Dennis Peron could very well be called the father of the medical marijuana movement. In fact, he drafted Proposition 215 in California, which, voted into law in 1996, was the first step in the cascade of legalization efforts currently sweeping the country.
“After 215, everything took off,” Peron says. “It was just waiting for the right opportunity.”
Peron might be somewhat akin to the cat with nine lives, brushing off encounters with war, police and disease while keeping his “eye on the prize” – complete legalization of marijuana throughout the nation. “I hope it’s in my lifetime,” he reflects. He recently celebrated his 70th birthday in style at “Castro Castle,” his legendary bed and breakfast in San Francisco.
Peron was born and raised in New York, and was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1967. On the way over, he discovered the scene on Haight Street in San Francisco in full bloom. His wartime experience, which included stacking body bags, profoundly moved him. “I want to dedicate my life to world peace,” he decided.
He came out as a gay man and returned to San Francisco, where he faced the first of his multiple marijuana- related arrests, more than 20 to date.
He opened a restaurant in the mid-70s in the wild and woolly Castro district, known for its sometimes outrageous convocation of activists, partiers and characters. Peron became friends with fellow business owner and activist Harvey Milk, who often frequented the restaurant.
Things came to a head one evening when Peron’s home was raided by a crowd of plain-clothes police. Peron thought they were thugs trying to rob him, and he was shot in the thigh by an officer.
"The passing of 215 lit a fuse around the world. It changed everything. They can't turn back the clock now."
In the 1970s, Peron became politically energized, and among other work, he drafted and collected signatures for the City’s Proposition W (for weed), which instructed law enforcement to ignore marijuana violations. It passed, but Peron was still not satisfied. An ounce or more could still mean jail time. He was gearing up for a statewide initiative when the AIDS epidemic hit.
As Peron watched friends and colleagues dying around him, his focus shifted from legalization to making medical marijuana freely available. It improved appetite and sleep quality while relieving nausea and pain, he says. He cared for his sick companion for years and was arrested again for possessing four ounces. His partner lived long enough to testify that the marijuana was his, and Peron was spared jail time.
That was enough, however, to prompt him to open the Cannabis Buyers Club. “I threw caution to the winds,” he laughs. “My lover of eight years just died. So many people suffering. Sometimes I thought, ‘Why me? Why do I have to live?’ But then I accepted that I was meant to live.”
The Club grew, with Tod Mikuriya, MD, as medical coordinator and eventually becoming 4,000 members strong. It became the center of activism that eventually led to Peron and Dale Gieringer of California NORML drafting what would become Proposition 215. Although it was a team effort, Peron was the torch bearer.
A long, wild ride it was, with Peron getting busted again and the Club shuttered. But California voters passed the resolution in 1996. “The passing of 215 lit a fuse around the world,” he says. “It changed everything. They can’t turn back the clock now.”
Peron sees corporate culture embracing the cannabis industry, but is convinced it will always be a medicine for the masses. “I see the hippies taking it over,” he says. “I see diversity and everyone involved. Women, minorities ... I would like to see the industry run by women. They have kinder hearts.”
But Peron is admittedly less concerned about the business end than the personal side of the issue. “Whether it’s corporate or not, the important thing is that we make sure that no one ever goes to jail or prison for it. Staring at those four walls 24 hours a day ... we must stop that!” he exclaims.
Peron is excited about the future and proud of his accomplishments. “We beat them!” he says. “We showed them up. And now others are keeping up the fight and using the same message ... that it’s medicine. Even Oklahoma! Using the same methods I used.”
And for those who are just now gearing up, Peron has a few final thoughts. “Look to the past. A lot of people have suffered so much to bring it to you,” he says. “The movement was about peace and love and was egalitarian. If you want to know the future, emulate the past. And I think I’ll close on that.”