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Dr. Mike Alcalay 1941-2006: Doctor Who Lived with AIDS for Over 20 Years Dies of Leukemia

StoryNovember 20, 2006
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Dr. Mike Alcalay, a longtime AIDS activist, died Saturday in Oakland, California, of leukemia. He was the medical director of a free medical marijuana clinic in Oakland. Alcalay lived with AIDS for over 20 years and was a medical marijuana patient himself. He was also a pediatrician and Vietnam veteran. We speak with his brother Glenn. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to our last segment. Longtime advocate and activist Dr. Mike Alcalay died on Saturday in Oakland, California. He lived with AIDS for more than 20 years. He died of leukemia. He was the Oakland director of the Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, a free marijuana clinic under Proposition 215. That proposition legalizes medical marijuana in California. Dr. Alcalay lived with AIDS, was a medical marijuana patient himself, a pediatrician, as well, a veteran. Mike Alcalay was the founder of the Migrant Farm Workers Clinic in Watsonville, California, and had used his medical skills all over the world, including Britain, Germany, Kenya, Mexico and Nicaragua. This is Dr. Alcalay being interviewed two years ago for the “Stepping Out of Babylon” radio series.

DR. MIKE ALCALAY: I see the medical marijuana movement as part of a much larger movement that actually is global now, and it has to do with economic and social justice. And most of it, you’re not going to hear in the corporate media; it’s all below the radar. But anybody who’s in these various movements, the tentacles are linking together. You know, Pacifica Radio is part of it. Air America is now a part of it. The internet, in great measure, is a part of it. And we’re coming together in ways that the other side doesn’t even want to acknowledge or will do everything to stop. But we’re in the great majority.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Alcalay on the radio several years ago. He died this weekend of leukemia. Glenn Alcalay is Mike’s brother. He’s an anthropologist here in New York. We welcome you Democracy Now!, and condolences on the loss of Mike.

GLENN ALCALAY: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike was a remarkable humanitarian, activist. I co-hosted—I think it was the Sixth International AIDS Conference with Mike when he was—well, in the first years of his diagnosis with AIDS, about, oh, well, many years ago. He lived—he was so healthy for so long, it was remarkable.

GLENN ALCALAY: Yeah, he was one of those medical textbook cases of a person living with AIDS. And he was actually in it from the very beginning. He was infected in 1986 and went through a lot of different trials. Every type of trial, he was involved with. There was one famous one in Stanford. He used to commute down to Stanford twice a week for those trials, and then that eventually led to AZT, actually, those trials. And so, he’s one of the survivor—had been a survivor living with AIDS.

AMY GOODMAN: He was a remarkable communicator, also was the producer of the radio program AIDS in Focus for a number of years. Briefly summarize Mike’s life for our listeners and viewers who didn’t know him. For anyone who didn’t know him, it’s a loss.

GLENN ALCALAY: Well, he was an incredible person. I’m a little biased here, my older brother. He, after med school, went into the Army. That was the deal. He had to spend a year in Vietnam, so he was a captain and then eventually a major. Then he came back, lived in the Bay Area and started a health clinic, as you mentioned, in Watsonville.

And he actually had the idea of bringing down doctors and nurses to volunteer with the farm workers, the migrant farm workers in California. And he saw that the farm workers, though they were invisible, they were illegal, and—but their children’s illnesses were not invisible. So he had an idea to set up in an old warehouse a clinic, exam tables, actually took a look at the children of the farm workers. That eventually turned into a very large clinic in Watsonville.

AMY GOODMAN: And then his activism, pediatrician—how did he get into radio?

GLENN ALCALAY: That’s a good question. He was always interested in video, film, media, radio. It was actually quite natural.

AMY GOODMAN: And the whole Cannibis Buyers’ Club?

GLENN ALCALAY: Yes. He got involved with that about 12, 13 years ago or so, actually grew sensimilla in his backyard in his Oakland home and distributed it for free. Had written over a thousand prescriptions, medical marijuana prescriptions, in California, which were legal. So then he became the medical director for the Oakland Cannabis Cooperative.

AMY GOODMAN: And was a spokesperson for that right to the end of his days.

GLENN ALCALAY: Yes, indeed.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s survived by his two grown-up twin sons?


AMY GOODMAN: And you and his greater community, family.


AMY GOODMAN: What did Mike want to be remembered for?

GLENN ALCALAY: That’s a really good question. I think just all the people’s lives that he touched. He—

AMY GOODMAN: He went down to New Orleans in January.

GLENN ALCALAY: He was in New Orleans in January. He believes that’s where he contracted the leukemia, erythroleukemia, a very rare, fast-spreading leukemia. And the two causes of that particular leukemia are radiation and benzene. He’s convinced that he was exposed to benzene while he was covering a story in New Orleans in January. And then, on top of his AIDS, his already compromised immune system, probably exacerbated the leukemia.

AMY GOODMAN: The funeral?

GLENN ALCALAY: There’s going to be a memorial in January. And anybody who knew Michael in the Bay Area, please contact KPFA, the local station, Pacifica station, in Berkeley. They will have all the details. Sometime in—we haven’t set the exact date yet, but in January.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Glenn, for joining us, you who also have been a longtime activist around the issue of nuclear testing in the South Pacific, brought to the attention of Americans what was happening there with the French nuclear testing. And thank you for your work, as well.

GLENN ALCALAY: Thank you very much, Amy.

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