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Hemp History / Activism

Notes from the Pioneer Days: Radical Branches of Medical Cannabis: The Life of Mike Alcalay

by Tamara Trichome

 When I first met Mike, he gently walked me through the easiest doctor’s appointment I ever had. I admit it, I was one of the many who hated doctors. Doctor visits always involved too many questions and too much shame. But Dr. Mike was different. A lot different. He insisted that patients call him by his first name because he detested hierarchy. His sliding scale clinic was a much needed addition to the early days of legal medical cannabis in California. He let people pay what they could. He even held free clinics in Oakland and Santa Cruz for low income people. Later, when I needed a renewal and had less money, he gave me my prescription for free.

 Mike Alcalay was unique amongst the early activists who increased access to medicinal cannabis in California after its legalization in 1996. His broad view of social justice brought this fight together with AIDS rights, gay rights, and a constant consideration of the poor and impoverished in the U.S. and abroad. His early death from leukemia in 2006 was a huge loss to multiple activist communities. I feel incredibly lucky that I had the chance to know him and he continues to be an inspiration to many.

 Mike’s commitment to social justice began after he served as a doctor in the Vietnam War. When he returned, he started a free medical clinic for migrant farm workers in California and then traveled to Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution to offer his medical services. After he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 he created a show on public radio called “AIDS in Focus” which educated the public on current scientific research and advocated for the rights of those living with HIV. He even co-hosted coverage of the Sixth Annual International AIDS summit in San Francisco in 1990. That year, they highlighted the U.S. government’s violation of immigration rights. At that time, no one with HIV could receive a visa to visit the United States. Consequently, all visa applicants were required to take an HIV test.

 In the early 1990s, Dr. Mike turned to cannabis to help combat the side effects of the protease inhibitors he took to keep his HIV in check. Like everything he did, he threw himself wholly into the new project. He became the medical director for one of the earliest medical cannabis providers, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, where he enrolled thousands of patients. He continued to work closely with many other cannabis providers around the San Francisco Bay Area, like the Berkeley Patients’ Group and Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM). He even collected scientific data from these interactions, finding beneficial uses of cannabis for depression, anxiety, and behavior disorders. He provided this data to O’ Shaughnessy’s newsletter, Chris Conrad, and other activists so that they could improve guidelines for the use of medical cannabis.

 He even risked his medical license to help treat a young boy whose violent rages and unstable mental state could not be treated with more typical pharmaceuticals. This work has been immortalized in the book Jeffrey’s Journey: Healing a Child’s Violent Rages. Even though Jeffrey’s parents were conservative Christians who voted against legalizing medicinal cannabis, they turned to it as a last resort. No doctors knew how to reduce Jeffrey’s violent outbursts. Instead he had been overmedicated since the age of 3. His parents discovered that part of a cannabis muffin immediately calmed him down without all these negative side effects. Mike was the doctor who found the right dosage and helped Jeffrey’s family through this process.

 Dr. Mike’s activism helped me too. Not only did he give me an affordable prescription, he came to defend me in court when the local police arrested me for my medical cannabis garden. Once again, he did not charge me for these services. My life directly benefited from his tireless devotion to helping protect the civil rights of those who use cannabis as medicine. At that time, if arrested for possession or cultivation, patients needed to prove their medical need in court even if they already had a legal prescription. Mike provided this proof. As a result, the court dropped most of the charges and I was saved from an expensive and lengthy jury trial. Dr. Mike was a beacon of light during that difficult chapter in my life.

 I cannot emphasize enough how much Dr. Mike Alcalay positively impacted my life. I am proud and lucky to have called him a friend and mentor. He continues to be a model for those who fight to protect the right to use cannabis as a medicine. In this world, we cannot be single issue people. Cannabis cannot be separated from other struggles like access to medical care, environmentalism, criminal justice reform, and standing up for the rights of the most marginalized in our societies. Dr. Mike was a good example of that intersection.

 If you want to learn more about Dr. Mike’s work there are several internet sources you can visit. Listen to his coverage of the Sixth Annual International AIDS summit at Internet Archive: A documentary he helped make on Sandanista women from 1982 called “Las Nicas” available on Media Burn: He appears in the documentary “Waiting to Inhale” about the movement for access to medicinal cannabis in the U.S. available on youtube:

 The Green Greeks Magazine

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