By John Sajo
Dennis Peron, the father of medical marijuana, died on January 27, 2018, in San Francisco.
Dennis Peron was a force of nature who made medical marijuana a political issue. He spoke truth to power and changed the world by flagrantly ignoring the laws prohibiting marijuana, openly giving and selling cannabis to thousands of people suffering from AIDS and other diseases. At the same time, he started the political process that has now legalized medical marijuana in over 30 states. He was one of the first cannabis philanthropists, doing good with wealth generated from marijuana.
Dennis grew up on Long Island, joined the Air Force, and served a tour in Viet Nam. He returned to San Francisco and settled in the Castro district where he became a flamboyant cannabis merchant. I had read about the Island restaurant that Dennis operated in San Francisco, with brisk cannabis sales upstairs, but never got to visit.
I met Dennis at a NORML conference in Washington, DC, in 1982. I began visiting him in San Francisco, where we brainstormed about legalization. There we so few marijuana activists back then, we all knew each other and traveled the country to see each other looking for ideas and moral support.
Dennis’ place was always busy. People would come from secret farms all over California and beyond with their flower. I learned a lot from all the growers by comparing notes.
All different kinds of people would stop by to pick up weed: doctors, lawyers, artists, poets and visionaries. Many were gay men suffering from AIDS and it was clear that cannabis providedgreat relief during a terrifying time. Lots of people were also there who had come to San Francisco looking for cultural, sexual, and political freedom.
I enjoyed visiting Dennis. It was just unbelievably fun. He was very charismatic and loving. He wasn’t just buying and selling weed. He created a culture of creativity, compassion, and fellowship. People wanted to be part of it.
Dennis cut his teeth in local San Francisco politics working with Harvey Milk, helping him get elected in 1977 as the first openly gay man to hold office in California. Less than a year later Milk was assassinated, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. (Pictured below with Milk)
— Cleve Jones (@CleveJones1) January 28, 2018
From 1982–1986, a ragtag group of Oregonians was trying to legalize personal possession and cultivation of marijuana. In 1985, Dennis came to Portland with his partner Jonathan West to help. They camped in my backyard and went out all day collecting signatures. Jack Herer and his kids also moved up from California for that campaign. Eventually, we qualified the Oregon marijuana initiative—Measure 5—for the ballot. If it had passed, it would have legalized the personal possession and cultivation of unlimited marijuana for personal use, but it got crushed when only 26.3% voted yes.
That loss was sobering but useful. We all learned a lot about petitioning, campaigns, and hard attitudes about marijuana. We had to fight hard just for the right to petition about marijuana and we were already talking about medical marijuana and noticed that people were more receptive to that than to an adult’s right to get high.
Back in San Francisco, the AIDS crisis was escalating, and Dennis was in the middle of it. Many of his friends, and his partner Jonathan, had the disease. Dennis was becoming more and more outspoken about cannabis helping these patients. The volume of traffic was becoming too much at his house, so Dennis moved the business to an apartment a few blocks away. He sent out press releases, and the media showed up at his announcement of opening the San Francisco Buyers Club.
The media stories brought in many more customers. The new “club” had a more structured environment, including a process where patients brought a letter from a doctor to join. This was the first of many instances where Dennis took a simple idea and made it much bigger by notifying the media.
In 2018, opening a medical marijuana dispensary is not even news, but when Dennis opened in the early 1990s it was really big news. Marijuana possession and sales were illegal under both state and federal law, yet Dennis announced to the media that he was doing both.
Loudly opening a marijuana dispensary in the middle of the war on drugs took courage and vision. Dennis Peron had been to war, had seen his political mentor assassinated, and was watching his friends die of AIDS. He stepped up, ignored the law, and got cannabis to patients.
Dennis Peron was the right man at the right time with the right idea. He had incredible courage and clarity of vision. He had been battling police for years and had seen brutality up close. Police shot him in the leg during one raid and he served time for marijuana. Experiences like that make most people bitter and hard, but Dennis Peron rose above his own pain with wisdom and love. He was a charismatic visionary who was willing to put his life on the line for what he knew was right.
At the same time he pushed pot, he pushed a political agenda to legalize. He wrote a local San Francisco initiative, Proposition P (www.marijuanalibrary.org/Proposition_P_Nov_1991.html), which called for returning hemp medicinal preparations to the list of available medicines and not punishing doctors for prescribing it. I petitioned with Dennis for Prop P in front of San Francisco City Hall. He had organized an event with vendors and speakers. Country Joe McDonald played a few songs. We collected lots of signatures. He needed around 15,000, which he got, and put the measure on the city ballot. On November 2, 1991, Prop P passed with 80% of the vote. This was the first victory in an election for the movement to legalize marijuana. The language was symbolic and unenforceable but winning is necessary and Dennis made it happen that day.
Next, Dennis turned the symbolic Prop P victory into tangible policy by pushing Resolution 141–92 which was adopted on August 28, 1992, by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Dennis worked with Supervisor Terence Hallinan and others to create this resolution, which made arresting and prosecuting people for possession or cultivation of marijuana the lowest police priority. It also declared that a doctor’s letter was prima facie evidence of medical use. This was the beginning of the legal concept that led to Oregon patients qualifying for medical marijuana by obtaining a doctor’s signature. Dennis had the idea that a doctor’s signature could exempt a citizen from laws we were not yet able to change. Twenty-five years later, Dennis’ idea has transformed the lives of millions of Americans, in all 50 states.
The new San Francisco policy gave Dennis the breathing room to expand the buyers club and its services. First Dennis moved the club to a much larger space on Church Street. This space was more of a social club where lots of people could hang out. A few years later the club moved into a huge five-story building on Market Street.
The San Francisco Buyers Club on Market Street was a singular achievement. It probably remains the largest retail establishment selling cannabis that has ever existed on the planet. At its peak, cannabis flower was coming in by the truckload and there were garbage bags filled with cash. Hundreds of patients would be there at any given time. It was based on compassion illuminating commerce, with art and culture to warm our hearts. It was cannabis commerce before rules and regulation separated enjoying cannabis from buying and selling it. I am still dreaming that 22 years later we can somehow find again that magic that Dennis was able to create in the middle of the War on Drugs.
California’s Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act, was launched out of the club after then Governor Pete Wilson vetoed bills legalizing medical marijuana passed by the California Legislature. The initiative included language allowing doctors to recommend marijuana for “any condition” and allowed home growing. The language was broad enough to allow collectives that sold to patients to flourish. The initiative included the concept of also exempting from arrest caregivers who were helping patients with medical marijuana —an idea that later expanded into the concept of a licensed medical grower in Oregon.
The campaign began with volunteer petitioners working out of the Market Street club, but an audit of the signatures showed that not nearly enough were valid. It looked like the initiative might fail. Activists urged Ethan Nadelmann, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), to convince wealthy philanthropists George Soros, Peter Lewis, and John Sperling to contribute the millions of dollars it would take to win a California ballot measure. A call was put out for more petitioners. The new funding allowed hiring plenty of petitioners and the measure received enough signatures to eventually qualify for the ballot.
Dennis Peron and his friends had started an initiative that was impossible to ignore. NORML didn’t have resources to help but the funders that Nadelmann put together did. By starting the initiative and making it too big to fail, Dennis managed to get language passed that went far beyond what the funders or DPA or any existing organization would propose themselves. Thank God for that!
When Prop 215 passed in November 1996, it legalized medical marijuana. This was the first time the voters of any state had voted to reform marijuana laws. After decades of seemingly unending protesting and petitioning, we had finally made a crack in the dam of prohibition.
Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and other states soon followed with funding, but also control now coming from the billionaires. Professional campaign strategists took over. Polling and compromise began dictating decisions about exactly what reformers proposed. Dennis Peron’s visionary approach was replaced with more pragmatic political tactics.
Millions of people with minor ailments got doctor’s notes that allowed them to buy retail marijuana. At one point, Dennis Peron declared, “All use is medical” which became very controversial. There is so much context embedded in this simple, and now very popular, phrase; I like to ponder it again every few years.
Fourteen years of legal medical marijuana paved the way for broader legalization. Washington and Colorado passed legalization initiatives in 2012. The Washington law did not even allow home growing and most observers reflect that it destroyed the barely regulated system of medical dispensaries that had emerged. When Prop 64, legalizing marijuana, appeared on the November 2016 California ballot, Dennis opposed it. He was concerned that it would hurt patients and the small farmers who provided for them. This divided the marijuana community that had been united behind Prop 215 but legislators and voters smelled money and Prop 64 passed.
The path that legalization has taken is deeply troubling to most of the remaining OG activists who were part of the early efforts. The same day I learned of Dennis’ death, I learned that the number of patients registered under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program dropped from 77,000 to 50,000 between 2015 to 2017 as overregulation drove patients and medical growers back underground. Concern for patients has been lost amid concern for profit and tax revenue. Layer upon layer of changing laws and regulations are being created that give corporations and wealthier businesses an advantage over mom-and-pops and small farmers.
I know that Dennis was unhappy with all this. About a week before his death, Angel Raich, a patient who fought her case all the way to the US Supreme Court, visited Dennis and he asked her to keep fighting for patients. I know many of us are struggling to know how. When the path forward becomes obscured by smoke, I try ask, “What would Dennis do?” I hope that we can all find the clear vision, the warm heart and the ferocious courage that drove Dennis to do so much for all of us.
Michael Grafton, posting on Dennis’ Facebook page said it well, “Take heart and gain strength when you are personally challenged, and realize the power of a clear heart and a resilient spirit. Dennis indeed changed the world. He did it with love. He never gave up. Be like Dennis”
Special thanks to John Sajo of Oregon for writing this remembrance of Dennis Peron. Feature image by Malcolm MacKinnon.
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