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Blowing Smoke 

Wednesday, Aug 14 1996
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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.

As is S.F.'s wont, everyone is hurling daggers at the right-wing storm troopers.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who last week came first to the defense of the CBC, apparently kept blissfully ignorant that a precious resource only blocks from City Hall was being so wantonly abused. A "petty, vindictive, pseudo war on drugs," Ammiano opined.

"I am dismayed by the Gestapo tactics displayed by Attorney General Dan Lungren," an eventually outraged Mayor Willie Brown said Aug. 6.

The same day, Sheriff Michael Hennessey told the Attorney General's Office he would not abide by its request that he enforce a temporary restraining order imposed on the CBC Aug. 5.

(At least one goat's been scaped so far: S.F.'s top narcotics cop, Greg Corrales, was reassigned at the end of last week.)

For his part, Hallinan questions the sufficiency of the investigative work leading up to the raid. "It's like a defense attorney's dream come true," says Hallinan, suggesting the undercover work was legally shoddy and therefore can't be used to prosecute Peron on criminal charges.

Mind you, Lungren has yet to charge anyone with a crime. He filed a discreet civil "nuisance" complaint under a state law passed to allow localities to close crack houses. He must be tempted to go further, however, given what has transpired at the CBC the past two years.

But don't take authorities' word for it. That Peron's shop was lax on demanding proof of medical need has been an open secret in S.F.

"Let me put it this way," says a prominent gay activist and former AIDS prevention educator on the subject of nonmedical herb buys at the club, "I had a conversation with a friend, and I told him I knew for sure someone I knew was doing it. And he said he had two friends who were doing it." The activist adds: "I saw my friend showing his Cannabis Club card to a bunch of his friends at a bar -- none of them had cancer or HIV or anything -- and they were all dancing around kissing the card."

Far from the bars, health officials knew Peron had turned his program into something that smacked of a dealer's enterprise. Word filtered to the Health Department's AIDS director, Mitch Katz, as far back as a year ago, says an informed source. His alleged response: We'll deal with the fallout when it comes. (Katz did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

Thankfully, one city liberal isn't content to simply point fingers at Sacramento. Health educator and Police Commissioner Pat Nolan gives the straight dope about the travesty. "Although I'm not happy the state came into the city and busted a very, very important avenue for people with HIV and other life-threatening diseases," she says, "I'm equally disappointed that they had anything at all to find other than a credible, well-run operation."

If only that were the end of it.
Now, Ammiano is calling for another declaration of a municipal public health emergency, like that invoked to allow hypodermic needle distribution to intravenous drug users; this time, the idea is to sanction selling marijuana to the infirm.

Big mistake. And we can only hope that will be made clear to the supervisors before a public hearing on Thursday, Aug. 15.

Working behind the scenes, needle-exchange advocates are trying to drop the curtain on Ammiano's act. Their fear is that Ammiano's plan could prompt a collateral attack from Lungren on the legality of the local emergency declaration that has allowed clean needles to be exchanged for dirty ones to stanch the spread of HIV.

"It is not clear to me whether the practical mechanism that most quickly allows [for the distribution of medicinal marijuana] is a local state of emergency," says Pat Christen, executive director of the AIDS Foundation. "I'm just not sure if an emergency declaration could apply to medical marijuana."

If supervisors would really risk sacrificing an efficacious policy of needle exchange on the altar of a dubious character such as Peron, they must be toking some of his stash.

Power Drain San Diego Mayor Susan Golding made a pitch last week to lure the Pacific Stock Exchange away from San Francisco. She told exchange veep Dale Carlson that she would turn over City Hall to the exchange, put in an options floor, and seismically retrofit the building for free. The move would reduce the exchange's tax bill of $200,000 a year to $2,000 a year. Carlson and Golding will have had plenty of time to talk about the offer, sitting in her private skybox at the GOP convention listening to Colin Powell.

Plug Pulled It was a November natural -- especially for contrarian consultant Jack Davis, the man who convinced S.F. to trade in liberal Mayor Art Agnos for Frank Jordan and then Jordan for Brown. The allure being a crowded liberal field for six supervisors seats -- all sharing the ballot with a pro-labor city charter amendment carrying an estimated annual price tag of $50 million.

Davis was set to run the campaign of former Supervisor Annemarie Conroy, a Republican easily packaged as the taxpayers' best check on the liberal largess. But after a private dinner with Ringmaster Willie, the once fiercely independent pol tucked his tail and left town for a brief respite in Arizona. And Conroy has scotched her candidacy.

Which might be S.F.'s loss. Davis has always been at least refreshingly willing to upend the city's status quo.

George Cothran (gcothran@sfweekly.com) and Chuck Finnie (cfinnie@sfweekly.com) welcome tips, suggestions, and innuendo. Complaints, on the other hand, can be sent to SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco,

About The Authors

George Cothran

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