The small room in the HIV ward was a sterile blue, and eerily silent. The bed lay starkly empty, and no doctor came to help.
Unlike the AIDS ward that Paul Scott worked in as a nurse back in the 1980s, this was just a replica. It was part of the display at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed that detailed the intersection of cannabis legalization and HIV/AIDS activism. Outside the false walls was another display—art quilts made by those who lost loved ones during the AIDS crisis. Each was emblazoned with the name of someone who died of the disease.
Without the activism of the HIV/AIDS and LGBT communities, the state of cannabis legalization would likely be much further behind. With 19 of 25 presidential candidates for 2020 having specifically come out in support of cannabis legalization, the end of federal prohibition might be right around the corner. In “Survivor Stories,” Weedmaps invited some of the people behind this cultural movement to speak.
Before the panel began, we were given a tour of the museum itself. The beginning of it was pure fun, with a psychedelic ‘60s room meant for photo ops and a Reefer Madness-themed funhouse.
However, the Museum of Weed quickly gets into the meat of cannabis history. There are informative sections on the godfather of prohibition, Harry J. Anslinger, and historical documents that show how racially-motivated criminalization was (and continues to be. The buoyancy of the ‘60s quickly gives way to the trippy, terrifying ‘80s. Visitors are forced to walk through a room full of armed SWAT agents in order to get to another space where Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s heads are repeated on old CRT TVs. “Just say no,” they tell each person. The walls and floors in the hallway are littered with the phrase.
The Reagan administration was laden with controversy for a few reasons, but the presidential response to the AIDS crisis was one of the biggest domestic issues. Reagan did not acknowledge the issue until almost 23,000 people had already died of it, and White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes joked about the disease (then known as the “gay plague”) on record, repeatedly.
April 2, 1987 was the first time that the president publicly referred to AIDS at all. While he referred to it as “public health enemy No. 1”, he also stated that “medicine and morality teach the same lessons.” For those with loved ones dying of the disease — or those dying themselves, it was a callous statement.
Paul Scott, the president of LA Black Pride and former chairman of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, worked the AIDS wards as a nurse for years, and saw the pain of those dying from AIDS every day.
“I had firsthand knowledge of how we took care of people — or, didn’t take care of people — that had AIDS and were HIV-positive,” he recalled. “We didn’t want to touch them, we had them in isolation… there was not much we could do for them back then.”
Remembering the suffering in the wards brought him to tears. Even his past as a medic in the military couldn’t have prepared him for what he found in Los Angeles. “I remember rows and rows of emaciated people,” he said. “Skinny-looking. Looking like a Nazi training camp.” He paused to collect himself.
“This is bringing up a lot of stuff I’d rather just… forget.” he told me. Burnt out and depressed, he left nursing and went back to college. While working in the Bay Area, he was introduced to the first dispensary in the United States—the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club, founded by the late Dennis Peron.
“As a black man walking into that place,” he laughed, “I’m like, ‘This shit’s crazy!’ I felt like I was going to get arrested. But I went and got my pot and I got the fuck out of there.”
When the Buyers Club was shut down, its customers had to find a new place to purchase marijuana. The rumor mill indicated that there might be a new club opening in a nearby city, and there was a phone number floating around that people suspected might belong to it. When Scott gave it a ring, he discovered that it was in fact for the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative. Jeff Jones, the owner, asked Paul Scott to be its new board member.
While there was always a risk that the club would get shut down and its members arrested, they had an ace up their sleeve: Oakland city council member Nate Miley who, according to Scott, “pushed the Feds not to close it down.” Their cooperative served “a largely underprivileged black population for a black city council,” which gave them a certain advantage.
When the Feds eventually did close it down — community support notwithstanding — Scott had to figure out where to turn. Still reeling from an HIV diagnosis, and suffering on the medication regimen that was available at the time, he decided to move south. Inglewood had similar racial politics and demographics, and he was confident he could replicate the success of the Oakland cooperative down there. “I knew that the black city council people would recognize the importance of this and not shut me down.” He grinned. “They didn’t.” He was able to operate for over 12 years without a license or permit.
“The effort was just trying to get pot to sick people,” he said. He looked proud, as he should be — he succeeded. Due to the efforts of Paul Scott, and many like him, 42 of 50 states have already decriminalized cannabis or instituted medical marijuana programs. At this point, it’s only a matter of time before the federal government acquiesces to popular demand and starts treating the cannabis industry like any other.
L.A. folk hero Richard Eastman, who was in the audience, agreed. As a peer of Scott’s (and former board member of the Inglewood cooperative) who helped open the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers’ Club, he knew the history. After being told he had less than two years left before he would die of AIDS, he decided to partner with Dennis Peron and help other sufferers get symptom relief.
Eastman, who has run for public office himself, urged the audience to get civically involved. A wiry older gentleman in pot-leaf socks, dripping with frantic energy and good cheer, he quickly stirred the crowd into a frenzy. The way things used to be was dire, and grim, and we deserve a better future. We can achieve it, with each other’s help.
“Get out and vote. Vote! VOTE!” he cheered. The crowd went wild. We could all conjure up Eastman’s vision: a partnership like the one he and Paul Scott had; a future where overlooked populations will help empower one another; a world where civic engagement is so thrilling that it can bring people to their feet. At that moment, everyone in the room could see it.
The Weedmaps Museum of Weed closed its doors on October 27, 2019. Future dates TBD.
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