Series: Cannabis & LGBTQ - Crisis to Compassion

In the third post on our series Cannabis & LGBTQ we examine the crisis both the cannabis and LGBTQ community faced during the 1980's and how they helped each other emerge from an extremely difficult time.

Reagan Era

Ronald and Nancy Reagan1980 ushered in a new era for the United States, where both the cannabis and LGBTQ community were enjoying increased acceptance and support. With that growing support however came a backlash fueled by Christian Fundamentalists and social conservatism. Ronald Reagan was quick to embrace this movement during a presidential campaign that would see him handily gain office and bring about a new era with a return to "family values".

While Nixon had unofficially declared war on drugs during his tenure as President, Ronald Reagan made it official on October 14th 1982. Reagan declared that illicit drugs were a threat to national security. With a series of legislation, such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws of 1986, Reagan quickly steered the country sharply to the right from the public health approach to drug use. 

Reagan enlisted the help of his wife Nancy to get the public onside with the "Just Say No" campaign, which would become a cornerstone of her legacy as First Lady. 

Reagan's "War on Drugs" was not limited in scope to the United States either. A large number of resources was allocated to target cartels within Central and South America.  

While the main focus of Reagan's war on drugs was crack cocaine the cannabis community certainly suffered the effects as well. Cannabis was still listed as a Schedule I drug accompanied by mandatory minimum sentences. 

Reagan's War on Drugs approach did little to curb the drug use within the United States. It unfairly targeted people of colour and lower income neighbourhoods while largely ignoring the white upper class where cocaine use was rampant during his Presidency. The "Just Say No" campaign was also seen as a failure and may have even caused people to perceive marijuana and drug use as more common place than it actually was (1). 

HIV/AIDS Epidemic

While the HIV/AIDS epidemic originated in the 70's it was not until 1981 that the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report of rare cases of pneumonia in 5 previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles, which would mark the beginning of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic.

Equally damaging as the disease itself was the Reagan administrations response, or lack thereof, to the disease. The government was both slow to act, publicly it was seen largely as a gay disease and allocation of funding to combat the virus was not a high priority. Reagan himself would not even publicly acknowledging the disease until 1985, at which point tens of thousands had already succumbed to HIV/AIDS. By 1995 the disease would have taken the lives of almost half a million people in the United States alone the bulk of which were gay men aged 20-50. 


AIDS crisis family with son

In the early days of the disease treatment was limited to easing pain, trying to treat the various rare diseases that people were coming down with due to their compromised immune system (the first antiretroviral drug, AZT, was not approved until 1987). Many of the people living with HIV/AIDS turned to alternative treatments to relieve pain and to combat the side effects of medications like AZT, this very much included the use of cannabis. Many quickly discovered the efficacy at which using cannabis improved quality of life and helped ease the nauseous side effects commonly experienced with HIV/AIDS medications.


The HIV/AIDS crisis would galvanize the community into organizing itself to rally and fight not just for their medical rights but also basic human rights.

By the 1990's several activists had emerged from the HIV/AIDS epidemic advocating for the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. Those included prominent activists Dennis Peron (who lost his partner to HIV/AIDS in 1990) and Peter McWilliams (a prominent writer who would use cannabis to treat his own HIV/AIDS related illnesses and treatment side effects). 

Dennis Peron

The LGBTQ community would become instrumental in the passing of several laws to legalize medical marijuana (MMJ). The passing of Proposition P and Proposition 215 (which legalized medicinal use of marijuana in California) were written and spearheaded by Dennis Peron and his associates like Lynette Shaw (2). The push for MMJ was not limited to the United States, in Canada and other countries those with HIV were making their case as well. Canada for instance would legalize medical use in 2001 and its the justification for its prescription reads almost exclusively for people HIV/AIDS and cancer (3). 

The Communities Fight Back

In 1985 Jack Herer would release the first edition of his book the Emperor Wears No Clothes detailing the racist and ill informed reasons for why cannabis and hemp was criminalized in the first place. He would go on speaking tours throughout the United States inspiring the likes of Lynette Shaw and countless others. 

1987 would see the formation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and its offshoot Queer Nation (1990). Both more radical groups that sought to disrupt and took a more "in your face" approach to activism. 

ACT UP demonstration

For everything that policy had tried to keep down in the 80's the 90's was a period of resurgence for both communities.

In the United States the election of Bill Clinton (who himself puffed but didn't inhale) emboldened activists began to mobilize and spurred the creation of several legalization groups like Marijuana Project Policy (MPP), Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Americans for Safe Access (ASA), Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). 

MPP and the previously existing NORML have been at the forefront on the legislative efforts to decriminalize and legalize marijuana use both medical and recreational. Since Proposition 215 in California in 1996 over 20 states have enacted medical marijuana laws, the groups started during this resurgence have certainly been responsible for helping to make this happen.

In Canada activists like Marc-Boris St. Maurice, Chris Clay, Marc Emery, Mike Foster would open hemp stores or compassion clubs in various parts of the country. Emery would also start the magazine Cannabis Culture in 1995. St. Maurice would go on to found two political parties in 1998, the Marijuana Party (Federal) and Bloc Pot (Quebec Provincial). 

Meanwhile passages of anti discrimination laws on the basis of sexual orientation started to emerge in several States and almost every single major city across the USA. North of the border Canada ends its ban on homosexuals serving in the military in 1992 and in 1996 Canada includes sexual orientation into the Canadian Human Rights Act (this act would be instrumental in many wins for the Canadian LGBTQ community to follow). 

The hardships endured in the 80's for both communities further helped to organize them and push for greater acceptance in the law and by society in general. The gains made in the 90's were proof of the payout and things wouldn't stop for either community there. To borrow a phase, it gets better. 

Part 1 - Cannabis & LGBTQ: Stigmatized & Criminalized

Part 2 - Cannabis & LGBTQ: Free Love & Activism

Part 4 - Cannabis & LGBTQ: Acceptance & Legalization

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