Medical marijuana activism in NYC

Published 26, May, 2016
Author // Félix Garmendía

Our NYC guy Felix Garmendia recalls with affection and pride his days with the NYC Buyers' Club

Medical marijuana activism in NYC

"I wouldn’t say the weed made me HIGH, but it did manage to wrap me in an aura of relaxation, comfort and serenity. My mind drifted to a peaceful place, far from the horrors of working in a putrid system that just doesn’t work."

I have used the “herb” for decades now. It was introduced to me by my “paraprofessional” (teacher’s helper) when I was a New York City school teacher, working in the Bronx in the early 1990s. 

One Friday afternoon Miss Rodriguez saw me resting my head on my desk at lunch hour. I was exhausted, overwhelmed and extremely anxious. It was a hard week and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

She walked right up to me and said, “I have a present for you”. 

She extended her hand and placed what I thought was a piece of candy in my hand. I appreciated the gesture but at that moment, I needed more than piece of candy. It wasn’t candy. 

It turned out to be a “dime bag” of pot. 

I had never been a big fan of marijuana, having done it twice in high school back in Puerto Rico with no results whatsoever. This little gift, having been blessed by my Bronx pot fairy, turned out to be wonderful.

After a long, stressful, exhausting day, I dragged my tired teacher’s ass home to my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I collapsed, fully dressed in bed and fell asleep. I woke up a couple of hours later and found the dime bag in my pocket. 

I showed the treat to my boyfriend and he was kind enough to run out to the local smoke shop and bought me a small, cheap looking pipe. Shortly after, I was SMILING. 

I wouldn’t say the weed made me HIGH, but it did manage to wrap me in an aura of relaxation, comfort and serenity. My mind drifted to a peaceful place, far from the horrors of working in a putrid system that just doesn’t work. 

Who knows what I actually smoked in Puerto Rico but it sure wasn’t like this stuff from Miss Rodriguez. I had papers to correct, grades to submit. Surprisingly, I managed to do all of this work in only a few hours with a “little help from my (new herbal) friend”. 

After I was done with my school work, I became very hungry, ate dinner, took my meds and went to bed for the first time in years without feeling nauseous. 

That was a great experience. 

Nausea was caused by the early, primitive HIV drug, AZT that I was taking at the time. The anti-nausea medication I had been prescribed resulted in me having a convulsion so that poison was out of the question. 

For years, I was resigned to go to bed extremely nauseous and struggle for hours until I could finally fall asleep. Teaching is NOT an easy job. Teaching in an impoverished, crime ridden, desperate, crumbling urban wasteland compounds the task of teaching. 

Being perpetually nauseous and combatting uncontrollable vomiting compounded an already stressful, frustrating, and intense job. Sometimes I hardly had time to reach the garbage can in the middle of a lesson. Not a pretty picture.

After my friend introduced me to pot, I started winning my daily battles. The chronic nausea and vomiting resulted in a total lack of appetite which led to dramatic weight loss, weakness, insomnia, and constant anxiety. 

Those are only a few of the many health conditions that improved after the use of pot. 

I told my doctor about it and he wasn’t surprised. He actually told me that pot was a much healthier option compared to many toxic medications. The only side effect I noticed while using pot was a condition known as “the munchies” (i.e. ravenous appetite,). 

I once made a “rice-a-roni” sandwich on a cinnamon raisin bagel. It was DELICIOUS!!

The problem was where to find pot. I didn’t want to link it to my job in any way shape or form. I was not going to expect Ms. Rodriguez to provide it every time I needed it. Those were the 90s, when pot wasn’t legal and I could have caused a lot of damage to my career as a teacher. 

I was in a serious conundrum though. I had to work in order to survive, and it was becoming more difficult to do so with the side effects of my HIV medications. 

I must have found a way to have safe and easy access to this stuff. I was feeling great, looking great and working without any major health complications. I was sleeping soundly and my body felt stronger and stronger.

One night, I was at the original “Eagle”, a long gone leather bar in NYC, and started talking about weed with my HIV positive friends. To my surprise, most of them were using it and had great reviews about it. 

I became friends with Richard, a middle age Italian-American Leatherman who introduced me to a very interesting group of people. While discussing the dangers of buying pot in the streets, Richard mentioned the “New York Buyer’s Club”. 

"I was part of a group of people that stood up and fought for their well-being. I’m very proud of this memory."

This group was formed by a few HIV positive guys who contacted compassionate pot providers for those who would submit a doctor’s note certifying that the use of pot was medicinal. 

Meetings were held weekly, always at a different apartment of one of the members. We would be notified by phone about the time and location of the next meeting. 

It was a fascinating group of people. All ages, races, sexual orientations… All of them had something in common. A common struggle that was caused by different illnesses. Cancer, HIV/AIDS, MS, Depression, Anxiety, Bipolarity, just to mention a few. 

There was the HIV-positive blind man with his adorable golden retriever service dog, another beloved member was a cancer survivor grandma from Pennsylvania who ALWAYS brought a huge batch of home-made cookies for the members at the meeting. 

Every meeting had people using canes, crutches, wheelchairs, walkers and we would all sit patiently at the meeting, usually in the living room,   until our names were called.  When your name was called you would head to another room to chat with Sam the dealer to get our pot at a good price in a safe place. 

This group lasted several years. We met weekly except for a few occasions when the meetings were shut down for a month or so. 

On one occasion, a stranger showed up and pulled out a gun and robbed the members of all their money and pot. Even after the armed robbery, the spirit of these wonderful people stayed strong and the meetings continued. We would always find a way to get together somewhere, somehow. 

We started issuing ID cards like the ones I’m posting here. With those cards, we could gain access to the meetings. I made many great friends at these meetings. 

I even have an interesting story regarding my “New York Cannabis Care” ID card. I once got in trouble with the police and I was brought to the police station. 

At the police precinct, the officer took my back pack and left the room. I was panic stricken because there was an ounce of pot in my bag. 

After 30 minutes, the same officer came back. In his hand was my “New York Cannabis Care” ID card. He asked me, “Are you sick?” 

I told him that I was HIV-positive. 

He nodded, turned around and walked away. After the whole incident was straightened out I was free to go. I was relieved and rushed home. 

After arriving home, I was astonished to find my ounce of pot WAS STILL IN THE BACK PACK along with my “New York Cannabis Care” ID card. The cops understood my situation, overlooked the possible charges and sent me home with my medicine. 

The marijuana buyers’ club lasted only a few years. We were like nomads without a homeland, wandering around in the desert but we always managed to find a “burning bush”. I’m sure that effort made a huge difference in many lives troubled by illness and pain. 

I remember those faces, those people, those kind eyes looking for relief in a world that was denying them the right to use a plant that would improve significantly the quality of their lives. It was unfair, almost criminal in my opinion. 

I was part of a group of people that stood up and fought for their well-being. I’m very proud of this memory. Very proud of being part of a group of brave people that found a way to win their battle and right to feel better in a moment when NYC was not cooperating with our needs.

It’s been years and I still use marijuana. It has given me the hope needed to deal in a positive way with my HIV. 

I’m currently in a wheelchair, I can’t work anymore, my husband Denis is my care taker. I spend most of my time peacefully at home, writing about my life experiences, and keep in touch with my many friends via Facebook and other social media. 

My life, as I have said before, is not easy but whose life is? I’m a happy man. I’m full of strength and energy, and so far, after at least 30 years with HIV, I’m still here. 

I’m thrilled, indeed honored, to tell the story of a stalwart group of “Weed Warriors” who fought a system that denied them a valuable, therapeutic, natural, safe AND pleasant option regarding their own health and wellbeing. 

Today, I still live in NYC, medical marijuana is finally legal, but I can’t help but feel privileged to have known the pioneers and heroes that led to the final decriminalization of medical marijuana here in New York. 

The current New York marijuana laws still need to be tweaked but I’m confident that will eventually happen. We will carry on. Now, if you will excuse me, it’s time for my medication. 

Wonder where my lighter is?

About the Author

Félix Garmendía

Félix Garmendía

"I was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 60s. Living in Puerto Rico, and growing up there was a bumpy process. I was very aware of my homosexual identity at a very early age, so fighting the stigma was a very intense journey in my native island.

I love art. The Ponce Art Museum was my shelter since I was in high school. As my first job ever, I guided bilingual tours for locals and tourists from all over the world.

In high school, I was introduced to music and theater, after that, I chose to pursue a B.A. in theater at the U.P.R. ( University of Puerto Rico ). Rio Piedras campus.

In college, I discovered many things about myself. My sexual identity became established, my religious beliefs changed dramatically and my awareness of my role in society became the first and biggest challenge of my life. I became a proud gay man, an atheist and an activist. The political climate in Puerto Rico was very far away from recognizing any kind of gay rights so I knew that I needed a community that I could call my own, and be myself. After several years in Puerto Rico, in my twenties, I moved to N.Y.C. to pursue a Master’s Degree in Art Education and Art Criticism at New York University. I decided to stay in Manhattan. Here I found myself. I discovered my passions, causes to fight for, and the strong community that I always dreamed of. I became a passionate man with strong convictions.

After graduation I became a N.Y.C. school teacher. I taught art in the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem and Upper Manhattan for 15 years.

Sometime in my twenties, I was exposed to HIV. I tested HIV-positive and after a serious depression, came out strong and victorious. I became an AIDS activist. My passions in life became the gears that fed energy into my existence.

Very early in my N.Y.C. years, I became a staunch liberal. All my causes were related. I was trying to survive in a world where not everybody cared if I did or not. Politics made clear who cared for me as a human being.

That’s why I’m very vocal about my postings. Not because I want to convince anybody, but I do it for those who, like me, once needed some direction in life. I want to share the "real" me with those friends with similar beliefs or at least respect for my beliefs.

Today, I still live in Manhattan. I’m legally married to my husband Denis Beale and I’m disabled. My life is not easy, I have several health related conditions that are a real challenge these days. This bring me to another one of my causes. From personal experience, I believe in the legalization of cannabis (marijuana). 

I consider myself a loving, compassionate and spiritual person. I have no patience for bigotry, especially the kind of sanctimonious bigotry that wraps itself in prayer and fake compassion.

This is a synopsis of who I am. It would be really helpful to start introducing myself with my favorite warning. Warning: I’m human, far from perfect, passionate about life, the pursue of difficult answers, and the conviction that we are all equal."

Felix has been featured in The Huffington Post’s Queer Voices; see the piece here

You can follow Felix on Facebook here or here, on twitter @PozHeart and also on Instagram, here.