When Cannabis Came Out: Remembering Prop 215

Recently, SF Weekly journalist Veronica Irwin went out on a limb and exclaimed, “It’s because of gay activism that Californians have a regulated cannabis market.”

She rattled off a list of famous gays, without genuinely honoring the foot soldiers, not the superstars of the movement. Guys like Michael Koehn, 74, and David Goldman, 69, a gay couple, who met in 1988 and married in 2008. Both have spread the ganja gospel far and wide, and both have benefitted from recreational and medicinal weed. When I visited them in the Castro District, they shared their favorite cannabis products with me—along with their own individual stories that tell much of the bigger picture.

After Michael Koehn graduated from the University of Wisconsin, he worked for the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department. He tells me he’s never been in the closet as a gay man. “I didn’t think to be secretive, though coming out caused friction with my mom,” he says. “I explained to her, ‘I have to be who I am.’” But while Koehn was out of the gay closet, he was in the cannabis closet. “So was everyone else,” he says. “We smoked on the sly, brands like Acapulco Gold.”

Dave Goldman, an ex-New Yorker and a graduate of the University of Chicago, taught generations of school kids in Marin. “In the 1970s, to be openly gay was fraught with perils,” he tells me. “Jobs were threatened.” Goldman first used cannabis at 18. He hasn’t ever stopped. “It’s been downhill all the way,” he says.

Goldman wisely kept cannabis separate from his day job. “I didn’t socialize with colleagues,” he says. In San Francisco, all through the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Goldman lost friends. So did Koehn, who attributes his survival to a half-dozen factors. “I have good genes, I was in support groups and I had good luck,” he says. “Cannabis gave me an appetite, eased my nausea and provided relief from pain.”

In the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and with savvy lobbying by Dennis Peron and others, plus nifty maneuvering by San Francisco D.A. Terence Hallinan, Californians approved medical marijuana in 1996. After Prop. 215 passed, Koehn and Goldman were out of the cannabis closet for good.

With Covid-19, they practice all the prudent things. “This is our second pandemic,” Koehn says. “Two more than we wanted.” Covid-19 hasn’t deterred them from their cannabis activism, which links them to NORML, Americans for Safe Access (ASA) and the San Francisco dispensary, Green Cross, where they sit on the board of directors. “Cannabis isn’t just about getting high,” Goldman says. “It’s about everyone getting educated about marijuana.” This winter, Goldman and Koehn fly to Florida for much needed R and R. Bon voyage, guys.

Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.”