“They didn't even call me,” says Dennis Peron, perched on one of the fold-up chairs arranged around his Castro District kitchen table on a recent evening. “Why not even call?”
“They” are the people who are continuing Peron's work, his life's mission: to make marijuana legal. At 70, his hair white and his speech still rapid but softened by a stroke, Peron has been at it for almost 40 years — ever since he arrived in San Francisco fresh from Vietnam, his Air Force duffel bag stuffed with southeast Asian ganja. And his body bears the scars.
There's the bullet wound in his leg, sustained during a police raid on Peron's home and cannabis-selling Castro restaurant, the Big Top, in the 1970s. (The shooter was Paul Makaveckas, the veteran cop busted last year for taking bribes from taxi drivers. “We're penpals now,” Peron says). There was the anguish after the death of his partner, Jonathan West, from AIDS complications in 1990, a few weeks after testifying in Peron's latest pot bust trial. (He was acquitted.)
Thanks to all that personal sacrifice — and thanks to Peron's insistence on continuing to openly sell marijuana, decade after decade, bust after bust — California voters thought enough of cannabis to allow it for medical reasons in 1996. (Peron was one of the authors and official proponents of Proposition 215, the successful and change-making ballot initiative.)
Because of all this, Dennis Peron is a legitimate marijuana folk hero. In every story of marijuana in America written to date, there's at least a chapter dedicated to him.
But “they” are also not popular here in this house, on the top floor of the Castro Castle, the combination rooming house and cannabis-activism command center Peron and his circle have operated for decades.
The eight men passing around joint after pipe after joint are Peron's friends and confidantes. They ran security for his outlaw club; they cultivate 20-foot-tall ganja plants (and share the photos to prove it). They have smoked, sold, and grown marijuana far longer than most of California's current marijuana smokers, who skew young and male, have been alive. (“I started smoking weed when I was 14 — in 1949,” the man seated to my left tells me, without so much as a cough, before asking if I was at the Big Top, too. “Sorry,” he offers, after I say that predated my existence. “I thought you looked older.”)
And they are not impressed with the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, the latest effort to build on Prop. 215. In fact, they are animatedly and adamantly opposed to the AUMA, the ballot measure chiefly funded by tech billionaire Sean Parker, which would allow Californians 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of pot and buy it — with taxes — at a store.
“I'm glad he's spending the money,” Peron says about Parker. “But I don't like his language.”
And those are the kindest words spoken here about the AUMA, which is seen as a conspiracy between the government and big business and a plotted undoing of Peron's hard work.
If there is a Stoners Against Legalization, this is its headquarters. And I, the local weed writer, have been summoned to hear this message: If you are for cannabis, you should be against the latest effort to make it more legal.
The reasons why are simple enough. In order to attract moderates and assuage conservatives, the AUMA includes new penalties. You could be fined $500 or spend a year in jail for passing a joint to a kid. You need a license to be a commercial cultivator. And you need to pay taxes. All bad, bad, bad. (These same fellows opposed Proposition 19 in 2010 for these reasons.)
As the evening progresses, the inconsistencies swirl around in my head. Prop. 215 did not make marijuana legal. It did not alter the California criminal code. What it did was offer cannabis users what's called an “affirmative defense.” If you have a doctor willing to write on paper that you have an illness for which marijuana may bring relief, you have a defense to use later in court if you're busted and prosecuted. Meanwhile, all cannabis everywhere in California remains technically illegal.
Yes, different cities and different counties enforce this in very different ways. Those 20-foot plants are allowed — but we're still where we've been for 20 years: in a gray area.
Is this good enough?
It's a hard point to argue here in this room. So you don't. Meanwhile, more joints are passed around — here a metal pipe filled with an outdoor grower's head stash of hash, there a glass bowl with another exotic strain. (There is not a drop of alcohol to be seen.) The room fills with smoke, conversations become hazy.
“Dennis is a genius,” John Entwistle, Peron's husband (they married, after 28 years together, at the Emerald Cup in 2013) tells me at some point. “Prop. 215 is beautiful. It's all we need.”
That argument may fly at the Castro Castle. It's a harder sell in Walnut Creek — and it's outright irrelevant in places like Bakersfield, which, as far as the drug legalization movement is concerned, may as well be Texas.
After 20 years, how much longer can we wait for the next step? At the Castle, they're playing the long game.