accepted medicinal use.

Seeing how the federal government has been unwilling to reschedule cannabis all these years later is a reminder of the importance placed on qualified personalized patient care and cannabis education.

The 1990s — Key Milestones in Medical Marijuana & Compassionate Care

By the end of the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic had claimed the lives of thousands, and pharmaceutical medicine still didn’t have an adequate answer or treatment. Then, in 1990, the man known as the Godfather of medical cannabis — Dennis Peron — lost his partner Jonathan West to AIDS. Feeling lost and heartbroken, he decided to dedicate his energies to preserving Jonathan’s memory by getting medicinal cannabis legalized.

Having been arrested multiple times for his brazen approach to selling and distributing cannabis, Peron felt he could help others avoid the same fate. He was a central figure in all the efforts between 1991 and 1996 that would create and pass several historic initiatives for cannabis in California. Peron felt that cannabis should be safely accessible to anyone who needed it ever since he arrived in the Castro during the 1970s. Upon the passing of his partner, Peron had a revelation and started to systematize his beliefs into tangible policies, laws and resources.

Proposition P

His first major success was getting Proposition P passed in 1991. San Francisco residents voted in favor of the right to grow, sell and use personal amounts of cannabis for medical use. This made San Francisco the first city in America to decriminalize cannabis, and people could now share and use the plant without fear of being penalized.

San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club

In 1994, Peron opened the first iteration of what would later come to be known as a ‘dispensary’ when his more informal cannabis clubs outgrew their capacity. The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club acted as a collective that could accommodate more patients and provide for the entire community’s needs.

Proposition 215 — The Compassionate Use Act

The most historical contribution of Peron, Brownie Mary and their collaborators was the successful passing of Proposition 215 in 1996. Also known as the “Compassionate Use Act,” this statewide initiative allowed people to be caregivers, growers and patients, permitting the medicinal use of cannabis for a wide range of ailments. Proposition 215 made California the first state to legalize cannabis for medical purposes, setting a precedent and providing a blueprint for other states that followed suit.

Notable Discoveries & Rulings

Beyond one of our favorite icons, quite a few notable discoveries and rulings occurred around this time.

1990 — Scientists Discover Cannabinoid Receptors

In 1990, a monumental discovery was made by Miles Herkenham and his research team at the National Institute of Mental Health — they uncovered the cannabinoid receptor system! This revelation allowed scientists to comprehend how THC in marijuana interacts with receptors in the brain to create pharmacological effects. The groundbreaking detection catalyzed more comprehensive studies into cannabis’ impact on humans.

1991 — Federal Government Suspends IND Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Program

The Health and Human Services Department decided to discontinue a federal program that provided free marijuana for those with serious illnesses, as it was considered counter-productive to the Bush administration’s policy on illegal drug use. In June 1991, the Compassionate IND Program for medical marijuana was put on hold due to an unprecedented spike in applications due to the AIDS epidemic.

November 1991 — First Medical Marijuana Initiative Passed in San Francisco

On November 5th, 1991, citizens of San Francisco took to the polls with a resounding 79% voting in favor of Proposition P. This landmark decision called for California and its Medical Association to restore marijuana medicines as legal treatments within the state. Further, it urged healthcare providers not to be penalized when prescribing these remedies.

1992 — Scientists Discover First Endocannabinoid

In 1992, Dr. Mechoulam and his colleagues – Dr. William Devane and Dr. Lumir Hanus – made a groundbreaking discovery in their research on THC: they identified the very first endogenous cannabinoid present in our brains — an endocannabinoid that is akin to natural THC! They aptly termed this compound ‘anandamide,’ derived from Sanskrit meaning ‘eternal bliss’ or ‘supreme joy.’ This revelation marked yet another milestone moment for cannabis science!

1993 — American Medical Student Association Unanimously Endorses Rescheduling of Marijuana

The AMSA delegates wholeheartedly declared that the new Attorney General, Janet Reno, should abide by Judge Young’s 1988 suggestion of relocating Cannabis to Schedule II. Additionally, they agreed unanimously on a resolution requesting President Clinton to open The Compassionate IND Program again.

1994 — Final Decision in 1972 Court Battle over Marijuana Rescheduling Keeps Marijuana in Schedule I

On February 18th, 1994, after a prolonged 22-year legal battle beginning in 1972 when a petition was lodged to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (now referred to as DEA), the US Court of Appeals finally ruled that marijuana must remain scheduled under Schedule I — prohibiting it from being legally prescribed by physicians. This judgment ended an arduous journey for advocates striving for access to medical cannabis treatments.

Despite the petition ending in defeat, it sparked uncertainty regarding marijuana’s possible federal scheduling that persisted for over a decade. This doubtfulness remained prevalent throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

July 10, 1995 — Second Petition to Reschedule Marijuana Filed

Feb. 19 and 20, 1997 — NIH Says More Study Needed to Assess Potential of Medical Marijuana

After a thorough review, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ad Hoc Group of Experts determined on February 19th and 20th, 1997, that existing evidence was insufficient to make an informed judgment about marijuana’s therapeutic potential. However, they asserted that traditional scientific processes should be followed to analyze how marijuana can aid with certain disorders.

Jan. 1997-Mar. 1999 — Institute of Medicine (IOM) Conducts a Comprehensive Study on the Medical Effects of Marijuana

In 1997, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy commissioned the IOM to assess research and scientific evidence on marijuana’s health benefits or risks. After eight months, in August 1997, IOM released a 257-page report titled Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base in 1999, which summarized their findings.

The IOM Report successfully quelled the medical marijuana debate by presenting evidence to support both sides. It highlighted that further, well-structured scientific research is essential to understand the potential therapeutic effects of cannabis and its cannabinoid components on individuals suffering from particular disorders.

While these are just the beginnings of what would eventually become modern medical marijuana research and policy, they have been instrumental in providing a platform of support for furthering compassionate cannabis care.

Utilization of AIDS Medication and Cannabis Nowadays

In the 30-plus years since the peak of the AIDS epidemic, both cannabis and HIV/AIDS medications have seen tremendous advances. After the failure of AZT in 1987, the FDA approved a host of other medications which were much more effective. The pharmaceutical advances have been such that in the modern day, AIDS or HIV is no longer a death sentence and is a condition that can be comfortably and affordably managed with prescription medication.

 Meanwhile, cannabis researchers have learned a great deal about an internal network in our bodies called the Endocannabinoid System. After being discovered in 1992, researchers have published thousands of papers on how crucial the ECS plays in our health. We now know about various cannabinoids in the plant that each appear to have different properties, primarily THC and CBD. As a result, the FDA approved the first cannabis-based treatment in 2018, a CBD-only medication that can now be prescribed for certain types of epilepsy and seizures.

Thankfully, the interest in cannabis research after the discovery of the ECS skyrocketed, with thousands of papers and studies published on the various potential medical applications of cannabis compounds in the last 30 years.

Compassionate Use Program

Today, numerous compassionate cannabis clinics across the United States are dedicated to the well-being of qualified patients through compassionate use programs such as the Texas Compassionate Use Program.

This state-sanctioned program provides an opportunity for medical cannabis treatments to those who are suffering from a list of debilitating, life-altering medical conditions. Through countless individuals’ efforts over the last century and beyond, qualified patients now have access to a safe and legal form of treatment — something that would not have been possible without the pioneering research and advocacy of dedicated medical professionals and nonprofit organizations.

Unfortunately, the one law that hasn’t changed since the 1980s is the Schedule 1 status. However, since the early 2000s, more and more states and countries have chosen to move ahead with medical marijuana programs despite the federal government’s lack of leadership. This has paved the way for further research into cannabis’ potential benefits, which could ultimately provide a pathway to decriminalization and even legalization. In doing so, it would open new doors of opportunity for countless individuals suffering from a multitude of medical conditions.

Ultimately, it’s evident that the persistent efforts of individuals and organizations to overcome years of stigma have created a much-needed platform for further research into the potential therapeutic effects of cannabis compounds. Thanks to their hard work, we can now access safer and more effective forms of treatment than ever before.

Flore Continues the Good Fight

It is clear to see the powerful impact and importance of cannabis during the AIDS epidemic and the pioneering activists that used it to provide compassionate care. This caring and generous spirit began all those years ago right here in our beloved Castro district, a philosophy that we proudly carry the torch for to the present day.

At Flore, we have a compassion-first approach that embodies the same energy of Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary, and we are honored to be able to serve our community with the healing powers of cannabis!

Check out our extensive online menu for a range of the best sun-grown flower from some of Northern California’s finest cultivators. Visit us in person and learn about our rich history in the first neighborhood in America to demonstrate genuine, compassionate cannabis care.

Terrance Alan

Terrance Alan has over 25 years in government advocacy creating both the San Francisco entertainment commission and the cannabis taskforce. He is co-president of the Castro merchant’s and co-chair of CMAC and C2K, both working on cannabis consumption. He designed, constructed and opened a boutique dispensary in the Castro District of San Francisco called Flore dispensary featuring carefully curated cannabis selections with an emphasis on small Humboldt far grown cannabis, social justice brands, equity brands, women owned brands and operates a compassion distribution program with Sweetleaf Joe.

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