Blowing Smoke

Info:Keywords:Correction:San Francisco Police Commissioner Pat Norman's name was misspelled in last week's "The Grid."

Info:Keywords:Correction Date: August 21, 1996
Blowing Smoke
By George Cothran and Chuck Finnie

The story line appeals: Jackbooted Republican henchman storms in from Sacramento and busts our Florence Nightingale of medicinal marijuana. In response, local liberal politicos shake their fists and thumb their noses.

But it is time to clear away the smoke.
True, government anti-drug policies are a joke. Legalization of pot, at the very least for the sick and dying, is long overdue. Moreover, Attorney General Dan Lungren's exploits, suspiciously falling on the eve of the GOP convention in San Diego, needlessly hurt AIDS and cancer patients.

But ultimate responsibility for the shuttering of the only storefront in town where suffering people could buy marijuana to counter AIDS wasting syndrome and the pain associated with chemotherapy belongs with one person: Dennis Peron, founder of the Cannabis Buyers' Club (CBC). Peron is the adult equivalent of the boneheaded kid who fires up butts outside of the school smoking lounge, ruining the privilege for everybody else. In fact, Peron is much, much worse.

The sworn statements of 17 agents reveal Peron as closer to street dealer than therapist. In the months since the club opened, Peron had built a pot distribution operation that took in tens of thousands of dollars weekly -- selling to people who never had to prove a medical need.

Consider the experience of undercover state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement agent James Kerrigan. Within a one-week span, Kerrigan joined the club without valid documentation of an ailment; received a membership card and two guest passes; and made six separate purchases, dropping hundreds of dollars for herb.

Later, on July 6, Kerrigan, wearing a wire, made a big score. Introduced to Peron at the CBC after telling a clerk that he had $3,000, Kerrigan related the following exchange in his affidavit.

"What do you need, dude?" Peron asks.
"Mexican, as much as I can," says Kerrigan.
"I can sell you 1 pound, is that what you want?" Peron asks. "I can sell it to you for nine."

After Kerrigan handed over $900 in marked bills, Peron reached under a couch and produced the 16-ounce bundle of herb. Which is just the kind of activity that had agents drawing a bead on the operation. On July 8, for instance, between 4:40 and 7 p.m., no fewer than 525 people streamed through the CBC's doors. And the agents watched as the club became a lure to a heavier brand of criminal (a strong-arm robbery went down at the club in June, resulting in the loss of 50 pounds of dope), and a health danger to children, who were allowed to accompany adults to the emporium's smoky lair.

One consequence was readily apparent on the streets of S.F.; city cops began busting dealers only to discover that Dennis Peron was their supplier. One dealer told Officer Kurt Bruneman that he sold CBC weed to support his gram-a-day smack habit.

All of which made Peron, who had complained as far back as April about police surveillance, an easy target for Lungren.

Before more Peron apologists join any chorus, they should hear from the man himself. "I have to accept responsibility. The club was run a little sloppy," Peron said Aug. 12. "I let my heart run the club instead of my head." He added later, "I apologize to the people of San Francisco. I betrayed their trust."

Nonetheless, he disputed law enforcement agents' rendition, saying they did not include all the facts in their affidavit. He said the 1-pound sale to Kerrigan was unusual: "He presented himself as an HIV-positive guy who lost his lover like me. He was using my pain to get a pound." Peron said the pound was going to start a cannabis club in the Russian River region of Sonoma County.

Peron acknowledged big revenues -- a quarter of a million dollars gross a week. But he insisted the money was poured back into club activities, like a pot giveaway to indigent people on Thursdays, a softball and bowling team, and a 12-step program to help people kick hard drugs and alcohol. As for the armed robbery, Peron said his best explanation is that police carried it out -- that it was a cop who struck somebody with a rifle and made off with the 50 pounds. Finally, he claimed children always were restricted to the nonsmoking first floor of the club.

But Peron's rendition is still a little hazy, and he sees an analogy between his plight and the death of his old friend Harvey Milk, the slain gay leader and S.F. supervisor: "Harvey made himself a target, too."

But responsibility doesn't end with Peron. Blame also rests with law enforcement and city officials, who knew plenty about Peron's activities but let them go on unchecked.

District Attorney Terence Hallinan and Police Chief Fred Lau knew shortly after their swearing-in ceremonies that something was amiss. Federal and state authorities apprised them of the probe. But they were content to merely monitor it passively. Lau loaned at least one S.F. narcotics officer to the effort. Hallinan met once with CBC leaders to advise tightening their operation. But he and Lau otherwise remained happily on the sidelines, allowing higher authorities to do dirty work that they could then disavow.

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