When Medical Marijuana Was No Laughing Matter

As it looks likely that next year California voters will legalize recreational use of marijuana, ACT UP Archives will start looking back to the historic changes brought about by Proposition 215- the first statewide initiative to permit the cultivation and consumption of marijuana for medical use. The medical marijuana movement developed as part of San Francisco’s queer community response to the AIDS crisis, particularly the work of alternative treatment activists. Over the next year, we’ll examine how patients and caregivers started a grassroots movement that is transforming our social and political landscape.

ACT UP SF flyer by David Pasquarelli.

ACT UP SF flyer by David Pasquarelli.

In 1996 California’s Attorney General was the right-wing Republican Dan Lungren- a former Congressman and prominent proponent of the war on drugs. Lungren’s public opposition to needle-exchange programs had made already made him a protest target for ACT UP San Francisco. By the summer of 1996, Prop. 215 was gaining strong support among voters. Lungren, in collusion with the DEA and SF Police Department (SFPD), hatched a plan to shut down the city’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club (CBC) which had been serving AIDS and cancer patients for several years. For over two years, these repressive forces operated a surveillance campaign which included sending in undercover agents, including a gay cop from the SFPD, to pose as ailing patients in need of medical relief.

Early on Sunday morning, August 4th, armed agents stormed the club seizing not only marijuana products but also confiscating client’s confidential medical records. For weeks afterwards, patient concerns that they could face prosecution added to the stress and worry for which they were trying to seek relief by patronizing the CBC. As public outcry rose, city officials scrambled to find ways to address the needs of medical marijuana patients.

As the November election neared, the battle of Dan Lungren against San Francisco’s pot smoking ill and disabled took a turn that could have only been conjured by the consumption of some potent strain of sensimillia bud. That October legendary cartoon strip Doonesbury added the controversy to its daily panels which for decades had been a featured nationally in newspapers.

SF Chronicle Oct. 3, 1996. Cartoon by Tom Meyer

Lungren cried fowl in a three-page letter to the SF Chronicle requesting that the comic strip either be dropped from circulation or add a disclaimer that the cartoon is based upon “inaccurate information.” Illustrating that he was void of a sense of humor, Lungren alleged that Doonesbury did not contribute to a “serious debate” and worried Prop. 215 would contribute to increased drug use among children. The text of Lungren’s statement can be viewed at the end of this post.

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By late October Doonesbury set its satirical sights firmly on the cancer and AIDS patients who were affected by Lungren’s raid of the CBC. Elderly socialite Millie is sitting down with gal pal Lacey to talk about how she’s is dealing with her cancer chemotherapy. Millie’s joined another exclusive club, the San Francisco CBC, where “some of the nicest people are forced to break the law.”

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What makes Gary Trudeau’s comic strip so effective is that the humor is based upon reality. One of the reasons the CBC broke the law was to help patients avoid taking to the city’s streets and parks to obtain their medicine where they were forced to pay inflated prices to purchase marijuana that could contain mold or chemicals, particularly dangerous to patients with compromised immune systems. Even the privileged socialite Millie was forced to travel from Pacific Heights to the Mission’s Dolores Park where she has to pay “street prices.”

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In the final panel, Trudeau zeros his attack directly towards the Attorney General. Seems that Lacey has know Lungren’s family for years, not surprising given that Lungren’s daddy was the personal physician to Nixon. Millie replies, “Then you should know he has a heart like a peach pit!” Always a true friend, Lacey offers to talk to “Danny’s” mother.

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Throughout the coming year, ACT UP Archives will continue highlighting the historic development of marijuana legalization and the courageous work made of a coalition of patients and activists that was at its heart. Among the topics we will explore include the surveillance that was conducted on the CBC and its patients, how a gay police officer was involved in the Club’s closure and how the city tried to respond to the crisis created by the club’s closure.

SF Chronicle article “State Raids Marijuana Buyers’ Club” Aug. 8, 1996.

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 pages 1, 11

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 pages 1, 11

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 page 11

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 page 11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The full text of Lungren’s criticism of Doonesbury comic strip. Click image to enlarge.

SF Chronicle Oct. 2, 1996

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