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Activism is the Best Medicine

A Profile of Richard Eastman, Dedicated Activist and Survivor

February 2000

Richard Eastman wears the medals of a dedicated activist. His clothes are adorned with buttons proclaiming causes he supports and leads.

Now in his late 40s, Eastman has been living with AIDS for many years. Although many of his friends were dying, Eastman didn't get tested for HIV until 1994, when he suffered a life-threatening bout with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). If he survived, he vowed then, he would speak out on behalf of others to the fullest extent possible.

Doctors told him that if he had waited one more day to go to the emergency room to be treated for PCP, he would not have survived. When he was released from the hospital, he became a client of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. While previously wishing not to be associated with AIDS, after his illness, he says "I got over caring what people thought."

In 1995, Eastman participated in an AHF-run study of the drug Norvir. Because his T-cell count dropped to 22 while he was on the study, Eastman assumed that he was taking a placebo. When Norvir became available to him on an open-label basis, Eastman's T-cell count quadrupled. A month later, in February 1996, his T-cells soared to 145.


Full-Time Activism

Before enrolling in the Norvir study, Eastman was not willing to take AZT and chose to use only Bactrim to prevent another bout with pneumonia. But he had promised Charles Farthing, M.D., the medical director of AHF, that if he saw positive results from any of the new generation of drugs, he would be willing to speak on their behalf.

Soon he had made good on his pledge, becoming a "poster boy" for the AHF "Treatment = Life" campaign, a motto that had inspired him to become an activist. As a result, he was interviewed by Fox Television, and was viewed by millions as representing successful antiretroviral therapy.

Yet despite his improved vitality and even though Eastman has maintained his membership in Local 709 of the Motion Picture Costumers Union over the years, he has not returned to work as a motion picture and television dresser. "I just sort of became a full-time activist," Eastman explains.

Travels for a Cause

One of Eastman's earliest victories as an activist was in the '70s, when he became involved in the battle to preserve the Hollywood sign. Over time, Eastman has joined other causes including support for increased spending for housing for people with HIV/AIDS and improving access to protease inhibitors.

"I am speaking out for those who can't," says Eastman. "I only get to attend meetings and travel because of the kindness of patients and other supporters. I live on SSI, so I don't have any money, but at least I'm helping people and changing history."

In the past several years, Eastman has attended two international AIDS Conferences in Europe, once representing the Los Angeles chapter of Being Alive. He has traveled to Washington, D.C. to join the AIDS Watch lobby efforts, and has participated in every AIDS Lobby Day in Sacramento.

Advocacy for Smokeable Medicine

Eastman suffered side effects from protease inhibitors, including nausea, diarrhea and weight loss. Armed with a note from his doctor stating he needed an appetite stimulant, Eastman was introduced to medicinal marijuana in 1995 at the San Francisco cannabis club.

The first time Eastman smoked marijuana he started getting hungry 45 minutes later. He has been using marijuana ever since. Today, he smokes one or two marijuana cigarettes daily and weighs 170 pounds, up from about 130 when he became ill with PCP. He has managed to keep his weight up even while suffering a year-long bout of diarrhea.

Eastman stated that the benefits of medicinal marijuana include relief from nausea caused by chemotherapy, easing neuropathy and symptoms of multiple sclerosis, side effects of AIDS drugs, and reducing pressure on the eye caused by glaucoma. The active ingredients of marijuana that ease these symptoms are cannabinoids, of which 60 to 70 percent are present in smokeable marijuana.

Having discovered the beneficial effects of medicinal marijuana, he began to speak out for legalization of the drug for medicinal purposes. A major victory was won in California in November 1996, when Prop. 215, permitting the medical use of marijuana, passed by a half-million votes.

Eastman also helped organize the first San Francisco march to keep medicinal marijuana clubs open. He also attended California Attorney General Lockyear's task force meetings on medicinal marijuana, as the only AIDS patient invited.

He knew he couldn't afford to travel regularly to Northern California, so he decided to work with Scott Imler to open a club in Los Angeles, which he represented for the first two years as vice president.

The Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center now operates out of a site in West Hollywood. Membership to the center is limited to those who can provide a letter from their physician, which is verified by the club.

"We opened these clubs because the federal government provides this medicine only to eight people in the entire country," says Eastman. "We estimate between 500,000 and 1 million people use medicinal marijuana. Until things change, this is the best solution."

The clubs have not only grown and supplied the drug, but have also successfully defended patients under the provisions of Prop. 215. Eastman noted that he himself has benefitted from the local club's compassionate use program that provides medicinal marijuana free of charge to those who cannot afford it.

Clubs Grow

Clubs have since opened in several states, and six states have followed California's lead by passing laws permitting medicinal use of marijuana. Some clubs, however, have been closed by authorities for growing too many plants or failing to verify that members are patients.

The L.A. club currently estimates their total clientele at 1,000 members. After one year of operation, a Santa Monica club Eastman recently helped to open currently has 50 members, even though it still lacks a permanent site for services. Both clubs are scrupulous about membership qualification and issue identification cards to their members.

Eastman noted the clubs are only a stop-gap measure. "We don't want to live in fear of arrest by the federal government; we want to be able to get this from our pharmacies."

Although no one has been able to duplicate the effects of smoking marijuana, the government is currently researching other methods to take the drug, such as vaporizers and suppositories. Eastman noted that clubs provide edible forms of marijuana, such as brownies, for members who are unable to smoke. He also indicated that there is no evidence linking marijuana smoking to lung cancer. Eastman is particularly perturbed that marijuana had been a legal medicine until 1937, "Why do we have to go back to fight for something that was already a legal drug?"

In spite of support from law enforcement officials, including L.A. County Sherriff Lee Baca, Gov. Gray Davis blocked a bill that would have implemented Prop. 215.

As a result, no clear standards exist for identifying legal use or distribution of the drug, and MediCal cannot pay for it.

At the federal level, Eastman stated that drug czar Barry McCaffrey doesn't seem to understand (or even want to understand) the medicinal marijuana issue.

"[McCaffrey] is way, way out," says Eastman. "When we passed the medicinal marijuana measures in 1996, I thought it would be over. But it's not."

Meeting VIPs

Last November, Eastman attended a fund-raiser with President Clinton, where Eastman had a moment to speak about the issue with the President. According to Eastman, they exchanged words about AIDS czar Sandra Thurman. Eastman credits the Clinton administration for keeping cannabis clubs open. "They could close them all in a minute," Eastman says, "but they don't because we are their experiment to see how it works."

A month later, Eastman was able to speak with Attorney General Janet Reno and give her a copy of "Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Base Science," which was prepared by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. The study concluded that medicinal marijuana possesses beneficial qualities. "I hope Ms. Reno will read it," Eastman says.

Eastman hopes that the Millennium Medical Marijuana March on April 29 in Clinton and Reno's city will remind the administration of the importance of the medicinal marijuana issue. (See "Medicine March: Demonstration in Washington, D.C. to Raise Awareness of Medicinal Marijuana" in this issue.)

As long as he remains healthy, Eastman says he will continue to be an activist.

"Right now my health is good, and I have been feeling well for the last five years," Eastmans says. "But five years from now, I don't know how I'll be feeling."

His T-cells are at 358, and his viral load is barely detectable. He no longer takes protease inhibitors, but uses Combivir, Ziagen and Bactrim.

"I don't feel like I have HIV anymore, but I play it safe," he says.

Medicinal marijuana remains at the top of his agenda, and he hopes that the march on April 29 will raise awareness of the issue to a historic level, like past marches on the nation's capital.

"I'm going to fight to the end," Eastman promises. "If I have to, I'm going to take this issue to the Supreme Court. Hopefully, in my lifetime, I'll see medicinal marijuana reclassified as a medicine."

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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