Remembering Dennis Peron, who helped legalize weed

Early supporter of medical cannabis risked arrest, got shot by the cops -- and changed California drug laws

Way back in 1996, when Proposition 215, the measure that legalized medical marijuana in California, was on the ballot, I was on the old Friday night talk show on KQED TV called “This Week in Northern California.” The topic was Prop. 215, and I knew in advance what all the other reporters were going to say.

Dennis Peron, center, with the late Ron Lanza (left) and Tom Ammiano

I can’t remember which one of them first raised the issue, but it went more or less like this:

If the medical marijuana advocates want to see this measure pass, they need to change the messaging; the spokespeople have to be doctors and medical professionals, not that crazy gay stoner Dennis Peron.

I listened for a couple of minutes, then Belva Davis, who hosted the show (and was always a fair, honest journalist who unlike some at the old KQED took the alternative press seriously) asked what I thought about all of that.

You can talk all you want about doctors and strategy, I said. But if Dennis Peron hadn’t stood up and done the hard work when nobody else would, Prop. 215 wouldn’t be on the ballot in the first place. The doctors who think there’s value to cannabis didn’t organize the signature drive; the establishment politicians who are now endorsing it were afraid of the issue just a few years ago. So don’t be telling me that Dennis Peron needs to take a back seat.

He didn’t. And Prop. 215 passed.

For two decades now – so long that a lot of young people don’t remember it being any other way – anyone who had a medical condition that was alleviated by cannabis has been able to buy it, legally, in California. The war on weed has been largely over in this state, and now it’s legal for anyone 21 and over. As it should have been all along.

And that might not have happened, not when it did, without Peron, the irascible, libertarian, queer activist who was at the heart of the medical cannabis movement.

He died Saturday, Jan. 27, after a long struggle with cancer.

Peron served in Vietnam, smuggled back a couple of pounds of weed in his gear, and moved to San Francisco. He lived in a commune, sold pot, and was an early friend and supporter of Harvey Milk.

“He was a ballsy guy,” Tom Ammiano, former supervisor and Assembly member, told me. “He could drive you nuts – he even supported Arnold Schwarzenegger – but he took on a struggle that nobody else was taking on.”

At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Peron started the Cannabis Buyer’s Club on Market Street, openly selling weed to sick people. “It was such an eclectic place,” Ammiano remembers. “People from all walks of life who didn’t always agree on anything came there because they knew they were getting something that would help them.”

He was arrested four times, shot by the cops once. He never gave up.

Peron wasn’t a self-promoter, but “he was aware of the weight of Prop. 215, that it made him unique,” Ammiano said. Peron, of course, couldn’t have done it alone – but as Ammiano said, “every so often there is someone who is such the driving force behind a movement, and that was Dennis.”

So light one up, if that is your thing – or if, like many of us, you have a medical condition that cannabis alleviates – and give thanks to that crazy gay libertarian hippie Dennis Peron. These days, you aren’t hiding in a room with the shades drawn, smoking god-knows-what from god-knows-where, and worrying that the cops are going to come and arrest you. And Peron had a whole lot to do with that.