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Remembering the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the Nation’s First Dispensary

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In the 80s and early 90s, the scariest news reports were not about terrorism, or climate change, or nuclear war—but rather, about AIDS.

As I was pretty young, I don’t remember those news reports personally, and nor will most Millennials, but for many in the LGBT community at that time, they’re hard to forget. Jackie Strano, executive vice-president of San Francisco adult retailer Good Vibrations, can recall seeing scores of friends in The Castro fall victim to the AIDS epidemic. Pictures of the victims of the plague (to use Jackie’s words) papered the walls at the intersection of 18th and Castro. Those pictures are gone now, and the intersection has a Bank of America and a Walgreens to go with its rainbow flags and crosswalks, but the memory of those harrowing times lingers.

As painful as these memories are to the many who lived them, what stands out against the pain is the compassion and care that so many offered—and for innumerable AIDS patients at the time, compassion and care came in the form of cannabis. It is possible that no effort was more integral to the legalization of medical cannabis in California than the founding of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the nation’s first public cannabis dispensary. The efforts its founder and allies put towards legalization have helped shape the state of cannabis in California and the whole country ever since.

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What Was the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club?

The San Francisco Buyers Club came into existence in 1992 at 194 Church Street, the location of a previously existing cannabis collective run by Thomas O’Malley, who died in 1992. Dennis Peron, with the help of Brownie Mary (Mary Jane Rathbun), successfully fought for the 1991 passage of Proposition P, which recommended that the state of California embrace medical cannabis. Peron, his husband John Entwistle, and Brownie Mary were also among the co-authors of Proposition 215, the act that ultimately made medical cannabis legal in California in 1996.

Like Jackie Strano, Dr. Robert Morgan Lawrence of the Center for Sex and Culture remembers watching the victims of the AIDS epidemic “waste away,” and credits Brownie Mary and the SF Buyers Club with providing necessary care to those in need and being “the root of legal marijuana in the US.” He also speaks of the many other members of the community, himself included, who did whatever they could to help those in need; this often included storing “unknown vegetable matter” for pick-up by patients or others. He describes this period of time as “very exciting and quite scary for all involved,” and notes that while the community remembers those who offered help, these volunteer caregivers did not do it to receive accolades.

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The Legacy of the Nation’s First Dispensary

As has always been the case for those involved in the cannabis community in the United States and elsewhere, the dangers of involvement cannot go without comment, and this is doubly true for the brave souls who founded the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club and fought for the passage of Prop 215 regardless of the consequences—of which there were plenty. Just weeks before California voted on the proposition, state narcotics officers arrested Dennis Peron and had warrants for others involved—a move that is widely considered an attempt to demonize those involved with the Buyers Club and kill the proposition. This, of course, is in addition to the incessant arrests of Peron’s compatriots—Brownie Mary was arrested on three occasions as a result of her lobbying and efforts to provide medical cannabis to those in need.

Now, over 20 years later, that pivotal piece of legislation has paved the way for the slow and steady march of legalization to continue across the country. It is not hyperbole to say that if you are able to enjoy legal cannabis where you live or, more importantly, are able to use cannabis to help manage pain or treat any number of conditions, you owe a great deal of thanks to the LGBT community and its supporters who fought for compassion for all. To quote Dr. Lawrence: “So thank Brownie Mary—and the tens of thousands of LGBT folk who have passed—next time you pass a smoke.”