It’s often impossible to trace the beginnings of progressive movements back to their true origins, but in the case of medical cannabis in the United States, we can all thank Dennis Peron for where we are today. Peron — who died Saturday at the age of 72 — was quite willing to take a bullet for the cause he so fiercely championed.
“I’ve still got lead in me,” he told SF Weekly in November 2017.
An advocate for gay rights and medicinal marijuana, Peron is rightly recognized as “the godfather of medical cannabis,” an honorific that encompasses his work during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and his later involvement in the passage of the landmark Prop 215 in 1996.
Before his well-publicized battles with the San Francisco Police Department, Peron served in a different war, when the Long Island native was drafted into the U.S. Air Force in 1966, and deployed to Vietnam. It was abroad that he first discovered cannabis, which locals sold to visiting GIs. Before beginning his service, Peron made a brief stop in San Francisco, where he got a first-hand look at the Summer of Love. When his service ended, he returned to the city that had captured his heart.
“I decided I’d be a hippie faggot,” he quipped to Leafly in 2014.
Peron embraced his position as one of the city’s more prominent marijuana sellers. Operating out of the Castro, he aligned himself with Supervisor Harvey Milk and other notable local figures, including influential cannabis baker “Brownie” Mary Rathbun.
Inevitably, Peron’s line of work placed him at odds with local law enforcement. On Nov. 27, 1978, he learned of the murders of Milk and Mayor Moscone from his jail cell, where he was serving a six-month sentence for cannabis possession.
Following this tragedy was the onset of the AIDS epidemic, which devastated the Castro’s gay community throughout the 1980s. Among the many lives claimed by the vicious diseases was Peron’s partner, Jonathan West, who died of the illness in 1990.
At a crossroads, Peron decided to honor West by making marijuana available to AIDS patients. He’d noted how cannabis helped ease his late partner’s symptoms — especially those resulting from early AIDS medications like AZT — and how drastically better it was compared with its infamous synthetic alternative, Marinol. With immense effort, Peron got Prop P passed in 1991, legalizing medical marijuana within San Francisco.
That same year, Peron opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club — the first public marijuana dispensary in the U.S. Nationally, President George H.W. Bush was loudly trumpeting the ill-fated and bigoted War on Drugs. Thus Peron, Rathbun, and others were frequently threatened with raids, incarceration, and bodily harm. They kept going.
“The number goes up every time I remember,” Peron joked to SF Weekly in 2014, when asked to recall how many total times he’d been arrested.
By the time Peron and others introduced Prop 215 in 1995, the Buyers Club had nearly 8,000 members. In 1996, 56 percent of voters approved the groundbreaking bill, which made California the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Later, Peron would enjoy the efforts of another monumental effort of activism when he legally married fellow medical marijuana advocate and Prop 215 co-author John Entwistle.
While Peron’s death from lung cancer this week has inspired many spirited remembrances of his numerous contributions and tireless advocacy, it stands to reason that the best way to honor his memory is by continuing to fight for the causes for which he dedicated his life.
Yes, adult-use cannabis is now legal in California, but at the core of Peron’s mission was a demand for equality. In the 1980s, that meant giving those suffering from a destructive illness access to medicine without bias towards their sexual orientation. In the 1990s, it meant making medical cannabis available to all Californians in need. In 2018, there are still substantial disparities between those who profit from the sales of marijuana and those who have for decades been subject to our government’s prejudiced brand of justice.
Dennis Peron may be gone, but his spirit lives on in the fight to ensure safe and affordable access to cannabis for everyone who needs it. It survives in the quest to bridge the gap in economic imbalances currently widening within the cannabis industry. The issues are plentiful, and the required effort immense. When it comes to marijuana equality, there is always more work to do, and no time to wait for tomorrow.
Thus we must honor Peron’s memory by continuing to walk a path of progress, to place our feet forward in the steps first made by the true patron saint of cannabis.