By Christopher Heredia

San Francisco Chronicle 22 Sept. 2000

San Francisco -- A fledgling AIDS organization is urging people with HIV and AIDS to boycott a San Francisco medical marijuana dispensary as part of a broader attempt to isolate ACT-UP/San Francisco, which claims the epidemic is over.

Standing on the steps of San Francisco City Hall yesterday, members of the new group condemned ACT-UP/San Francisco for what it called a campaign of intimidation, half-truths and assaults against mainstream AIDS groups and public health officials.

The new group, dubbed AIDS Activists Against Violence and Lies, announced a boycott against ACT-UP/San Francisco's medicinal marijuana dispensary and has taken out ads in the gay press urging people to denounce the group's tactics.

The dispensary provides much of ACT-UP/San Francisco's income, and members of the new group hope the boycott will cripple the dissident organization.

"Today, in an unprecedented show of unity, we have over 200 community members saying enough is enough," said Hank Wilson, a member of the new group.

ACT-UP/San Francisco has long argued that HIV does not cause AIDS and that the drugs used to keep the virus in check are poisons that do far more harm than good.

But the group's aggressive tactics -- members have been accused of attacking city officials and other AIDS activists -- have outraged many in the community.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, while not a part of the new group, yesterday called ACT-UP/San Francisco's members "thugs."

ACT-UP/San Francisco remains unrepentant.

"The issue is not our tactics; it's our message that HIV does not cause AIDS and the drugs they are pushing are costing countless lives," said David Pasquarelli, a member who tested positive for HIV in 1995 and avoids the drugs and leads a healthy life. "It hasn't impacted our business one bit."

Critics argue that ACT-UP/San Francisco is endangering lives.

"(Their message) is threatening this city's ability to provide support services and medical care for people with HIV," said Rebecca Hensler, who helped found ACT-UP/San Francisco in 1988 and left in 1994 after the current leaders took over. "The community has had enough."

San Francisco city officials have long ignored the group's tactics but say they can no longer tolerate them.

The district attorney's office is pursuing battery charges stemming from an August demonstration in which Dr. Mitchell Katz, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, was pelted with handbills and sprayed with Silly String.

And some ACT-UP/San Francisco members will be tried next month for a separate assault on several employees of the AIDS group Project Inform.

Katz said ACT-UP/San Francisco has fomented such terror that people with HIV and AIDS are skipping meetings where new information on the prevention and treatment of the disease is discussed.

"A disruption in the name of free speech is one thing," said Katz, who was followed at Safeway one day recently by a member of ACT-UP/San Francisco who shouted epithets at him. "An assault on a public official whose back is turned is a different thing. Next time it could be a rock. Their behavior to me suggests to me they would stop at nothing.

"Their whole purpose is to intimidate and make it uncomfortable for people who are willing to speak about HIV and AIDS," Katz said. "Part of my job is to educate; my job has become harder because of them. Aside from the toll of being called murderer in your face, I can't get my work done."

ACT-UP's radical tactics are nothing new. What has changed is the group's members and their targets.

ACT-UP -- an acronym for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power -- gained notoriety in the late 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, by demanding lower drug prices and more research for a cure.

ACT-UP/San Francisco split from ACT-UP in 1990. Those who accepted the scientific evidence that HIV causes AIDS formed ACT/UP Golden Gate, now Survive AIDS.

The others organized ACT-UP/San Francisco, which tries to dissuade people from taking the HIV test and maintains that AIDS drugs are poison. The group publishes neon-colored flyers attacking "Genocide from the AIDS Office." It supports itself financially by selling medicinal marijuana to people with HIV and AIDS out of a Market Street dispensary.

The group has gotten help from East Bay venture capitalist Robert Leppo, a medicinal marijuana proponent and financial supporter of controversial University of California at Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg, who maintains that HIV is not the cause of AIDS.

Since 1994, ACT-UP/San Francisco has been led by a handful of HIV-positive activists who say they've been living healthy lives without medication.

Ammiano, who is gay, said yesterday that he supports the efforts of AIDS Activists Against Violence and Lies.

"It's time to get proactive against these thugs," Ammiano said. "Dissent is great. But there's a difference between dissent and thuggery."

"It's one thing to...say you want accountability and sunshine on how the (San Francisco) AIDS Foundation is spending money. It's another thing to say don't give any money to AIDS prevention. That's criminal. This is a life and death issue."