FILE — Dennis Peron at the San Francisco Cannabis Cultivators’ Club, Jan. 10, 1997. Peron, who openly dealt pot from his “supermarket” on Castro Street in San Francisco during the 1970s before leading a successful campaign to legalize medical marijuana in California two decades later, died Jan. 27, 2018, at a hospital in the city. He was 71. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Dennis Peron and his legacy of legalizing cannabis in California

In light of Remembrance Day earlier this month, we want to tell the story of Dennis Peron, a Vietnam War veteran and a cannabis activist who helped legalize cannabis in California. 

The early years of activism 

Beginning in the 1970s, Dennis spent more than 40 years campaigning for the legalization of cannabis. His career began when he returned home to San Francisco after serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. When he returned, he brought with him a duffle bag full of Thai sticks.

The upstairs of The Island c. 1977 by Michael Zagaris

Dennis then set up an illegal storefront in the heart of Castro street to sell it. He opened a vegetarian restaurant called The Island, where he would use the upstairs of the restaurant to sell pot. The restaurant attracted a lot of people. It became a hippie hangout that slowly transformed into a political hub. Dennis took the opportunity and formed the Island Democratic Club.  

The first political campaign that came out of the club was Proposition 19 in 1972. A passing of prop 19 would mean that everyone over the age of 18 in the State of California could use, transport and possess cannabis for personal use without punishment. Unfortunately, the proposition was defeated. 

Although the proposition resulted in defeat, they saw it as a victory for the club. The fact that it got on the ballot was a huge deal. Dennis also had a chance to connect with people like Gordon Brownell. Brownell became California’s first registered cannabis reform lobbyist in 1973 and served on the board of cannabis advocacy non-profit, California NORML.

It seems that the failure of Proposition 19 gave Dennis more impetus to continue his cannabis activism. He joined the Youth International Party (Yippies) and was one of their prominent speakers. In 1991, Dennis organized another proposition, Proposition P. Essentially, the proposition said that a sick person could legally obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes in California.

Licensed physicians shall not be penalized for or restricted from prescribing hemp preparations for medical purposes.

-Proposition P [November, 1991]
Dennis Peron speaking at a Yippies event (Forbes via Getty Images)

The resolution passed, marking the beginning of cannabis legalization in the United States. Suddenly, the conversation on medical use and the legalization of cannabis captured the public eye.

Of course, Peron’s cannabis activity also attracted the attention of the authorities. The police constantly harassed and put him under surveillance. Dennis challenged the police repeatedly and blatantly. In response, they searched his club, arresting many, only for him to be out there again the next day with a speaker to talk about police absurdity and how denying people the use and sale of cannabis is an illegal act.

The San Francisco narcs hated him. Dennis even got shot once during a raid at his office on Castro Street. The police wore plain clothes and looked like thugs. Peron thought some gang was robbing him, so he stood at the top of the stairs and threw down a four-gallon water bottle to block the intruders. That resulted in him getting shot in the thigh.   

On the night of January 27, 1990, a San Francisco narcs squad raided Peron’s home and found four ounces of cannabis. The pot belonged to his long-term life partner Jonathan West, who was dying of AIDS and suffering from Kaposi’s Sarcoma. His medication made him too nauseous to eat, so he used pot as a panacea to help him eat, sleep and feel relief from pain. In August, West testified in court that the amount of cannabis seized by the police was his and that Peron had nothing to do with it. About a month later, West passed away from AIDS.

The AIDS epidemic and its association with the legalization movement

The AIDS epidemic in the 80s swept through San Francisco like a storm. AIDS emerged in 1981, and by 1985 16,458 people had died of the disease across the United States. Dennis witnessed many deaths, including his partner Jonathan.

He recalled West was taking many prescribed drugs that gave him several side effects like nausea or loss of appetite. Cannabis was an effective remedy for that. A lot of Peron’s HIV-positive friends also relied on cannabis to relieve symptoms of nausea, pain and insomnia. So, Dennis decided to become less involved in politics and focused more on getting cannabis to AIDS patients and those in need.

Brownie Mary and the Cannabis Buyers Club

If Dennis Peron had a fanatic cannabis activism kindred spirit, Mary Jane Rathbun, aka Brownie Mary, was it. 

Mary Jane Rathburn, also known as Brownie Mary in August 4, 1992 (San Francisco Chronicle) 

In 1981, Rathburn got arrested for selling weed brownies. Her sentence was 500 hours of community service. Through her volunteer work, she came to care for the very first few AIDS patients in San Francisco. She even adopted some of them as her children. And from that point, she dedicated her life to baking weed brownies to help treat AIDS patients. At the height of the epidemic, Rathburn was baking about 1,600 brownies a month. 

Her activism and volunteer work were equivocal. She got arrested a couple more times for making weed brownies. At the same time, she received several volunteer of the year awards. In August 1992, Rathburn met with San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to advocate for the medical value of cannabis. Her testimony not only persuaded the panel to pass a resolution putting an end to the arrest and suppression of medical cannabis suppliers, but it also led to the creation of Brownie Mary’s Day.

That same year, Mary and Dennis opened the Cannabis Buyers’ Club. The club was not only a medical cannabis dispensary but a community center for the HIV-positive, the LGBT community and those with other terminal illnesses. Dennis also employed the people from the community to work for the club.

Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron in 1993

Located at Church and 14th street, the club had a cafe and several lounges filled with couches and other furniture where people could relax and be comfortable. Members came there to smoke, socialize and snack at the club.

Inside of the Cannabis Buyers’ Club

The closedown of Cannabis Buyers Club and proposition 215

By 1995, the Cannabis Buyers’ Club had over 4000 members. Although the club operated illegally, the city of San Francisco turned a blind eye to Peron’s business, mainly because his work brought many benefits to the community.

With the growing membership and support, Peron and Rathburn lobbied for Proposition 215 in 1996, a state ballot that would allow anyone in California to possess and cultivate marijuana for medical treatment. The campaign received a lot of media attention, support and philanthropic contributions. It was qualified for the 1996 ballot in California with 763,000 signatures in support.

Proposal 215 was leading in the polls by a margin of 60-40. The opposition leader was Attorney General Dan Lungren, a staunch supporter of the war on drugs. His strategy was to turn the vote into a referendum on Dennis and his cannabis club. With the proposition moving in Peron’s favour, however, the attorney general had another idea.

A San Francisco sheriff’s deputy carries confiscated marijuana plants from the Cannabis Cultivators’ Club 

On August 4, 1996, more than 100 agents of the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement raided the Cannabis Buyers Club. Simultaneously, five other squads raided the homes of the club members and staff around the city. Authorities seized a total of 150 pounds of cannabis, $60,000 in cash and 400 plants. A day later, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge William Cahill ordered the club to close.

Two months after the raid on charges of conspiracy and possession, transportation and sale of cannabis, they arrested Peron in his home. On October 12, he left Alameda County Jail. 

The legacy of Dennis Peron

On November 5, 1996, Proposition 215 was passed with 56 percent of the vote, legalizing the use of medical cannabis in the entire state of California. 

Peron moved to a farm in Lake County where he spent the final years of his life. He continued to grow and give out pot to people. He passed away in 2018. 

Dennis Peron at his Lake County farm (San Francisco Chronicle)

With 2 pounds of Thai sticks brought back from Vietnam, Dennis Peron joined the cannabis crusade. He sold a lot of weed, got in trouble with the law, helped fight the AIDS epidemic, opened the first public cannabis dispensary in the country, and successfully convinced Californians to legalize cannabis. Even after his death, his legacy continues to influence the politics of cannabis. On October 13, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed The Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act (SB-34) for the purpose of supporting medical cannabis compassion care programs.

Thanks to people like Dennis that we can smoke openly and freely today. He served his country well beyond the battlefield. The only thing left to say is Salut, Legend!