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Medical Pot Pioneer Dennis Peron Dies

by Liz Highleyman

Dennis Peron
Dennis Peron  (Source:Rick Gerharter)

Dennis Peron, a gay man who spearheaded the fight for medical cannabis, died after a long battle with lung cancer Saturday, January 27, soon after the implementation of a law allowing recreational marijuana use in California. He was 71.

"Dennis deserves singular credit for imagining and launching the medical marijuana movement during the darkest days of the AIDS pandemic," longtime activist Cleve Jones told the Bay Area Reporter. "He fought for patients' access, was arrested multiple times, and never backed down. The fact that Californians can today use cannabis recreationally is his legacy."

Starting in the 1970s, Mr. Peron was a fixture in the San Francisco gay community, becoming friends with Harvey Milk and taking part in gay rights activism. His 17th Street home, dubbed the "Castro Castle," became known for its colorful murals outside and equally colorful gatherings inside.

Already a well-known local marijuana purveyor - he was in jail for possession when Milk was assassinated in 1978 - Mr. Peron began to publicly push for medical cannabis in the early 1990s after seeing how it helped people with HIV, including his late partner, Jonathan West, cope with symptoms such as pain and wasting.

"We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dennis Peron for his vision and perseverance," said Dr. Donald Abrams of the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, who conducted some of the few medical cannabis studies permitted by the federal government. "He understood, before many others, the therapeutic potential of the remarkable plant that is so closely associated with his name."

Mr. Peron opened what is widely considered the first public cannabis dispensary in the United States, initially in the basement of his home and later in buildings on Church Street and Market Street. The San Francisco Cannabis Buyer's Club aimed to provide a safe place for sick people to safely obtain and use medical marijuana, and it also became a cultural hub and the headquarters of the legal fight for medical cannabis in California. Mr. Peron initially hoped to get arrested to trigger a court case and jury trial, but local police did not oblige. State agents later did, however, and the club was ultimately forced to close in 1998.

After San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition P, an initiative in favor of medical cannabis, in 1991, Mr. Peron and fellow activists set their sights on the state level. California legislators passed a couple of medical marijuana bills but Republican Governor Pete Wilson vetoed them, setting the stage for a ballot initiative known as Proposition 215. Mr. Peron and others started Californians for Compassionate Use to spearhead the effort.

Passed by a 56 percent margin in November 1996, the Compassionate Use Act allowed people with HIV, cancer, and other illnesses to grow and possess cannabis with a doctor's recommendation. It was the first state medical marijuana law, coming into conflict with the federal prohibition on marijuana use for any reason.

"Dennis Peron was a hero. He fought for the health needs of people living with HIV during a very dark period - when our federal government not only abandoned us but was hostile toward us. Dennis was willing to put his own freedom on the line to help people access medical cannabis. Dennis will go down in history for his work, and we all mourn his passing," said gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who adjourned Tuesday's Senate session in Peron's memory.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who, along with other city officials honored Mr. Peron last February for his medical cannabis work, said he "saved lives."

"Dennis saved countless lives across the country through his leadership of the medical cannabis movement," Sheehy told the B.A.R. this week. "His efforts helped begin to end the evil war on drugs and vicious criminalization and stigmatization of cannabis."


Mainstream

In the ensuing years, Mr. Peron's views about the benefits of marijuana entered the mainstream. Today, more than half the states have medical cannabis laws. In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64, which allows recreational marijuana use by adults, joining eight other states. The final implementation of the law, establishing the legal sale of cannabis, went into effect January 1.

"We all owe Dennis Peron a huge debt of gratitude for starting the modern marijuana movement," Laura Thomas of the Drug Policy Alliance told the B.A.R. "Gay men with AIDS and their friends and family are why we now have legal marijuana. I know he wasn't a huge fan of Prop 64 because he didn't think it went far enough, but I'm still glad he got to see legal cannabis in California."

Prop 64 not only legalized marijuana possession and use, it also allows people with prior marijuana convictions to petition the court to have those offenses expunged from their records.

"Think about the tens or even hundreds of thousands of people who are not going to prison for simple cannabis possession because of Dennis Peron," said Brian Basinger of the Q Foundation. "Thousands will go free, providing millions of years of human freedom from incarceration."

Mr. Peron was born in New York City in April 1946 and grew up on Long Island. He was drafted and joined the Air Force during the Vietnam War, where he first encountered marijuana. Having visited San Francisco on leave and been drawn to its hippie and gay subcultures, he relocated to the city after leaving the service.

After the legalization battle of the 1990s, Mr. Peron moved to a marijuana farm in Lake County. He opened his Castro home to gay movement pioneers Harry Hay and John Burnside during their final years, and he and his husband, John Entwistle, later rented out rooms as a cannabis-friendly guesthouse. Diagnosed with lung cancer, Mr. Peron entered the Veterans Administration hospice program, but returned to the Castro Castle during his final months.

Mr. Peron is survived by Entwistle; his brothers Brian and Jeff; and a nephew. A memorial is being planned for March 1, according to Entwistle.

"Dennis was an amazingly effective advocate for gay rights and marijuana," Entwistle told the B.A.R. "He was both compassionate and courageous, qualities that impelled him to risk life in prison to challenge the laws which prevented AIDS patients from using medical marijuana. All of this and he never ran out of time or energy or pot to share with his friends."

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