As the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, Harvey Milk was, and continues to be decades after his death, one of the most important figures in LGBTQ+ history.
He made contributions to the gay rights movement through activism, advocacy, and public service. They were pivotal, but perhaps even more valuable is his enduring and resonant message for queer people to own their identities and take the societal space they deserve.
Since the two groups have fought for ideals, equity, and acceptance, it should come as no surprise that there are deep ties between the LGBTQ+ and cannabis communities. So while 4/20 will continue to be the highest of holidays for cannabis lovers, Harvey Milk Day (May 22) is another reason to pause and be grateful for the plant and Milk’s deep commitment to social justice and equality.
Who was Harvey Milk?
Harvey Bernard Milk was born and raised in Woodmere, New York. After graduating from college with a mathematics degree in 1951, he followed in his parents’ footsteps and enlisted in the Navy. Milk served in San Diego until 1955 when he resigned rather than face a court-martial after being caught in a park frequented by gay men. He was granted an “other than honorable” discharge. (The Navy, in an about-face, named a ship after Milk in 2019.)
After working in New York as a financial analyst and later in Broadway productions, Milk eventually became more open about his identity. After spending some time living in San Francisco, he permanently moved there in 1972 and settled in the city’s gay community known as the Castro. He and his partner Scott Smith opened a camera shop there called Castro Cameras.
With his larger-than-life persona and natural people skills, Milk soon became a fixture in the gay community and was dubbed the “Mayor of Castro Street.” He co-founded the Castro Village Association to unite gay business owners, and in 1974, he launched the inaugural Castro Street Fair — a community celebration that continues to this day.
After a brief stint in Mayor George Moscone’s new administration and a failed run for state assembly, in 1976 Milk founded the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club to garner more political support. Working with Moscone, he successfully pushed for a reorganization of the city council, called the Board of Supervisors, from citywide at-large elections to a geographical district format.
This change helped Milk secure a landslide victory in 1977, making him the first openly gay elected official in California and one of the first in the nation.
In his brief 11 months in office, one of Milk’s most important achievements was leading the campaign against Proposition 6, or the “Briggs Initiative,” a proposed ban of gay and lesbian teachers from public schools. At a time when gay rights measures were being repealed across the country, Milk worked tirelessly alongside professor and author Sally Miller Gearhart to garner support against the ballot initiative. By the end of their campaign, ex-governor Ronald Reagan had publicly voiced opposition to the measure, and it was defeated by more than a million votes.
On November 27, 1978, former San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Dan White, who had resigned after clashing with Milk and others on several issues, snuck into City Hall with a revolver. He confronted Mayor Moscone and shot him dead before crossing the building to Milk’s office to shoot and kill him.
After a short trial where White’s defense relied heavily on what has been infamously termed the “Twinkie Defense,” he was sentenced to less than eight years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, serving a little more than five before his release. The lenient sentence sparked rioting in the gay community.
What did Milk do for cannabis?
“The entire medical cannabis movement owes a direct debt to the gay community of San Francisco,” said Steve DeAngelo, lifelong cannabis activist and (among many other things) founder of the social equity reform nonprofit The Last Prisoner Project. “There’s a very, very direct line of debt there.”
Milk’s philosophical outlook rested upon expanded equity and care for all people. Though he famously gave up weed to minimize the risk to his political career, he supported its legalization.
Just three weeks before he was assassinated, Milk helped pass Proposition W, a non-binding ballot initiative that effectively decriminalized the cultivation, transfer, and possession of cannabis.
The driving force behind Proposition W was “the father of medical marijuana,” Dennis Peron, a cannabis activist and friend of Milk. Peron, who had worked on all of Milk’s campaigns for supervisor, drafted the language of Proposition W:
“We, the people of San Francisco, demand that the District Attorney, along with the Chief of Police, cease the arrest and prosecution of individuals involved in the cultivation, transfer, or possession of marijuana.”
With the help of Milk’s political reach, Peron was able to secure the signatures needed to get Prop W on the ballot. It passed with 56% approval and came briefly into effect under Mayor Moscone’s direction that law enforcement should ignore possession of less than one ounce of cannabis. After Moscone’s assassination, however, Dianne Feinstein took over as mayor and instructed police to ignore Proposition W. Though its time was short, Proposition W was the first of many steps California took toward cannabis legalization.
Remembering Harvey Milk
The cannabis movement would not be where it is today without the work and dedication of so many activists, educators, advocates, and supporters. Milk once said, “It takes no compromise to give people their rights…it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom.”
On May 22, take a moment to remember Harvey Milk and his contribution to the cannabis legalization movement.