Dennis Peron, the man known as “the father of medical marijuana,” died over the weekend in a San Francisco hospital. He was 72. The activist is known for his five decades of dedication to the cannabis movement, having almost single-handedly created, funded and organized the campaign for America’s first medical marijuana law.
I first met Dennis Peron in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro District in 1993, when he was running the only aboveground cannabis retail outlet in the United States, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.
I’d suffered chronic, disabling pain for two years due to a failed back surgery, and drove several hundred miles to San Fran once a month to purchase an ounce or two of top-shelf, powerful, old-school California weed from Peron’s store.
As I embarked on my writing career, Peron was one of the first people I wrote about, and he sure was newsworthy. His Castro cannabis shop was totally, frighteningly illegal, and Peron had already been raided in 1977 and in subsequent years for running cannabis retail markets and marijuana munchie restaurants in the Bay Area, so he was risking serious prison time.
But Peron told me that getting busted is to be expected when you battle for rights, dignity and justice. He openly sold marijuana without apologies or excuses, telling the fascinated throng of gathering media that medical marijuana is safer and more useful than most medicines, that he would never obey marijuana laws, no matter how many times he was thrown in jail.
When supposedly liberal people told Peron they could “accept” medical marijuana use but were opposed to recreational cannabis, he argued that someone experiencing the euphoria, sensual-visual-aural enhancement, and the general excitement associated with a recreational high was also getting medicinal effects that cure illness, lift mood, and create an overall happier person.
“All use is medical,” was one of his favorite sayings.
From The Vietnam War To The Drug War
In 1968, Peron was sent to fight in Vietnam as a closeted gay Italian-American from Long Island who had no particular interest in marijuana.
While serving in the Air Force in Vietnam, one of Peron’s jobs was to place the bodies of dead young American soldiers into body bags. The horrors of war traumatized him like it did many soldiers and, like many soldiers, he medicated with marijuana.
Having seen firsthand how Southeast Asian cannabis kept American soldiers sane in the torrid war zones they’d been drafted to, Peron’s respect for US marijuana laws was permanently eroded, and he vowed to overturn the legislation.
After he returned to the US from Vietnam (smuggling with him two pounds of Southeast Asian cannabis), Peron experienced America as a gay veteran at a time when HIV-AIDS was just beginning to decimate the fringes of the gay community, and the gay rights movement had achieved no political success.
LGBTQ people still experienced pervasive prejudice and discrimination. Seeking safe haven, Peron settled in gay-friendly San Francisco, where he became further radicalized about the war on drugs and other societal problems.
At the time, few people understood or even knew about HIV-AIDS, and there were no drugs that could hold it off. In the early 1980s, Jonathan West, the man Peron was in love with, was diagnosed with HIV-AIDS, while Peron tested negative. Police raided the couple’s apartment, busted them, stole the sick man’s medical marijuana.
Peron says his lover was traumatized by the arrest, faltered without adequate medical support or marijuana to alleviate his pain, and died in 1990. He blamed police for his lover’s death, and renewed his vow to “break the back of the drug warriors.”
The police, on orders from marijuana-hating, homophobic politicians, vowed to break the back of Peron’s marijuana insurgency.
Despite being repeatedly busted for possession and trafficking of marijuana, and even though he took a police bullet that shattered his femur during a marijuana raid — “they were trying to kill me” — Peron continued selling hundreds of pounds of marijuana per month in small retail amounts.
Using Pot Money To Make Pot Legal
Peron wasn’t a greedy pot dealer using marijuana to get rich and live a lavish lifestyle. He was the opposite of that. He was like a Mother Theresa figure, an advocate of marijuana and policy reform, spending his profits on community projects, sick and dying indigent individuals, and marijuana legalization campaigns.
“It wasn’t a cure. But it made people feel better,” he insisted of cannabis usage.
Peron was active in the San Francisco political scene. He used guerrilla theater and revolutionary direct-action tactics to get his message out, influenced by his involvement with Haight-Ashbury hippies and Yippies (Youth International Party) during the 1970s and ’80s youth revolution.
By 1994, Peron was determined to hack the system by using his weed money to pay for a medical marijuana ballot initiative to be placed on the 1996 California ballot.
The marijuana community laughed at him and said it couldn’t be done. The California and national political establishments did everything they could to prevent the initiative from appearing on the ballot. They failed. Peron got the million signatures needed to place the initiative on the ballot.
It was called Proposition 215, and unlike Proposition 64 some 20 years later, Prop. 215 was short and sweet — if you could get a doctor’s recommendation stating your need for medical marijuana, police weren’t allowed to bust you for growing your own medicine. It was wonderfully simple, a revolutionary challenge to California law and federal marijuana prohibition.
After it qualified for voter consideration, then-President Bill Clinton, former presidents, senators, attorneys general, and many other marijuana haters roamed California, spending millions of advertising dollars trying to convince voters not to vote for Prop. 215.
California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and many other politicians lied to Californians by claiming marijuana was the devil’s weed and that the state wouldn’t survive cannabis legalization. At the time, Feinstein voiced her concern that “Proposition 64 will allow marijuana smoking ads in prime time, and on [television] programs with millions of children and teenage viewers.”
The federal government threatened to cut off millions of dollars in federal funding for California if Prop. 215 passed. There were dire predictions of impending doom uttered by leading American politicians and pundits. They claimed Prop. 215 would lead to the fall of civilization, rampant criminality, tens of thousands of addicts, and addicted babies smoking joints.
In contrast to the clumsy, dishonest anti-Prop. 215 campaign, Peron wooed California voters with a media-savvy, insurgent, guerrilla-style political campaign.
He presented sick and dying patients who gave heartrending, compelling media interviews about how medical marijuana was the only drug that helped them, and how Peron himself had saved their lives by providing free cannabis, medical assistance, food and shelter, and emotional support.
Peron and his cadre of campaigners stunned the prohibitionist establishment when Prop. 215 was approved in November 1996, with a 57 percent majority vote — the first medical marijuana law ever passed by voters. It’s now seen as the acknowledged precursor for all the marijuana legalization that’s taken place since then.
Police Who Break The Law
Peron knew there was more work to be done after Prop. 215 passed. He saw police, prosecutors and anti-marijuana lobbyists spending taxpayer money trying to get Prop. 215 nullified by appealing to federal cannabis prohibition and federal courts.
Police refused to follow Prop. 215 guidelines, busting growers who were Prop. 215-compliant in a bid to keep on enforcing the old marijuana laws and destroy Prop. 215.
Peron stepped up his fight, opening a five-story marijuana retail and activism cannabis club on Market Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District.
One whole floor of his club was a free hospice for sick, dying and medical marijuana patients in need. In the basement, Peron ran an indoor marijuana grow op. On other floors were Amsterdam-style marijuana bars and discos. Peron’s club was the place to be, combining help for the sick and dying with the hippest entertainment, music, improvisational theater, comedians — and the finest cannabis.
At a time when marijuana establishments were illegal almost everywhere in the world except for the Netherlands, Peron’s Market Street cannabis club was a resounding, world-famous success.
At its peak, Peron’s club had 11,000 members and was retailing hundreds of pounds of high-quality, California-grown bud every month.
I’d hang out in Peron’s upstairs office watching a steady stream of young men from Northern California line up in front of him, carrying duffel bags and suitcases packed with marijuana.
He’d reach into their containers, pull buds out, break them apart, smell them, examine them with a magnifying glass, roll a joint, take a couple of hits, grade the weed, make a cash offer, and send the skilled grower back to the Emerald Triangle with a fatter wallet than when they’d arrived.
But unskilled growers got a different message. When their buds had mold, mildew, dirt, weren’t dried and cured properly, or were otherwise defective, Peron would graciously advise them on how to become a better grower, promising to reward them if they came back to him with a much-improved cannabis crop.
He made many inept growers skilled, and many skilled growers rich, and gave away hundreds of pounds of marijuana every month to patients who couldn’t afford to buy it.
Peron is one of those rare individuals who can intake any amount of cannabis and still function like a champ.
When he was inspecting weed, he’d inhale hits from 5–10 joints per hour, for several hours in a row. And yet he never got sloppy, never forgot things, and was always sharp and alert as he ran his illegal weed empire.
We in the cannabis community watched him give nonstop press interviews and several campaign speeches a day, while also running his vast illegal marijuana club, dressed in business attire, holding his little dog under his arm, the only person in America so openly defying cannabis prohibition.
Forced Out On 4-20
No doubt about it, Peron’s aboveground, thriving, famous, glittering cannabis club and medical marijuana hospice was a perfect rebuke to drug warriors, especially California’s Republican and marijuana-hating then-Attorney General Dan Lungren.
Lungren was running for governor; Peron put himself into the governor’s race, partially to spite Lungren. But Peron’s candidacy was not seen as a joke.
He picked up endorsements and was viewed by many Californians as a lovable, courageous, dashing marijuana hero. Lungren went ballistic about Peron, ordering a raid of Peron’s Market Street cannabis club in 1998. Tipped off ahead of time by sympathetic government insiders, Peron gathered hundreds of pro-pot supporters, including sick and dying medical marijuana patients, to act as a passive human shield against police invasion.
After several days of tense standoffs and clouds of marijuana smoke wafting from the crowd over to the lines of police officers gathered outside the club, some cops became visibly stoned out of their minds.
Think worldwide media attention, police feints, and hundreds of pounds more pot being sold, and guess what day the police choose to shut Peron down forever? April 20. That’s right: 4-20.
But by that time, Peron had already cleaned out his cannabis products and his plants. He left the club triumphantly, carrying a cannabis plant under one arm and his cute little dog under the other.
Police officers stood there, their mouths gaping as Peron strutted by, smoking a joint, the huge crowd applauding and throwing ticker tape.
Peron wasn’t even arrested, merely “evicted.” He was too popular and powerful to be jailed.
Check out the below video biography and interview with Peron:
A Bad Day For Chopper Cops
Most people would have been satisfied that they’d done enough for the cause, taken the money and retired. And Prop. 215 and the Market Street club were indeed the high points of Peron’s political career.
But he wasn’t done yet. Peron had taken over a farmstead in rural Lake County near the Mendocino National Forest, about two hours north of San Francisco. There, he and a crew of activists lobbied to defend Prop. 215 from police and political attack. Sick and dying patients happily worked the land and planted a gargantuan outdoor marijuana farm.
Of course, there were plenty of Prop. 215 outdoor marijuana farms in Northern California at the time, especially in the state’s famed Emerald Triangle. But those were clandestine farms, hidden away under trees or in remote greenhouses.
In contrast, Peron’s outdoor marijuana grow featured row after row of lush, rare, thriving cannabis plants — plush purples, towering sativas, dark-green Kush and Afghanica, short and blueish indicas, Colombian Gold, California Orange, Oaxacan, Panama Red — growing in plain view of the road and any aerial surveillance the police attempted.
And attempt they did. One evening, police flew a surveillance helicopter that repeatedly buzzed over the farm. Peron and his compatriots gathered in the garden, worried that the chopper was a precursor to a full-on boots-on-the-ground raid.
Then, on one of the infernal flying machine’s looping passes behind the lake on Peron’s property (the one he used to irrigate his cannabis plants), the cop chopper stalled midair — and crashed.
Peron and his people watched from afar as a caravan of unmarked, “spooky-looking” government vehicles quickly arrived on the scene, removed the injured or dead occupants of the downed chopper, dismantled and removed the charred and twisted machinery, sanitized the crash site, and sped off into the night.
No government official admitted there was a crash there, or explained which police agencies were involved. Peron suspected it was the DEA. Whatever the case, harvest time came, and it was a glorious bumper crop, with farm baskets used as sorting bins for huge piles of buds of all colors, scents, shapes and sizes.
I still remember the green-tinted pot brownies Peron and his clan made from cannabutter created from some of that mountainous outdoor marijuana harvest.
I made the mistake of eating two delicious brownies, and woke up nearly 24 hours later, lying in mud on the shore of Peron’s lake, unaware at first of who I was or how I’d gotten there.
By the early 2000s, Peron had retired from daily cannabis activism and opened the Castro Castle, a marijuana bed and breakfast in San Francisco. He’s been a strong opponent of legislative and ballot measure changes to Prop. 215, including Prop. 64.
Peron defines a fair marijuana law as one that lets individuals grow as much cannabis as they want, that treats cannabis as any other plant is treated, with no government interference in how the plant is grown, used, transferred, sold.
He also sees that kind of law as the least complicated, with little or no bureaucracy, rulemaking, or cannabis taxes.
Now aged in his 70s, Peron has serious health problems, having suffered a stroke in 2010, and of course he uses medical marijuana to help him through each day.
It can’t be overstated that if it weren’t for Dennis Peron, we wouldn’t have the legalized marijuana landscape we have today.
Peron had been suffering serious health problems, including lung cancer and a stroke in 2010, and the cannabis community mourns his passing. It can accurately be stated that if it weren’t for Dennis Peron, we wouldn’t have the legalized marijuana landscape we have today.