By Anna Foster
“I was a young gay man trying to find myself in the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Christopher Esposito, reveals when recalling the time cannabis and the AIDS communities connected for him.
It was 1983 in San Francisco’s Castro district. Esposito was 23 years old and had just moved to the city at a time when HIV/AIDS was ravaging the gay community, earning it the nicknames “gay virus” and “gay cancer.” It was a new illness no one understood.
“We didn’t know what was happening, what were parties turned into funerals,” he said. “The wasting away stages were the beginning symptoms.”
It was during this crisis that Esposito first met “Brownie Mary” Rathbun, a grandmotherly woman known for handing out marijuana laced brownies to AIDS patients in San Francisco.
By the early ’90s, Esposito had opened his home and kitchen to Brownie Mary as her safe haven. She had been arrested several times and as punishment for these arrests, she often volunteered to perform community services at Ward 86, the ward at San Francisco General Hospital exclusively designated for AIDS patients.
“She was a little angel in the middle of a horrible time,” divulges Esposito.
Those who had been affected by HIV/AIDS were well aware of how cannabis helped. It provided instant relief for the incurable illness. Inspired by friends and loved ones within their community, Brownie Mary, alongside Dennis Peron, the gay rights and cannabis activist behind California’s landmark Proposition 215, wanted to help those suffering and not be labeled as criminals or arrested for providing marijuana.
The terms “medical cannabis,” ”compassionate use,” “safe access” and “cannabis clubs” all stem from their activism and push for public policy to create medical marijuana legislation. In 1992, Peron co-founded the San Francisco Buyers Club, which was the first medical marijuana dispensary.
From the outset, the club was completely illegal. The first floor of the SF Buyers Clubs became a sanctuary for AIDS patients and the headquarters for Prop 215. Many supporters for the newly proposed cannabis legislation were AIDS patients themselves and spent many hours collecting signatures, advocating for cannabis while risking being criminalized for using cannabis as a form of relief. These pioneers helped make California the first state in the nation to legalize medical cannabis.
Now, Esposito is Chairman of the Board with Project Inform, this year’s lead beneficiary for the San Francisco AIDS Walk. As lead beneficiary, Project Inform will use proceeds raised from the walk to support essential services and advocacy for people living with HIV/AIDS. Currently, Project Inform assures that 38,000 plus Californians that cannot afford treatment get free HIV medications, as well as leading efforts to make sure national healthcare reforms includes the needs of HIV/AIDS patients, in addition to community education and research participation provided. Project Inform’s mission is to create an HIV/AIDS free generation within the next decade.
Recently, Project Inform, reached out to local Bay Area cannabis businesses for event support and the community heard their call! The Barbary Coast, Berkeley Patients’ Group, Dark Heart Nursery, Grassroots, Harborside Health Center and Elemental Wellness teamed up this year to contribute over $30K towards the AidsWalkSF event.
For nearly 30 years, cannabis activist and HIV/AIDS activists have fought side-by-side to ensure patients battling HIV/AIDS have indispensable access to safe, effective cannabis. While the industry has changed, going far beyond California and medical use, it’s important to remember how it all started. With the AIDSwalkSF event approaching, now is a perfect time to bring the awareness of their coinciding history back into the communities.