When I met up with Richard Eastman at Gower’s Gulch in Hollywood to discuss his NUGL profile, I was fortunate to again find him in a talkative mood. Over the course of several discussions — mostly at and in front of Kebab Daddy, who’s employees and manager were so impressed with Richard’s gregariousness and work for weed that they threw in a free drink and baklava — we touched on Richard’s friendship and many collaborations with dearly departed cannabis legend Dennis Peron, his status as an icon for both the cannabis and AIDS communities, and his opinions about the current, past and future state of the cannabis industry.
Richard has long secured his legendary status in the cannabis culture and history; his extensive history as an activist for cannabis access and rights since first lighting up in 1957 includes organizing and partying with gay icon Harvey Milk while joining the fight for gay and cannabis rights in his birth city of San Francisco, opening the first ever cannabis buyers club and cannabis hotel in his hometown of Los Angeles in collaboration with Peron, and being a tireless and outspoken advocate for gay rights, justice and cannabis.
Sunday, December 1st is World AIDS Awareness Day, and our conversations transpired just before that date, so we discussed his activism and involvement with AIDS research and treatment, and how the movement for access to medicinal cannabis has been intertwined;
On his miraculous survival after being written off for dead, and living with AIDS, 25 years after diagnosis, and the absurdity of his remaining diagnosis:
December 1 is World AIDS Day. There’s like 36 to 40 million people living with HIV and AIDS in the world, and about an equal amount has died in the last 35 years. I’ve been living with HIV since 1994. I had 22 T-cells back in 1994. The city (of Los Angeles) just recently honored me for living for 25 years with AIDS and HIV. And now I have over 800 T cells.
What does that mean? When you have less than 200 T-cells, the definition – according to the United States government – means AIDS. And that’s how people such as myself, the patients that are living with AIDS today, 25 years later still have an AIDS diagnosis because they can’t take that away.”
That’s right, once a person has been diagnosed with AIDS in the US, there is no way for that diagnosis to change, even if, like Richard, their immune systems have recovered to a point that they would not be diagnosed with the disease if tested for the first time today.
“Even though it sounds confusing, because now I have 800 T-cells which should mean I’m HIV positive, or do I have AIDS? Technically I have AIDS. I had less than two years to live right at 22 T-cells, that was 23 years ago. A normal human being fluctuates, their T-cells can range anywhere from 500 to 2500 T-cells. Everybody has a genetic difference in their T cells. Average human being, male and female, has somewhere between 500-2500 T-cells. Some people might go their whole life and not have AIDS or cancer and only have 500 T-cells. There are people whose average is around 1500 T-cells. Okay? There are some people that have like 2000 T-cells. I’ve never heard of anything over 2500 T-cells — this is the immune system that fights anything including pneumonia and colds, and all the horrible things that happen to people [and are often deadly to AIDS patients with severely weakened immune systems]”
On his experimental treatments with legendary AIDS researcher and activist Dr. Charles Farthing: “When Dr. Farthing, who’s dead now, asked me to be on the study for drugs. I was like, ‘Okay,’ I had to drink a horrible liquid, It was in liquid form, it tasted like gasoline, thank God, I only had to do that for a month or two until they developed it into a pill form. And then in the early days of HIV 25 years ago, I literally had to take 25 to 50 pills per day. Now it’s down to eight pills in the morning and four at night. So it’s about 12 pills that includes vitamins, fish oil, statins for triglycerides — some of the protease inhibitors to medications raise your triglycerides, which could be detrimental to your heart. I don’t eat a lot of fatty things, though it’s hard to avoid it because it’s in everything. But you know, from a life expectancy of two years 25 years ago to now a life expectancy of decades…”
“…There’s a million and a half Americans living with HIV and AIDS in America. In Los Angeles alone, there are 60,000 people living with HIV and AIDS and there’s another 40 or 50,000 running around that don’t even know they have it.”
On Proposition 64, and why ‘Legalization is a Trap House’: “Now marijuana, you know, Prop 64 sort of screwed up everything for the patient. That’s why we had to do Senate Bill 34, The Brownie Mary Dennis Peron Compassion Act which can restore the compassion programs to help not only people with AIDS and cancer – also people that have headaches and backaches and insomnia and whatever reason you need medical marijuana.”
…“My take on the legal industry is (that) recreation is a trap house. And what is a trap house? Well, in the marijuana industry, a trap house is an illegal operation, a place that doesn’t have permits or whatever, and they don’t take care of their employees and if they get arrested, they usually bail them out – it’s a trap house! And laws can be a trap house and Prop 64 by Sean Parker – who was the guy that helped start Facebook, [who largely funded the Proposition 64 tax and regulatory campaign, giving] $25 million. (At the time) Dennis Peron was on his deathbed, Richard Eastman had no money – (I was busy) producing the 47th and 48th Smoke-Ins, and Prop 64 passed,” –without the criticism, or enough of the input of the warriors of compassion who did so much to bring the movement to the point where legalization could even be considered on a State level. “And why do I think recreation is a trap? Ultimately, it’s all about the same bosses. And what do I mean by the same bosses? I mean, the alcohol industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the tobacco industry, the gangsters, the politicians. What they did by legalizing marijuana was creating a new revenue not only for themselves, the political pockets of corrupt politicians, but the cops.” Indeed, as larger and larger corporate interests jockey for ways to consolidate and commodify as much of the lucrative hemp and cannabis industry as possible, there are also massive amounts of tax revenue from Proposition 64 still somehow ending up in the hands of law enforcement, despite decades of irresponsible, dishonest and socially destructive policies toward cannabis and it’s users by those same cops.
Richard is aware that there have been constructive intentions or applications for the massive tax revenues currently being collected by California State; “Sure, they’re helping a small segment of society, supposedly, with homelessness. I heard that’s a great thing. Dennis would have been happy with that. But a lot of the money here in California, specifically in LA, the Bureau of marijuana control in Los Angeles, I understand took in a lot of fear millions of dollars in taxation. Where’d the money go to the police department? And what is the government using it for, to attack people that are homeless, to attack people perhaps that are still smoking marijuana in the street don’t have a doctor’s letter. They shouldn’t be harassing people because all us is medical. The legalization movie is a mean movie. It’s really a bad movie because legalization is a word. ‘All use is medical’ is a word too, and ultimately, with Prop 64, the people that need it the most — grandma can can pay her rent on her Social Security check. She doesn’t have food stamps because they don’t give food stamps to a lot of people on Social Security. And you want her to take $5+ out of her purse to go to these legalization shops and get a joint when the Medicare and MediCal should be providing for her for free, instead of giving her a handful of pills like Oxycontin and morphine and an antidepressant and everything else that’s going to kill you. So the legalization movement was a trap. And ultimately it still is a trap.”
On the implementation of SB-34 – The Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act to re-institute and protect California’s cannabis compassion programs: “I’m giving you a scoop; I went into a clinic recently, La Brea Collective, one of the nicest clinics in LA — Dennis and I really liked the owner and they were really fun, kind and compassionate for poor people. So when Prop 64 came along, they had to end their compassion program. I recently went over to LBC there on La Brea and Pico. They’re one of their original pre-ICO places. And like I said, Dennis and I know the owner. And ultimately I said, ‘What are you going to do about SB 34 being implemented?’ The lady behind the counter said, ‘Well, Richard, we’re going to restore the compassion, but you have to go get a California medical marijuana card so we can implement it.’ Well, that’s interesting, because see, I didn’t see anything (in SB-34) that said we were required to get a California medical card to get free marijuana from these dispensaries, but LBC has told me that they can’t give medical marijuana to any of their patients unless they have a California medical marijuana card. Now, some poor people don’t have $100 to get this card, which has to be renewed annually. They have to pay a doctor to get the doctor’s recommendation to get the state card. So how much does that costs? So we’re still in a quagmire of Senate Bill 34 happening and a good place like La Brea Collective wants to give marijuana but they even gave me an application form. And I said, ‘Well, what if I don’t have the money?!’ They said, ‘Oh, Richard, maybe the owner will pay for you. Or some of these places might want to pay for some of their patients that have no money.’ But you and I both know that 99% of these dispensaries are not going to pay for poor people $100 so they can get the California ID so they can write them off. Senate Bill 34 might have a flaw in it already.”
On the sweet absurdity of life: “What a big joke that the universe did to me; understand that I’m just a stranger in paradise that loves squirrels. Living on a little planet, grew up to be this hippie, grew up to be gay, ultimately got this horrible disease that was supposed to kill me because it killed Freddie Mercury and Rock Hudson and 36 to 40 million people have died and I just told you there’s still another 35 million people living with it.”
On the pharmaceutical industry: “So now, they created a cash cow society with these pharmaceutical companies, with the cancer drugs, with the HIV drugs, with drugs for pretty much anything, because the Rockefellers and the DuPonts – when they put marijuana out of business as a medicine – created all these harmful pills that ultimately killed more people than they heal.”
“…This is just another example of how the pharmaceutical industry kills people. The government kills people, the DEA kill people, people kill people, and marijuana never killed anybody. So ultimately, the goal of me talking about HIV in the final moments of this great interview that you’re doing for NUGL magazine, which I hope will reinvigorate the times when Dennis Peron and I opened the first two medical marijuana dispensaries in America, (and) we started the first medical marijuana magazine, called the LA JEMM – ‘ Journal for the Education of Medical Marijuana.’ We opened America’s first medical marijuana expos in West Hollywood Park Auditorium. grabbed it and you make the clone out of it. And marijuana is a medicine and it’s going to be a medicine long long after you and I are gone. “
On his legacy, and why he’s dedicated his life to cannabis Freedom: “Ultimately, I don’t even care if my name is remembered in a hundred or five hundred or a thousand years. I would rather really think that Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron should be remembered……”
“Why did I do this? I didn’t just do it to this to get high for myself. I did it because I love marijuana, and marijuana loves me. I’m a hippie at heart. I love the birds and the bees and the squirrels and the kids. I love straight people. I love gay people.”