AIDS & Cannabis

Marijuana Minister: Celebrating Pride With Stereotypes Podcast

Episode 245

Show Notes

Jim Mitulski, the Marijuana Minister

This month, we are celebrating Pride with a brand new series! We’ll explore how the 1980s AIDS crisis in San Francisco led to the birth of medical cannabis and sparked a national legalization movement. Before our series begins next week, we hope you’ll enjoy an episode from the Stereotypes: Straight Talk from Queer Voices podcast, hosted by award-winning journalist Christopher Beale. You will hear the story of Jim Mitulski, a gay pastor who provided cannabis for compassionate use to dying AIDS patients through his church and broadened the definition of medical cannabis. Tune in to hear his inspiring story of courage and advocacy.

“I took a risk. I used my body. I acted on a belief that was motivated by my desire to provide healing and comfort for my friends. I didn’t know what else to do that I could do, but this was something I could do.” – Jim Mitulski

If you enjoyed this episode, we’d recommend Episode 133, Weed Words: Marijuana- Unpacking It’s Complicated History.

Listen to the Episode


Listen on


Podcast Guests



[00:00:00] Ellen Scanlon: This podcast discusses cannabis and is intended for audiences 21 and over. Welcome to how to do the pod, a podcast, helping you feel confident about cannabis. I’m your host, Ellen. This

[00:00:20] Ellen Scanlon: month to celebrate pride. We have an amazing new series for you. It’s about the history of how the AIDS crisis in San Francisco in the 1980s led to a new understanding of cannabis as medicine and sparked a national legalization movement. In the series, we’ll hear from a pioneering AIDS doctor about how cannabis was helping dying patients.

[00:00:46] Ellen Scanlon: I talked to the woman running the biggest illegal cannabis operation in San Francisco at the time, Sticky Fingers Brownies. Her daughter wrote a terrific book all about her mom’s adventures in cannabis called Home Baked, My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco. And we’ll hear her story too.

[00:01:09] Ellen Scanlon: Did you know that while HIV is now considered a chronic condition, one in four people living with HIV in the U. S. are women, and disproportionately women of color. Experts will weigh in about how cannabis helps HIV positive patients today by relieving symptoms of pain, anxiety, inflammation, and low appetite.

[00:01:31] Ellen Scanlon: As I researched the new series, I discovered a podcast called Stereotypes, straight talk from queer voices. The show is hosted by award winning journalist and producer Christopher Beal, and it shares a glimpse into queer culture, news, and history. I’m very proud to share an episode of Stereotypes with you today.

[00:01:51] Ellen Scanlon: It really sets the stage for our new series. There are some stories that once you hear them, you will never forget, and this is one of them. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. The episode you’ll hear now is called The Marijuana Minister. Stay tuned for our new series about how the legacy of San Francisco’s AIDS crisis led to legalizing cannabis.

[00:02:17] Ellen Scanlon: I’ve learned so much that I can’t wait to share with you starting next week.

[00:02:23] Christopher Beale: This episode of Stereotypes contains frank discussions about death, religion, marijuana, and drug use. So, use discretion. Welcome to Stereotypes, straight talk from Queer Voices. I’m Christopher Peele. I’m a queer, independent radio host, audio producer, and journalist.

[00:02:42] Christopher Beale: My pronouns are he, him. I live in San Francisco, California, and that’s where this story takes place. In 2021 here in California, it’s legal for adults to use weed medicinally and recreationally, but that wasn’t always the case. San Francisco has a large gay population, and when close to half of them were dying of AIDS in the late 80s and early 90s, Marijuana actually helped those men cope.

[00:03:15] Christopher Beale: When state politicians cracked down on medical marijuana.

[00:03:19] Jim Mitulski: At the expense of people with HIV.

[00:03:20] Christopher Beale: The Castro’s gay pastor put everything on the line to comfort his flock.

[00:03:26] Jim Mitulski: I took a risk. I used my body. I acted on a belief that was motivated by my desire to provide healing and comfort for my friends. And I didn’t know what else to do that I could do, but this was something I could do.

[00:03:38] Jim Mitulski: And I did it.

[00:03:39] Christopher Beale: LGBTQIA, whatever type you are, this podcast is for you.

[00:03:58] Christopher Beale: Cities all across America have gay neighborhoods. I like to call them gayborhoods. And in San Francisco, Ours is called the Castro. I’m a few blocks away from the rainbow crosswalk and the gay bars of the Castro here on Eureka street. I’m surrounded by row houses and four plexes. This block is mostly residential and quiet.

[00:04:20] Christopher Beale: The uniformity is only broken up by this one abandoned building. It’s a church with a lavender sign that says a house of prayer for all people. This was the home of the Castro’s gay church, where LGBTQIA people came to celebrate their faith and pray for hope.

[00:04:39] Jim Mitulski: It was this amazing energy place.

[00:04:44] Christopher Beale: The man at the pulpit, in the 80s and 90s, was a gay pastor named Jim.

[00:04:55] Jim Mitulski: I did always love going to church.

[00:05:00] Jim Mitulski: It was a place that it was quiet. It was pretty. People were nice to each other.

[00:05:06] Christopher Beale: Jim grew up in a little town northwest of Detroit called Royal Oak, Michigan.

[00:05:11] Jim Mitulski: My family life was rather unhappy and it was a respite, frankly. And I looked forward to it every week.

[00:05:20] Christopher Beale: Can you recall the first time you actually felt the presence of God? I don’t know.

[00:05:25] Jim Mitulski: It definitely happened for me during music in church. My early survival skill in church was don’t listen if they’re talking, just pay attention when they’re singing. I don’t think I’ve ever met a piece of music I didn’t like, and especially in a religious setting.

[00:05:44] Jim Mitulski: It wasn’t until later that I came to understand that you could actually use the pulpit part for something positive or useful. That didn’t come until college. Jim went to Columbia. It was a men’s college at that time in New York City. So who do you think goes to a men’s college in New York in the 70s?

[00:06:10] Jim Mitulski: Gay guys. Did that ring out to be true? It turned out to be totally true.

[00:06:18] Christopher Beale: Jim had been out of the closet since high school, so he filled his time in New York with What you might expect. He also discovered a love for queer activism.

[00:06:30] Jim Mitulski: I was a political gay and I was very involved in gay politics and by politics. I mean in the streets politics and my grades reflected it by the way was a terrible student.

[00:06:45] Jim Mitulski: I found myself in those activities. I found my voice. I found my vocation. I found my sense of self my identity. I found my friends, I found my sexuality. The people you protested with, in addition to being friends, we were all lovers. An army of lovers cannot be defeated, which was a classical phrase, but we meant it.

[00:07:11] Jim Mitulski: I probably had, sexual adventures every day from the time I was 18 until I was 25 with different people. And I wasn’t particularly more promiscuous than anyone in my peer group. And I know these numbers are horrifying to the post AIDS person.

[00:07:33] Christopher Beale: By 1979, Jim had dropped out of college.

[00:07:36] Jim Mitulski: This was not unusual in my class, as it turns out.

[00:07:39] Christopher Beale: And it was around this time that Jim discovered a gay church. The MCC, or Metropolitan Community Church, had been founded just a year earlier on the west coast by this gay reverend named Troy Perry. The denomination was hardly even that at this stage, but it was designed by gay Christians for gay Christians.

[00:08:03] Jim Mitulski: It was church not like church. We were anti church. We were deconstructing Christianity church. We were out in the streets protesting church. We were wear t shirts not wear vestments church. We wore ragged jeans and pink triangles on our shirts church. And it was magical.

[00:08:19] Christopher Beale: One day Jim had this kind of epiphany.

[00:08:22] Jim Mitulski: It didn’t occur to me that you could be gay and be a priest. Now, this was hilarious to the gay priest that I met eventually.

[00:08:29] Christopher Beale: Jim went back to school to become a pastor, and after serving at the MCC in New York for a few years, he got his first senior pastor job offer in San Francisco.

[00:08:41] Jim Mitulski: I got off the plane just to interview him and was like, it’s beautiful here.

[00:08:45] Jim Mitulski: It’s so much lighter here. It’s so much brighter. The quality of the sun was something I noticed. And people are happier here. And they’re friendlier. You know, New York, they’ll cut you dead if you say hello or smile or something, you know, and the Castro was, Hi, hi.

[00:09:01] Christopher Beale: So Jim, now in his twenties, packed up and moved to San Francisco.

[00:09:06] Christopher Beale: Gay heaven.

[00:09:07] Jim Mitulski: It was so gay. Gay, gay, gay. We had a gay bank. Gay, gay, gay. We had a gay church. Gay, gay, gay. Gay drugstore. We had a gay supermarket. You know, everything was gay, gay, gay. It was a protest every Friday night, which turned into a dance party. You know, we got our news from the BAR.

[00:09:23] Christopher Beale: The Bay Area Reporter, still active in San Francisco today.

[00:09:27] Jim Mitulski: And we did read the Chronicle and the Examiner, but mostly to get the latest installment of the Armistead Maupin column. You might know that

[00:09:34] Christopher Beale: column. It spawned several books and a few TV series. It’s called Tales of the City.

[00:09:40] Jim Mitulski: That was the mood, and that was the feel. That was the San Francisco I came to.

[00:09:45] Jim Mitulski: And it was a great community. In the midst of A terrible tragedy unfolding. And that was evident, but still, it was a cool place to be. It was still happy. Gay, gay, gay.

[00:10:00] Christopher Beale: Jim began hosting Sunday services at the Little Metropolitan Community Church on Eureka Street in 1986, and immediately the congregation began to grow.

[00:10:10] Christopher Beale: The community was in need, and eventually the church added a second and then a third service to accommodate all of the people. A lot of those parishioners were visibly dying of AIDS, and they were on delicately timed medications.

[00:10:28] Jim Mitulski: They had to take it every four hours, and people had timers. Like if you were in church, you’d hear ding ding ding, you know, all the time.

[00:10:35] Jim Mitulski: Or anywhere, if you’re in a restaurant, anywhere, you kept, always heard the ding ding go off. But it became a sound, like crickets all the time chirping, which is a weird soundtrack.

[00:10:47] Christopher Beale: Over the next few years, the MCC and the Castro became the de facto LGBTQIA community center. The doors were pretty much always open.

[00:10:56] Christopher Beale: Church services, community meetings, weddings, and an ever increasing number of funerals took place there. I

[00:11:05] Jim Mitulski: just was not equipped for the sheer numbers of it. Now the part of me that is good in crises just dug right in and did it and I found that I’ll listen to anybody and nothing freaks me out and in fact I’m good at going with someone to a difficult topic.

[00:11:21] Jim Mitulski: I could be with dying people.

[00:11:30] Christopher Beale: After a while, hospital visits just became a normal part of the week. The

[00:11:36] Jim Mitulski: people that I saw. were emaciated, they were dying and in great pain, and in some instances barely able to talk.

[00:11:54] Jim Mitulski: Each and every person I talked to was convinced they had brought this on themselves, they were worried about going to hell. Many of them were experiencing rejection from friends, family, loved ones, including gay friends.

[00:12:10] Christopher Beale: In 1988, the LA Times wrote that about 4 percent of San Francisco’s population, including an astonishing half of the city’s estimated 60, 000 plus gay men, had AIDS.

[00:12:25] Christopher Beale: Without an effective cure, most of these men would die within the next 10 years.

[00:12:33] Jim Mitulski: Here’s one I remember of this guy who said, will you hold my hand and pray with me, which of course I did. And he said that the only person who would hold his hand and pray with him was the one of the nurses on the night shift who always prayed that he would be delivered of his sin of homosexuality before he died.

[00:12:51] Jim Mitulski: She wanted him to be saved and he was so alone there.

[00:13:06] Jim Mitulski: That’s what really shook me to my core. This is why we have a gay church. This is why we do this, because people should not have to be in this circumstance. And the only person who will pray with them is someone who also wants them to be cured of homosexuality. That made me angry. That’s how I became an activist, the anger part.

[00:13:27] Jim Mitulski: It wasn’t the sad part that became the activist. It was the angry part.

[00:13:32] Christopher Beale: Jim’s work was taking a physical and emotional toll on him. He gained 80 pounds and then started working out furiously to lose it. He got a therapist.

[00:13:42] Jim Mitulski: There was a group of us who connected that summer. He made some new friends and started going out more.

[00:13:49] Jim Mitulski: We used to call ourselves class of 95. We might have known each other from around, I mean, Castro’s a small town. We found ourselves dancing on Sunday nights at the Pleasure Dome. And most of us had been pretty good boys until then. After a while, You know, a lot of people had slept with a lot of people.

[00:14:14] Jim Mitulski: And I don’t mean that in a disdainful way. I mean that respectfully. It was part of how we connected. It was part of how we were with each other.

[00:14:23] Christopher Beale: By the time anyone realized AIDS was sexually transmitted, the damage was widespread. The disease could strike a fit, healthy young guy, and he’d be dead in months.

[00:14:35] Jim Mitulski: Our moods became darker. Our hope dissipated. And I became kind of nihilistic. My capacity to sustain an interior sense of self preservation waned and I became less protective of my own sexual behavior. I didn’t care. I didn’t care. We felt like our world was dying. And this is impossible to communicate to people who weren’t there.

[00:15:12] Jim Mitulski: But you asked that I’m going to tell you, we just didn’t care. We did care about our friends. We did care about those who were dying. We didn’t remember. What it meant to care anymore necessarily about not becoming part of this. And that was the summer we discovered separately, individually, that we were no longer HIV negative.

[00:15:44] Jim Mitulski: And we started doing the things that good boys never did. Dancing all night. Doing recreational drugs that were related to that activity. Using our bodies. We felt like we belonged. We were in something together. And we had regrets. Well, we weren’t going to just give up on our lives either. That’s the truth.

[00:16:10] Jim Mitulski: I’m telling you the truth because I think my story is different from others, but my story is not unusual.

[00:16:18] Christopher Beale: Today, there are medications that make it possible to live with HIV, but in 1995, everything that seemed to work Jim says he tried a drug called Crixivan. Thirty six pills a day. Thirty six? Yeah. Big pills.

[00:16:37] Christopher Beale: Can I ask you to compare that to your pill regimen for HIV today?

[00:16:41] Jim Mitulski: My Uh, for just, just treating HIV 1.

[00:16:53] Christopher Beale: In the 90s, those early medications managed to prolong lives, but they could make AIDS patients desperately ill. Those patients quickly discovered that cannabis, or marijuana, actually helped with the symptoms.

[00:17:06] Jim Mitulski: It did two things. One, it suppressed nausea, so that people would eat, and they wouldn’t eat otherwise, because they, you know, just felt sick all the time.

[00:17:18] Jim Mitulski: And the other thing is, it took the pain away. Or an awful way.

[00:17:24] Christopher Beale: In the 80s and 90s, San Francisco was pretty progressive on marijuana when compared to the rest of the country. Even the rest of the state. And that had a lot to do with the city’s dying gay population. Medical marijuana clubs, kind of the 90s equivalent of a dispensary, were where patients got their pot.

[00:17:42] Christopher Beale: The government looked the other way and everything was fine. That is until politicians got involved.

[00:17:49] Jim Mitulski: Dan Lundgren, who was running for attorney general, I know he was the attorney general, he wanted to run for governor, saw this as an issue that he thought could be a popular enforcement issue as a law and order guy, and without consulting with city officials, exercised his authority as a state official, probably with the support of the federal government, to one day, overnight, Crack down on and close without warning all of the marijuana outlets and distributors in San Francisco at the expense of people with HIV.

[00:18:26] Christopher Beale: One day a friend named Alan White Approached Jim. He was a

[00:18:30] Jim Mitulski: character. There’s no other word for it, but he was the journalist of the gay community in the

[00:18:39] Christopher Beale: White had been talking with a few politicians and had an idea of how to help those AIDS patients get their much needed medication.

[00:18:46] Jim Mitulski: They wondered who could they get to distribute marijuana that the government would think twice about.

[00:18:52] Jim Mitulski: The risk was high because at that time the government could seize your asset. They came to me though and said we want you to do a public distribution of marijuana from the church building to people with HIV. So it was a little loosey goosey but in a general way

[00:19:11] Christopher Beale: I understood what was at stake. Jim thought about it for a bit and then reached out to his friend Phyllis Nelson.

[00:19:17] Jim Mitulski: She shared my heart for social justice, and also she kind of ran the church administratively. She came to the church for a variety of reasons. She and her husband, they wanted a place where he could come out. We didn’t know he was gay at first. Also, they had a gay son who, uh, had AIDS. So they needed a community of support.

[00:19:36] Christopher Beale: Their son’s name was Glenn. Jim officiated his wedding to a man named Rob.

[00:19:42] Jim Mitulski: Then, sadly, Glenn dies, then Rob dies, and then Phyllis and I are through all this together. We just were standing outside, I still remember it was a Saturday afternoon after Rob’s funeral. Sometimes you don’t need words, but we were definitely bonded.

[00:20:04] Christopher Beale: After being approached by Alan White about distributing medical marijuana at church, Jim called Phyllis and said,

[00:20:11] Jim Mitulski: It’s not without risks, and I don’t know if I should or not. And she said to me, Of course you will, and I’ll stand right next to you if you do it. Because how can you not? And I knew what she was referring to that moment when we had stood outside as the sun set, just sort of being in that kind of painful silence after her son in law had died.

[00:20:39] Jim Mitulski: This was after my own diagnosis. This was a change in me. Facing my own mortality made me realize we’re only here as long as we’re here. What are you being so cautious about? My ministry changed right after that.

[00:21:07] Christopher Beale: Do you have a lighter? Cause I don’t know if I have one.

[00:21:16] Christopher Beale: In your experience when someone experiencing HIV or AIDS would smoke a joint, what do you think was happening? for those AIDS patients that was so medically necessary.

[00:21:28] Jim Mitulski: AIDS is in itself a disease, right? It’s a susceptibility to any number of physical symptoms, including those which are painful to the stomach or to your skin or other kinds of nerve damage.

[00:21:42] Jim Mitulski: I saw this happen. They would actually feel pain relief and their whole body would just, You know, then it also, and this is something, it’s something I have experienced, the stress around worrying about mortality or about your circumstances and whether or not you’re gonna get everything done that you want to get done while you still can do it and things like that become so overwhelming that it’s all you can think about.

[00:22:14] Jim Mitulski: Uh, just a, a period of release from that. And fortunately with this, it’s, it’ll last for half an hour, an hour, or whatever. Not all day, not all night. But sometimes, the freedom from the omnipresent anxiety is important. It’s welcome.

[00:22:41] Christopher Beale: All right, it’s the summer of 1996 and Jim is getting ready to begin giving out pot to AIDS patients in church

[00:22:48] Jim Mitulski: We had rules. No money could be exchanged Pot had to be donated people had to provide a note we did have security and we were promised by the supervisors and the health department that the city would protect us as much as they could There’d be no city prosecution and they would try to protect us from any state or federal prosecution.

[00:23:13] Jim Mitulski: So they couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen.

[00:23:16] Christopher Beale: That first Sunday, it seemed like everybody was watching. The media was there in the back row.

[00:23:23] Jim Mitulski: I preached on if you want to have an increase in your spiritual growth or spiritual life, act on your conscience. I took a risk. I used my body. I acted on a belief that was motivated by my desire to provide healing and comfort for my friends.

[00:23:43] Jim Mitulski: And I didn’t know what else to do that I could do. But this was something I could do. And I did it. When you talk about, when did you experience God? I did then.

[00:24:05] Jim Mitulski: And the risk was real, and the spiritual intensity was real, and the tangible relief for the people who, who used it was real. And here’s what Phyllis said that I still remember. She said, if the attorney general had to spend a whole morning trying to get his son to eat a half a bowl of cereal, Like I did.

[00:24:29] Jim Mitulski: He would understand what we’re doing right now.

[00:24:34] Christopher Beale: After church, patients came forward and presented their notes and left with a small baggie of marijuana. And that first Sunday, the police and officials, they all stayed away. In fact, the entire length of the ministry, there were no arrests and no harassment.

[00:24:54] Jim Mitulski: I swear angels protected us. I still believe that. And many people were praying for us. They could have arrested us. They could have. But they didn’t, and whether it was optics or whether it was, I think that a lot of people knew we were doing the right thing. This was in the summer, and by the fall, there was a proposition on the state ballot.

[00:25:19] Christopher Beale: Proposition 216, which permitted the use of medical cannabis in California, became law on November 5th, 1996.

[00:25:27] Jim Mitulski: Yep, and then we stopped.

[00:25:36] Christopher Beale: How many people would you say you helped with that ministry?

[00:25:39] Jim Mitulski: Oh, a couple thousand probably. Not all of them gay or people with AIDS, but many of them were. But other people too. And that was interesting to me. That there was this whole other kind of community that benefited from the gay community’s model of using community organizing around HIV.

[00:26:02] Jim Mitulski: to achieve a shift in policy around health.

[00:26:10] Jim Mitulski: What’s my regret? That we did all that activism on health care, on AIDS health care, on AIDS care in the 80s and 90s, and somehow did not end up with universal health care. Crazy.

[00:26:33] Christopher Beale: A few months ago, I took Jim back to Eureka Street. And while the caretaker unlocked the now abandoned church, Jim, Walk down the sidewalk, examining these memorial plaques honoring church members and other allies in the community, many of whom have died. Can you read some of them to

[00:26:52] Jim Mitulski: me? Yeah, maybe in a minute.

[00:26:54] Jim Mitulski: I

[00:27:02] Jim Mitulski: remember all these people.

[00:27:11] Jim Mitulski: Good lord. School billow of Gavin Newsom, who started performing weddings before it was legal. People whose weddings and funerals I did.

[00:27:32] Christopher Beale: This is your name on this plaque of senior pastor.

[00:27:35] Jim Mitulski: Yeah. Yeah. I still rode that horse longer than anybody else. So can we go in? Yes, let me get the other door open.

[00:27:45] Christopher Beale: Jim Matulski left the MCC in the Castro in 2000 and hasn’t been back inside the building in over a decade.

[00:27:53] Jim Mitulski: So of course in my mind, this was the size of Grace Cathedral, but I can see now it really isn’t very big, is it? Um, but it seemed bigger and I will say we used every square inch of it. A Sunday night in the Castro was the thing, seven o’clock, this room filled and sometimes filled early. People were out here, then this hallway, these windows were all open.

[00:28:23] Jim Mitulski: They would hang out through the windows there, the balcony, and sometimes even out the door. And it was all about singing. We sang gospel music sometimes for two hours, two and a half hours. It started and it built and, you know, there was a sermon and there was a communion and then it just kept going.

[00:28:51] Jim Mitulski: We’re trying to end the service. It wouldn’t stop because it was this big release of energy that we had to have. Um, so to see it now, you can’t tell maybe, but It was this amazing energy place.

[00:29:31] Christopher Beale: I asked Jim what he learned from his time as the marijuana minister.

[00:29:36] Jim Mitulski: Let your acts of love guide you. Even if it means great risk. The greater the love, the greater the risk. And you will never regret acts of love. Of great love. I

[00:30:03] Christopher Beale: want to thank Jim Matulski for sharing just one of his many stories with me. If I have anything to say about it, Jim will be a recurring character on stereotypes. Thanks to Todd and Miguel Atkins Whitley for the notes, the photos, and the ride. Thanks to the Castro Patrol for access to the old church and to Kiana Mogadam and Josh Taylor for the edits.

[00:30:25] Christopher Beale: I wrote and mixed this episode of Stereotypes. If you’d like to read more about HIV or get tested, I’ve linked to some resources in the show notes. Next month, I’m going to stay on theme and dive deeper into the church and its relationship with the LGBTQIA community. Why do Christians hate on queer people so much?

[00:30:46] Christopher Beale: I’m Christopher Beale, and that’s what I’m planning for next month on Stereotypes. Straight talk from queer voices.



What does 'Mindful Consumption' look like?
Benefits of Cannabis: Does Weed Help With Pain?
The Absolute Best Weed for Anxiety in 2023
Cannabis for Sleep: Does CBD Help with Sleep?
Is Smoking Weed While Pregnant Safe? Best Things to Know
Natural Treatment for Endometriosis: Can Weed Help?

We cover legal weed

So you must be legal, too. Age 21+ invited to continue.


This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.