Dennis Peron is one of our heroes. Not only was Denis a famed activist he was the reason medical marijuana is legal today. So it breaks our heart to announce that after a long battle with lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) he passed away Saturday afternoon in a San Francisco hospital at 71-years-old. Peron spent some of the last years his life on a 20-acre farm in the rolling hills of Lake County, growing and giving away what he once sold: medical marijuana. He was a friend and inspiration who we worked with for many years.
Peron not only founded the medical-marijuana movement in San Francisco nearly three decades ago he was legendary when it came to San Francisco politics. He was a Vietnam veteran AIDS activist and close friend and political associate of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the city’s board of supervisors, who was assassinated in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone. When the murderer—fellow Supervisor Dan White was given a slap on the wrist after claiming “diminished capacity” because he binged on Twinkies—hundreds rioted in the streets and torched police cars. Peron missed the action because he was in jail, convicted of peddling marijuana in a converted commune on Castro Street, in the heart of SF’s gay community—the first medical marijuana dispensary ever.
The small medical marijuana club in an upstairs loft near San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro district opened in 1992. It became wildly popular, so Peron moved it to a five-story high-rise building near San Francisco’s financial district. The Cannabis Cultivators’ Club became an effective social service agency that served nearly 10,000 patients. It was also the home of Californians For Compassionate Use—Peron’s political organization that successfully convinced California voters to legalize medical marijuana by voting in favor of the landmark Proposition 215.
“The club took on a life of its own,” Peron explained in an interview. “When we first started, it was mostly for AIDS patients. Then, we started seeing different ailments and found that pot helped those people too. We’ve provided a refuge for sick people, a place of empowerment, education and healing. It’s friendly and clean. We proved that marijuana is good medicine, and that people who use marijuana are good people.”
Peron always maintained that “all marijuana use is medicinal.” Because of this approach Proposition 215 allowed many condisitons to be treated with cannabis including everything from cancer to insomnia to depression. Over the next couple of decades it allowed pretty much any California resident to get a recommendation to treat their ailments with medical marijuana.
“The entire medical cannabis movement owes a direct debt to the gay community of San Francisco,” Steve DeAngelo the Executive Director of Oakland California’s Harborside Health Center told us a few years back. “It came out of the personal relationship of two gay men and the commitment of those people to each other. There’s a very, very direct line of debt there. In fact, I don’t know if everyone knows this story,” continues DeAngelo, “but Dennis Peron’s lover Jonathan West was dying and the police came in and raided Dennis’s home and found a quarter-pound of cannabis.”
After that senseless beating and bust, West went to court and claimed that the cannabis was his and he was using it to treat the symptoms associated with AIDS. He insisted Peron was his caretaker and was administering the cannabis.
“The last time they busted me was with Jonathan ,” continues Peron, “he had AIDS. Marijuana was his best medicine. The cops came in one night, while he was dying, and stole four ounces of pot that we had been using as medicine. He was 90 pounds and was weak and frail and covered with Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions. He was the love of my life and I had to watch him from the top floor being beaten, with a gun to his head. And I decided they would never do this again.”
“Every time they did something, they made me stronger, said Peron during the 10th anniversary of Proposition 215.” Prop 215 also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, was a California ballot proposition on the November, 1996 ballot. It was the first ruling in history regarding medical use of marijuana.
Soon Jonathan’s death supercharged Peron’s activism. He sponsored successful referendums for decriminalizing marijuana use and sales in San Francisco. In 1991, Peron organized Proposition P, the San Francisco medical marijuana initiative, which passed with 79% of the vote. Prop P did not have force of law, but was simply a resolution declaring the city’s support for medical marijuana. The California legislature went on to approve medical marijuana bills by State Senator Milton Marks and Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, but they were vetoed by then Governor Pete Wilson.