Profile: Dennis Peron, Patient Activist

This year, 4/20 lasts for the whole month of April. To commemorate the cannabis holiday, we will be focusing on courageous pioneers and change-makers who helped pave the way for modern society’s acceptance of cannabis.

Full story after the jump.

Dennis Peron is touted as the “Father of Medical Marijuana,” and for good reason. Before he was advocating for patient access to clean cannabis, Peron served in the Air Force during the Vietnam war, where he witnessed death and devastation in droves. After playing his part in that seemingly endless war, he was convinced that peace was the only way forward. Luckily, his first stop after returning from Vietnam in the 1960s was San Francisco, where the hippie movement was a large part of the city culture. 

Coming to San Francisco

In the city, Peron became an active Yippie, a member of the Youth International Party, which was a radical group actively involved in preserving free speech and ending war in the 1960s. Through his involvement with the group, he wasn’t only able to promote peace but he became entrenched in the cannabis movement. He believed that the calming nature of the plant and the ritual of sharing it while smoking could be a powerful and peaceful way to end the war and frequently hosted “smoke-ins.”

In the 70s and 80s, Peron was arrested multiple times for selling cannabis out of various storefronts in the Castro district of San Francisco, sometimes getting busted in his own living room. Once he was out of jail for cannabis-based charges he would immediately begin selling pot again to neighbors and friends. In 1974, Peron bought a restaurant in that same neighborhood at 16th and Sanchez and named it The Island. Soon he had also purchased the flat above the place which would serve as his apartment. As the story is told, pot smoke was always wafting in the air around the now iconic Victorian.

Tragedy strikes

Peron became friends with Harvey Milk, activists and eventually the first openly gay elected official, and became more actively involved in the legalization movement. During this time Peron became a Bay Area celebrity, getting eager waves and celebratory high fives as he walked down Market Street. With friends in political places and a passion for change, he began drafting Proposition W as in weed, a proposition that would instruct law enforcement to stop pressing marijuana-related charges. Mayor George Moscone even asked the local officials to ignore possession of an ounce or less. But the campaign’s planning stage was interrupted by the assassination of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone — two friends, allies, and fellow advocates for the movement.

Soon after the assassination came the AIDs epidemic and the political movement came to an official stop while patient need in the area reached an all-time high. Tragically, the love of his life, Jonathan West, contracted the virus and Peron stopped everything to act as a caregiver. With his background in cannabis and caring for Jonathan, Peron saw first-hand how cannabis could help patients. Their love was strong and ran deep, making West’s eventual loss to AIDs in 1990 a huge blow to Peron. At that point, the activist made it his mission to “leave a legacy of love” for his fallen partner. 

Peron shifted from advocating for full legalization to advocating for legal access for qualifying medical patients like those being ravaged by the AIDs epidemic. “Jonathan was taking many prescribed drugs,” Dennis recounted to O’Shaugnessey’s writer Fred Gardner, “and there were severe side effects, from nausea to loss of appetite. Marijuana was the only drug that eased his pain and restored his appetite and gave him some moments of dignity in that last year. And of course, I had hundreds of friends with AIDS who relied on marijuana for the same reasons: appetite, relief from nausea, relief from pain, to be able to sleep.”

The Cannabis Buyers’ Club

He had an idea while awaiting his release for yet another possession charge in Mission Station, while Jonathan laid at home sick and without his weed: what if there was a place the sick man could go be with others like him? Thus, the Cannabis Buyers’ Club was born: a private club where patients with AIDs, cancer, and other diagnoses could buy cannabis from a reliable source. The activist almost single-handedly collected signatures for Proposition P that year, which would legalize cannabis for medicinal use within city limits. The proposition passed with 80% approval and, with that, the Cannabis Buyers’ Club was formed.

The first iteration of the club opened in a flat on Sanchez St. in 1992 with three-quarters of a pound of weed meant for seriously ill patients — those who couldn’t afford it would get what they needed for free. “Brownie Mary” Rathburn, Dale Gieringer, Beth Moor, John Entwhistle, Jason Patrick Menard, Gerry Leatherman, Richard Eastman, and Tod H. Mikuriya are all credited with helping launch the storefront.

Just three years later, membership had grown to 2,000 patients — significant growth that required the business’s relocation to a larger space. More space allowed for more than just a place for the ill to find alternative medicine: political activists commonly hung out at the Buyers Club, so Peron began hosting meetings there each Sunday. These people ran the gamut from growers who were breeding strains specifically for epilepsy patients to lawyers with an interest in political reform, and they helped Peron draft two bills in 1994 and 1995 that would make marijuana use legal for patients with a few severe qualifying conditions. 

Prop 215

What they crafted would come to be known as Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. The ballot initiative passed with 55.6% approval in 1996 and from then on medical cannabis use was legal in California despite federal law. Patients with a valid doctor’s recommendation could possess and cultivate cannabis, which led to a system of collectives and cultivations growing under state-wide legality. This made California the first state to legalize medical cannabis and made Dennis Peron, an author of the initiative, a hero in the movement. 

Dennis Peron passed away in January 2018 after a long battle with lung cancer but — as California continues to hone regulations, laws, and stipulations for cannabis dispensaries, cultivators, and processor — now is the best time to remember him, one of few people who can be credited with launching the cannabis advocacy movement. He lived his life for love and, to him, the best way to deliver love to the most people was through cannabis. Today, more people than ever in the world have access to regulated, legal cannabis, so we could say that his life’s mission was a success.

 

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