AIDS Walk team raises awareness about cannabis
by Matthew S. Bajko
For the second year in a row a number of Bay Area-based cannabis businesses are teaming up to participate in this weekend's AIDS Walk San Francisco.
During the 2014 event, an annual fundraiser for local HIV prevention programs and AIDS service providers, the Team Cannabis group numbered 40 walkers representing five organizations and raised $36,000. This year nine businesses and two other groups are participating in Team Cannabis, whose expected 100 marchers aim to raise $70,000.
The outreach effort at the 10K walk through Golden Gate Park, which attracts upwards of 20,000 participants, comes as supporters of legalizing recreational use of marijuana in California ready to place a ballot measure before voters in November 2016. Medical use of cannabis in the Golden State was legalized with the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.
"Team Cannabis is made up of 10 to 12 cannabis organizations coming together to raise money for AIDS. We are also coming out green to the community as we are looking at 2016 legislation for adult use in California," explained Christopher Esposito, a gay man who is the director of human resources at Dark Heart Industries. Esposito is also on the board of Project Inform, which provides treatment information about HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C and is the lead agency of the AIDS Walk.
The company cultivates cannabis starter plants through its Oakland-based Dark Heart Nursery it then sells to medical cannabis dispensaries throughout northern California. It has taken a lead in coordinating the Team Cannabis AIDS Walk contingent.
Dan Grace, 32, CEO of Dark Heart Industries, said the main purpose for Team Cannabis being in the AIDS Walk is to encourage cannabis users to be visible, similar to the concept of coming out of the closet about one's sexual orientation or gender identity.
"The primary effort with this is not to pitch the ballot initiative. The real message for Team Cannabis is we are coming out," said Grace, who is straight and serves on the board of the California Cannabis Industry Association. "What we want to say is it is OK to be a cannabis consumer and it is OK to celebrate that and celebrate what the plant does for you."
Other Team Cannabis participants include medical cannabis dispensaries Harborside Health Center and Blum in Oakland and the Apothecarium in San Francisco's Castro district; Kiva Connections and Bhang, which make cannabis infused chocolate products; Leafly, a website that provides information about medical cannabis; and the Cann-I-Dream Foundation, whose Cannabis is Medicine project supports granting serious and terminally ill children access to the drug.
The Berkeley Patient's Group, which participated last year, expects that nearly half of the dispensary's 75 employees will be walking this time.
"We are supporting it for a second year because the Berkeley Patient's Group was founded in the fire of the AIDS crisis, much like the medical marijuana movement in California was founded in the fire of the AIDS crisis," said Victor Pinho, the dispensary's director of marketing and communications.
Sixteen years ago Jim McClelland, a gay man living with HIV and AIDS who eventually died from complications of the disease in 2001, co-founded the group, the oldest continuously operating dispensary in the country. It helped secure medicinal marijuana for people living with AIDS and other chronic illnesses.
"His mission in life was to provide free and low cost medicine to patients who critically needed the medicine," said Pinho, who is straight and began working at the dispensary a year ago.
Although the Berkeley Patient's Group does not know how many of its current patients are living with HIV or AIDS, Pinho said many of the people it serves are HIV-positive. Thus, taking part in the AIDS Walk is a way to support them and their medical needs, he said.
"It raises awareness for something we care about and helps our patient community," said Pinho. "As a community organization, because that is what we are, it is our duty to represent that population and support that population and do what we can to end the AIDS epidemic. The same way we would like to end the war on cannabis."
Similar to how the LGBT community became more vocal and out as it fought for funding and policy changes to address the AIDS epidemic, leaders within the cannabis industry see fostering the same sort of networking and organizing as critical for their community. Team Cannabis is one of the more visible manifestations of their efforts to collaborate.
"I had conversations with some of my other industry colleagues and we were able to form this team. We made a good splash in our first appearance," said Grace of Team Cannabis.
Fostering stronger ties within the Bay Area cannabis community is also seen as benefitting the ballot measure fight next year. Five years ago a similar effort to legalize marijuana use in California was defeated, with 54 percent of voters rejecting Proposition 19. Two years later four legalization ballot measures were proposed with none able to muster enough support to land on the November 2012 ballot.
"When you don't do a good job getting different parts of the industry together and make sure their concerns are addressed then you get wedges driving apart the community," said Grace. "We want to try to make sure everyone has their voice heard in this process and we know how to work together."
Since those earlier ballot defeats, voters in Washington and Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana use, bolstering advocates hopes that other states will follow suit. But similar to the 2008 fight in California over Proposition 8, a ballot measure banning same-sex marriage that many residents assumed (wrongly) would be defeated, proponents of marijuana legalization are concerned about supporters once again being too complacent.
"Yes, absolutely that scares me. It was a big part of what happened to us in 2010," said Grace. "I hope that won't happen to us again in 2016. I do think it is a real danger that people will be complacent. What I will say is I am seeing a lot more energy and a lot better organizing going into this."
A critical voting bloc for the 2016 legalization effort will be the LGBT community, acknowledged marijuana advocates.
"I would hope the gay community will support it. They have supported it thus far," said Esposito, who welcomed anyone interested in Team Cannabis to join it at the AIDS Walk or donate to it via the event's website at https://sf.aidswalk.net/Donate.
The group has already pledged $40,000 – out its goal of raising a total $70,000 – to sponsor one of the walk's check points. It is a rest stop for walkers where they can stop to grab refreshments, be entertained by a puppeteer and deejay, and get their photo taken with the Team Cannabis logo. The group will also be presenting a timeline looking at the history of cannabis and HIV.
The 29th annual AIDS Walk San Francisco kicks off with an opening ceremony at 9:45 a.m. Sunday, July 19 in Sharon Meadow within Golden Gate Park. The walk should begin at 10:30 a.m. followed by a post-walk concert at 12:30 p.m. For more information, visit http://sf.aidswalk.net.