The next time you light up a joint, take a moment to celebrate Dennis Peron. Few people devoted so much of themselves to the ‘legalize weed’ cause. Police arrested Peron a total of 16 times. He served a six-month prison sentence and shed blood for his beliefs. His friendship with Harvey Milk briefly gave hope in the 1970s, but it was cruelly snuffed out by an assassin’s bullets.
Indeed, Peron championed two causes. The openly homosexual activist also fought for gay rights. He dedicated almost half a century to his purposes and became known as the ‘father of medical marijuana in California’. His was an extraordinary life, so let’s look at it in greater detail.
Dennis Peron Bio: Early Life & War Years
Dennis Peron was born in The Bronx on April 8, 1945, into an Italian-American family. He lived on Long Island during his youth. Peron later claimed that he knew he was gay by the age of 10. He discovered weed relatively early in life and used it as a senior in New York’s Valley Stream High School.
Peron dropped out of community college in 1966. By then, America had become involved in the Vietnam War. Peron was drafted into the army and had no option but to serve his country in the bloody conflict. He first visited San Francisco, where he would gain fame, en-route to Vietnam.
He cut a unique figure when he arrived in Southeast Asia. Wearing bells and peace signs, there is no question that he stood out! Peron also brought 100 hits of acid with him! According to Peron, “Half the USO place was gay.” During the February 1968 Tet offensive by the Viet Cong, Peron spent a week trapped outside Saigon. He witnessed many gruesome deaths and received the macabre task of stacking the body bags.
It was during this period that Peron ‘came out’ as a gay man. Upon his return, he stated: “I want to dedicate my life to world peace.” He fervently believed that marijuana was an anti-war drug. After all, it tends to calm people down, and there is a community element to the ritual of joint sharing. Upon his return home, Peron moved to San Francisco’s Castro District.
While Eureka Valley was traditionally a working-class Irish community, the early 1970s saw an influx of gay hippies. It didn’t take long for Peron to become one of the area’s best-known individuals.
Going to Pot
Peron said that he became tremendously idealistic and began dealing weed. He was also on food stamps, not an issue because he renounced wealth and power. He went back to school to become a psychiatrist. However, his marijuana dealing business was booming, so he decided to quit education and dedicate himself to the herb.
Peron wasn’t a master of clandestine dealing. The police caught him selling cannabis regularly. After each bust, Peron returned to his practice of selling weed from his living room! He tried his hand at a different enterprise in 1974 when he opened a restaurant called ‘The Island’.
Of course, he actively encouraged cannabis use in his new establishment. The Island, located in the Castro District, always had the lingering odor of marijuana smoke. He continued to sell the herb from his flat upstairs. Peron’s many brushes with the law convinced him to hire a defense lawyer named Tony Serra on retainer!
Purchasing weed from Peron was as easy as knocking on the door and saying, “I’m a friend of Dennis’s.” At that point, you went upstairs to a living room filled with stoned individuals. Peron seemed to know thousands of people on a first-name basis. There is no question that the hippies in the area viewed him as a leader.
Harvey Milk gained prominence by becoming the first openly gay elected official in California’s history. Milk served 11 months in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from January – November 1978. During that period, he sponsored a bill banning discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on a person’s sexual orientation. The bill was a success, passing by 11 votes to 1. Mayor George Moscone signed it into law.
Peron did a lot more than simply champion the marijuana cause. He dedicated himself to improving the lives of the oppressed LGBT community. Sensing an opportunity to make a difference, he worked as a supervisor on Milk’s campaigns in 1973 and 1975. They became friends. Milk was another great individual who ultimately lost his life trying to help others.
The 1976 Moscone Act decriminalized the possession of up to an ounce of cannabis. With friends in high places, Peron was confident that the tide was turning in his favor. Sadly, ignorance and the actions of a desperate man changed everything.
Dennis Peron and the Big Top Arrest
Peron’s world turned upside down in 1978. In his words, he heard a rumbling at the door. He saw a man with a gun coming up the stairs. Peron assumed it was a robber and held a large water bottle over his head. He threatened to throw the bottle at the gunman in what was a futile gesture. The armed man shot Peron in the femur, while a second bullet narrowly missed his head.
The gunman held his weapon at Peron’s head, and announced that he was placing the drug dealer under arrest! The police seized $250,000, four pounds of mushrooms, 3,000 hits of acid, and 200 pounds of marijuana. It seemed likely that the Big Top raid would see Peron spend a very long time in prison.
The police officer who shot Peron, Paul Macevecis, was a close friend of Dan White, a political enemy of Milk’s. The trial lasted four months, and Peron faced a lengthy spell behind bars. That is, until the day that Macevecis revealed his hatred for homosexuals. As Peron explains it, one day, he told the cop that he loved his shoes.
Macevecis replied: “You mother****ing fa**ot. I should have killed you, so there’d be one less fa**ot in San Francisco.” The cop didn’t realize that a host of attorneys heard his outburst. From there, it was a case of wearing him down on the stand. One day in court, Peron’s lawyers asked Macevecis where he shot Peron.
The cop took out his gun and aimed it at Peron’s chest. He chillingly held the position long after the attorneys stopped asking questions. The court threw out his testimony, and Peron received a very light sentence. He served just six months in San Bruno prison.
A Double Assassination
Given the prejudice we see today, it is hardly a surprise to learn that it was much worse back in the 1970s. Milk endured a torrent of hate during his political rise. He received regular hate mail and death threats. He knew there was a good chance that he would die at the hands of a crazed lunatic. Perhaps he didn’t realize how close the killer was.
Dan White served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The ex-paratrooper, fireman, and cop, represented the most hateful segment of society. The homophobic White resigned in protest upon the passing of the Gay Rights Ordinance. On November 27, 1978, White climbed through a basement window in City Hall. He murdered Moscone, strolled into Milk’s office, and shot him five times.
For Peron, it was a crushing blow for his causes, and also on a personal level. He blamed himself for the death of Milk. Peron stated that Milk openly supported drug users. One day, during an interview for the Chronicle after the Big Top bust, a reporter asked Peron if he had any friends. He said that Harvey Milk was his friend.
The reporters rushed to Milk, who quickly stated that Peron WAS his friend and an upstanding member of the community. At a board of supervisors meeting, White denounced Milk for supporting a marijuana dealer. Peron believed that his actions led to his friend’s death. In reality, White was a psychotic, hate-filled man. Peron should never have thought it was his fault.
Plowing on Grimly
By 1978, it seemed as if marijuana legalization was inevitable. Milk told Peron that he would appoint him to San Francisco’s Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse upon his release. One can only speculate on what a combination of Milk and Peron could achieve. As it happened, Peron was in San Bruno prison at the time of Milk’s murder.
In that year, Peron organized Proposition W. It directed the District Attorney to stop arresting people for transferring, growing, or possessing cannabis in San Francisco. The electorate voted in favor, with 56% of individuals saying ‘Yes.’ After the deaths of Moscone and Milk, the Diane Feinstein administration took over. She was rapidly anti-marijuana, so Proposition W died with its proponents.
A heartbroken Peron pressed on with his cause. He suffered another devastating blow in September 1990 when his partner, Jonathan West, died from AIDS. Peron pointed out that cannabis was the only drug that eased West’s pain. Earlier that year, the police arrested Peron once again. On this occasion, the marijuana belonged to West. As he lay in a prison cell on the night of January 27, 1990, Peron had an epiphany.
He felt sorry for West, who was alone with no weed. Peron thought about creating a friendly place where people like his partner could go to get marijuana. West lived long enough to testify at Peron’s trial and confirmed that the weed belonged to him. West died two weeks later.
In 1991, Peron organized Measure P. It proposed that law enforcement in San Francisco recognized marijuana crimes as the city’s lowest priority. 79% of people voted in favor of it.
Dennis Peron and the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club
Peron’s vision of a peaceful location to buy weed materialized in the form of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. He launched version #1 in a Sanchez Street flat in October 1991. Peron pledged to sell his marijuana to those who needed it for medical reasons. He gave it for free to those who couldn’t afford to pay.
By late 1993, the Club was so successful that Peron moved it to a larger location on Church and Market. There were 2,000 members by the summer of 1994. The Club was a place for medical marijuana, but also a hub for activists. Cannabis legends such as Jack Herer frequented the club. By the beginning of 1995, the Club had more than 4,000 members.
In mid-August 1994, 39 of the Club’s 40 voting members approved a plan to push for the legalization of medical marijuana. Jack Herer was the only dissenting voice because he wanted full legalization. However, he eventually changed his mind and gave his support. Incidentally, Peron jointly released a cannabis edibles cookbook with Brownie Mary!
He leased 1444 Market Street in August 1995. He used it to promote cannabis and gay rights causes. The building also served wholesome food on paper plates for $1. It also had a ‘bud bar’ where you could buy or sell marijuana. The membership of the Buyer’s Club exceeded 10,000 by 1996.
Medical Marijuana Legalization – A Dream Attained
As big as the movement was, it didn’t have the 433,000 signatures needed to put the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 on the ballot. Fortunately, a group of wealthy individuals donated money to help promote a drive for signees. In August 1996, law enforcement raided the Club and seized 400 plants, $60,000 in cash, and 150 pounds of weed.
Peron wanted to defy the city by reopening his Club. Eventually, he relented because opening the Club could jeopardize the upcoming ballot. On November 5, 1996, Proposition 215 passed with 56% of the vote. California was the first state in the modern era to legalize medical marijuana.
Dennis Peron Biography – A Life Well Lived
The Club reopened in the aftermath of Proposition 215. Peron continued his incursion into politics by running for California Governor in a Republican Primary. Interestingly, he later opposed Proposition 19 in the state in 2010. It aimed to legalize recreational cannabis. However, Peron stated his belief that everyone who uses the herb does so for medical reasons. He also opposed legalization of the herb for children.
In later life, Peron settled down and owned a 20-acre marijuana farm in California. He was finally able to grow and use medical marijuana in peace. Towards the end of his life, Peron spoke out against cannabis taxation. He saw it as a means of buying courtrooms into acceptance. He always viewed weed as a medicine, and was aghast at the idea of having to ‘pay the bear just to keep him away from us.’
Tragically, Peron developed lung cancer. In 2017, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors presented him with a Certificate of Honor. It was the very least Peron deserved for dedicating his life to noble causes. From the killing fields of Vietnam to jail cells and courtrooms, he is a man who experienced a lot in his life.
On January 27, 2018, Peron died in San Francisco’s Veteran’s Administration Health Center. Few people can claim to have pushed the case for medical marijuana more than Dennis Peron. His courage and commitment went a long way towards MMJ legalization. We have much to thank him for.