Dennis Peron, who openly dealt marijuana from a "supermarket" in San Francisco in the 1970s before leading a successful campaign to legalise it for medical use in California two decades later, died last Saturday at a San Francisco hospital. He was 71. John Entwistle jnr, his spouse, said the cause was respiratory failure.
Peron was identified with marijuana all his adult life. He began smoking it at 17. He continued in Vietnam, where he served in the Air Force, and smuggled two pounds stateside in his duffel bag after his discharge.
Short, puckish and charismatic, Peron embraced the hippie lifestyle in San Francisco, living in a commune, dealing and smoking marijuana, and opening a restaurant where the second floor was given over to selling it. He was arrested several times; during one bust, at his 11-room supermarket on Castro Street, he was shot in the leg by an undercover police officer. A prison sentence for possessing 200 pounds of marijuana ensued. But it took the AIDS crisis to turn Peron into a political activist.
He had known for years about the palliative effects of marijuana. He also recognised that pot had allowed him to stay sober after years as an alcoholic. When an earlier lover, Jonathan West, was dying of AIDS, he saw how marijuana eased the nausea and pain West felt from the medications he was taking. One night in January 1990, the police raided their home, arrested Peron and charged him with possessing marijuana with intent to sell.
"Now, I've sold marijuana in my life – lots of it, but I was not selling that night," Peron wrote, with Entwistle, in his autobiography, Memoirs of Dennis Peron: How a Gay Hippy Outlaw Legalized Marijuana in Response to the AIDS Crisis (2012). "There were four ounces of the best marijuana in the world in the house" – and they belonged to West. At Peron's trial six months later, West testified that the pot was his, and the charges against Peron were dropped.
Two weeks after that, West died and Peron had his cause: to change the laws that criminalised the possession of marijuana for medical use. He joined with other activists to write a ballot initiative, Proposition P, which asked the city of San Francisco to recommend that California add marijuana to its list of approved medicines to treat various illnesses — including AIDS, glaucoma, cancer and multiple sclerosis — and not penalise doctors who prescribed it.
The initiative passed overwhelmingly in 1991; the next year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution urging the police and the district attorney to make the arrest and prosecution of those growing or possessing pot for medical purposes the "lowest priority."
While lobbying for statewide medical marijuana legislation, Peron opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club, a medical dispensary. Initially intended for AIDS and cancer patients, it soon accepted a broader universe of the seriously ill.
"Watching the old supporting the young and the terminally ill counselling the incurably disabled was an increasingly inspirational sidebar," Peron wrote in his autobiography. He added, "The club was more than a place to obtain marijuana; for many it became something of an extended family fulfilling important social and emotional needs."
As Californians appeared close to legalising medical marijuana in 1996 through Proposition 215, which Peron helped write, he faced legal obstacles. In August that year, state narcotics agents raided and closed his dispensary, seizing 40 pounds of marijuana; that October, Peron was arrested and indicted in Oakland for criminal conspiracy and possession of marijuana. His supporters criticised the California attorney general, Dan Lungren, an opponent of Proposition 215, calling his actions politically motivated attacks.
After the polls closed on Election Day, Peron smoked a fat joint and awaited the results. Proposition 15 easily passed, with more than 5.3 million votes to 4.3 million in opposition. "No person is more responsible for the legalisation of medical marijuana than Dennis," Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of the pro-legalisation organisation California Norml, said in a telephone interview. "He was in the right place, at the right time as a gay rights leader at the time of the AIDS epidemic; he had the right experience as a pot dealer, the gumption to go ahead and do it and the trust of the people of San Francisco, who respected his efforts."
Dennis Robert Peron was born in the Bronx on April 8, 1946. His father, Albert, was a computer programmer for Nassau County, New York, and his mother, the former Mary McGrath, was a homemaker. His family moved to Elmont, on Long Island, when he was 10, and he graduated from Sewanhaka High School in nearby Floral Park. After returning from the Air Force, Peron attended the City College of San Francisco on the G.I. Bill – while selling marijuana on the side.
That eventually became more than a side business. He was victorious on Proposition 215 – which he regarded as a legacy of love to West – but a federal judge closed the cannabis club, and others in California, in 1998. Peron found a small measure of revenge against Lungren by challenging him for the 1998 Republican nomination for governor. He finished second to Lungren, with 72,613 votes. Lungren lost the general election to Gray Davis.
In 2016, California voters approved Proposition 64, legalising recreational marijuana in California. Peron had campaigned against it, arguing that it would hurt local farmers in favour of big businesses and make it easier to arrest and prosecute people.
Reflecting on Proposition 215 in 2016, he told the California newspaper The Eureka Times-Standard: "In 1996, it was like a dark room had been left for so long without any light. I let a little light in. A light of compassion, hope and empowerment. We empowered the patients and the voters and the people that don't believe marijuana is a crime."
Peron never again ran a dispensary; instead, he spent several years growing marijuana on a rented farm in Clear Lake, north of San Francisco, and giving it away to those who needed it for medical purposes. "It was easy to shift our resources from the club to the farm," Entwistle said in a telephone interview. They subsequently ran a bed-and-breakfast in San Francisco.
Peron's health deteriorated in recent years; he was found to have lung damage from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam as well as emphysema, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In addition to Entwistle, Peron is survived by his brothers, Brian and Jeffrey.
The New York Times