Why New York needs the Dennis Peron bill

By Tyme Ferris and Thomas Kupiec | December 22, 2021

As New York looks to get its legal market off the ground, the state is invested in fostering the most diverse and equitable cannabis industry in the country, requiring that half of all business licenses be awarded to social equity applicants. However, as it stands, the social equity measures outlined in the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) do not include the LGBT community, drastically out casting a population who has not only been adversely affected by prohibition, but who are the originators of the movement for legalized cannabis.

Just this week, New York State Senator Jeremy Cooney proposed a new bill that would include gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the state’s social equity applicants for cannabis businesses (Senate Bill 7517 was previously submitted to committee to include transgender and gender non-binary people). New York needs to pass this legislation to make the vision set forth by the MRTA a reality and acknowledge the LGBT community’s role in cannabis legalization. An appropriate namesake for the bill that will honor decades of activism, can be found in one of many instances where the history of this community and the movement for legalization intersect.

A gay man was the “Father of Medical Marijuana” 

Of the many activists we have to thank for where the cannabis industry is today, Dennis Peron, a Bronx native and advocate for those suffering from HIV/AIDS should be on top of that list. Following the loss of his partner Jonathan West due to AIDS and witnessing the benefits of cannabis in easing his pain, Peron emerged as a leader, not only in the cannabis space but in the gay community, greatly influencing the push to legalize medical marijuana.

Widely revered as the “Father of Medical Marijuana,” Peron worked tirelessly on behalf of San Francisco’s gay community at the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s for access to medicinal cannabis. He eventually co-authored California Proposition 215, also known as the “Compassionate Use Act of 1996,” establishing California as the first state to legalize medical marijuana. The passing of Prop 15 is thought to have paved the way for California to again set a precedent by legalizing recreational use through Proposition 64 in 2016.

Along with his notable work as a pioneer for cannabis legalization, Peron, along with Mary Jane Rathbun, co-founded San Francisco’s Cannabis Buyers club, the first public medical cannabis dispensary in the U.S. Despite constant threats of violence, harassment and arrest, membership at the collective at one point exceeded 8,000 HIV/AIDS patients.

The LGBT community and cannabis activism have coincided for decades 

While Dennis Peron may be the most notable LGBT pioneer in the cannabis industry, the community has long been an ally of legalization and decriminalization, with numerous members being outspoken activists. The gay rights and cannabis legalization movements are tightly intertwined.

Mary Jane Rathbun became Brownie Mary through her distribution of pot brownies to patients as a hospital volunteer for the Shanti Project, the first organization to offer medical services to AIDS patients. At one point, Rathbun was baking nearly 600 brownies a day and was arrested several times for her efforts to help a population that was otherwise being ignored.

Paul Scott was another activist who contributed greatly to the LGBT community’s advocacy for cannabis in San Francisco. He created the first medical marijuana facility in Inglewood, helping terminally ill patients cope through cannabis use and participation in support groups. Scott also helped found Los Angeles’ Black Gay Pride organization and continues to advocate for queer people of color in the industry today.

Cannabis is a known treatment for HIV/AIDS Wasting Syndrome (a qualifying condition under New York State’s Compassionate Care Act medical marijuana program), Historically HIV/AIDS has disproportionately affected the LGBT community. Because of this, the cannabis movement and gay rights movement not only gained ground at the similar times but were also based in advocating for ostracized populations and combatting legislation that disproportionately restricts the liberties of disenfranchised communities at higher rates than those of privileged ones.

The industry needs LGBT representation 

Overall, cannabis remains a dominant issue for the LGBT community. However, LGBT leadership in the cannabis industry is lacking. With cannabis being recognized as a legitimate business endeavor, large corporations headed by more privileged groups who actively push queer individuals and people of color out of entrepreneurship, insulting the communities that paved the way for legalization and directly contrasting the intentions of the MRTA.

Therefore, senate bills S7603 and S7517 are absolutely necessary, not only to ensure New York builds a diverse cannabis industry, but also to honor the decades of work the LGBT community has tirelessly done to support access to medical and adult-use cannabis and acknowledge the important role cannabis has played in helping those with HIV/AIDS.

As our state works to approve this bill, our hope is that our elected officials look to rename it the Dennis Peron bill to bring attention to this extraordinary citizen’s efforts and further exclaim the community’s role in cannabis advocacy.

Tyme Ferris is a cannabis consultant and co-founder and CEO of The Pantheon Collective. He is the former Director of Operations for The Farm Co. and Mayflower Medicinals.

Thomas Kupiec is a licensed acupuncturist who believes in the medicinal benefits of cannabis. He is also co-founder of The Pantheon Collective.