AIDS Walk 2014 Team Photo

Cannabis Stakes Claim to AIDS Walk

A couple decades ago, Christopher Esposito was in a bit of a bind and needed a place to “lay low,” as the saying goes.

Instead, he ended up staying at the home of a matronly rebel who is celebrated for baking marijuana brownies, and then dodging the subsequent penalties after getting arrested.

Esposito’s safe house was the Noe Valley home of “Brownie” Mary Rathbun. Rathbun, recall, was an early volunteer at the AIDS ward of San Francisco General Hospital. There, the patients reported that the cannabis-laced brownies provided some relief from the disease’s ravages. This is also where the idea that marijuana can be medicine — once radical — entered the mainstream.

This is also where Esposito says he picked up an activist streak, and from where the beginnings of Team Cannabis in Sunday’s AIDS Walk can be traced.

The annual AIDS Walk has almost always featured walkers and volunteers from the medical cannabis world. But now that cannabis in California is an industry, representatives from Bay Area marijuana businesses have stepped up their game.

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Last year, 35 people walked with Team Cannabis, which raised $36,000, Esposito said. This year, they’re raising the stakes, and aiming for 100 walkers and $65,000.

Not only that, but Team Cannabis has sponsored a checkpoint. That is to say, when the 20,000 walkers stroll through Golden Gate Park, they will pass through Team Cannabis.

“This year, it’s about showing the community that we’re here,” says Esposito, who spent much of the 1980s and 1990s active in AIDS nonprofits.

The timing is perfect. As California shifts from the birthplace of the medical marijuana movement to the hub of the cannabis industry, it’s important to remember how the journey began: with sick people dying of AIDS, achieving a bit of relief from marijuana.

Stories like that are what convinced voters to pass Prop. 215, the first law allowing medical marijuana access in America, in 1996.

Last year, 35 people walked with Team Cannabis, which raised $36,000, Esposito said. This year, they’re raising the stakes, and aiming for 100 walkers and $65,000.

They’re at just shy of $13,000 at the moment — which isn’t bad. That’s more than Bank of the West and Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s employees so far.

Participants include Esposito’s current outfit, Oakland-based cannabis plant emporium Dark Heart Nursery, and East Bay mega-dispensaries Berkeley Patients Group and Harborside Health Center.

This volunteer showing “speaks to the sophistication of our efforts here in California,” said Victor Pinho, spokesman for BPG. “We’re showing our strentgh as a unified movement, showing our ability to come together and get something done. And that something is ending this crisis.”

A bold proclamation, but with San Francisco recently reporting the fewest AIDs-related deaths and new HIV infections since the epidemic began, it may be doable.

Look for Team Cannabis out there on Sunday. To join in, visit their page at http://www.teamcannabis.gives/.