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Dennis Peron, the founder of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club and the prime mover behind Prop 215, is weighing the offer of a job in Dartmouth, England. It comes from George San Martin, who in the late ’70s worked at the Big Top, a marijuana dispensary run out of Dennis’s Castro Street flat.
It was a place you could come to, hang out and try Gold in the old days, Colombian, Thai
Dennis had the top floor of a three-story Victorian. The front room had big bay windows with lace curtains that let in the light from the West. People sat on Indian pillows from Cost Plus. The phonograph was always on. Houseplants -ferns, coleuses, potted palms, spider plants hung down from the ceiling. On the floor -on a beautiful rug from the Orient- marijuana of all kinds was piled in oblong wooden bowls with pre-rolled joints for sampling. You can call it a hippie dream, I call it self-medication in a therapeutic setting.
Castro off Liberty one night in July With Eyewitness News just happening by (sure) Ten cops got nothing better to do Than bust Dennis Peron and his pot-smoking crew
George was Mexican, small and wiry with Indian features and thick thick black hair which he wore long. He moved to London at the end of the ’70s and put his past encounters with law enforcement to good use. A lawyer hired him to instruct newly arrested clients on their rights and how to behave in custody. This turned out to be a much-needed specialty and George created a business of his own. He did well enough to buy an old hotel in Dartmouth, a beach town in the southwest of England where the weather is relatively mild. Dennis is going to make an exploratory visit in February. If he likes the scene, he’ll move there in June and devote himself to breathing new life into ye olde Agincourt House. "Built in the 13th century and restored in the 16th century," says the prospective manager.
Dennis’s dog, Pinky Lee, already has had a chip implanted (proof of a rabies shot, a requirement for bringing a dog into the UK). In recent years Dennis turned his house on 17th Street into a B&B of sorts, renting out rooms (via Craig’s list) for $60 a night. Some people may be surprised to learn that Dennis’s vow of poverty was for real. Not long ago I rode in an elevator with a San Francisco cop who told me, as if he really knew, "Your friend Peron has a million dollars buried in a hole in Mexico." I said, "I sure hope so.")
Dennis gave us the update at Club Cocomo, which was filled Sunday night by more than 300 people celebrating Wayne Justmann’s 60th b-day. Wayne’s friends include the poor and the powerless as well as the pols. Everybody had come to have a good time. Nobody was selling anything. Nobody was there as a customer or a clerk. There was gaiety in the air, and mutual respect based on collective political accomplishment. It’s so rare that the class divisions seem to break down, even for a minute, and it sure feels good when they do.
Three cannabis club proprietors and a cultivator had picked up the tab for food and entertainment. Party planner Michael Ramos had made all the arrangements, and Rush and family of Club Cocomo had donated the space. "Wayne has done so much for the movement," one of the organizers explained, "and he’s never been in it for the money. When I first moved here three years ago he trusted me and made me feel needed and introduced me to people… He’s just a great friend and fun to be with."
Wayne’s contributions to the movement/industry include security at Dennis’s Market Street club; creation of the Patients Resource Center at 350 Divisadero (urgently needed when Dennis was forced to close); campaign work for Terence Hallinan and other pro-cannabis politicians; mediating internal disputes; making useful connections; effective lobbying at City Hall for a medical marijuana card program run by the Dept. of Public Health, and now Prop S to involve the city in cultivation and/or distribution… About five years ago Wayne made a serious effort to organize club proprietors, growers, and patient advocates into a political action group. His "consortium" never coalesced, but the monthly meetings he and Randi Webster held at 350 Divisadero fostered a sense of community and enabled people to keep abreast of legal and political developments.
Wayne learned about politics from some hoods who employed him as a bodyguard back in Cicero, Illinois. He’s a name-dropper and a back-slapper but he does it like he’s playing a part. He’s a big man, maybe 6’3, 225, calm and friendly, like Alex Karras in Victor Victoria. Wayne was diagnosed positive in 1988 and here it is 2005 and he looks hale and hearty. The epidemic isn’t killing people overnight anymore. What a good reason for a party.
Dennis had a long conversation with Ross Mirkarimi, the new supervisor from the Haight/Inner Sunset and called him "The next Harvey Milk if he does what he says he’s gonna do." For many years Mirkarimi has done political work in the supportive role (rather than the leadership role). He ran campaigns for Terence Hallinan and Ralph Nader (2000 in California) and Bruce Bruggmann (public power) and Matt Gonzalez, and made his living as an investigator for the DA’s office. Last year Gonzalez chose not to seek another term. Mirkarimi ran as a Green, with Matt’s endorsement, and won big. He was always a hard-working, devoted lieutenant, but one senses that he is delighted to be in charge of the office at last, his own man.
State Sen. Mark Leno read a proclamation honoring Wayne and Wayne pointed to Dennis in the throng and called him "the man who opened the door for us…" The entertainment was anchored by the Extra Action Marching Band and included a hard-not-to-dance-to rap act, "Los Marijuanos." When the Field Manager of Americans for Safe Access took the stage to do a striptease, Grampa Fred said his goodnights.
In Case You Just Joined Us
It’s been seven years since the state of California declared the San Francisco Buyer’s Club a nuisance and Dennis semi-retired from politics. >From the sidelines he criticized "the buy-low-sell-high-model" cannabis clubs that claimed to be emulating him. "This isn’t about marijuana," he would say, "this is about how we treat each other as people, this is about America." His morale had been undermined by activists who paid lip service to his leadership but wouldn’t follow it.
Dennis had devoted 25 years laying the groundwork for the Prop 215 campaign. He came back from Vietnam in ’69 with 2 lbs in his Air Force duffel bag, and became a San Francisco marijuana dealer. He was busted a dozen times and always went back into business. He wrote and successfully pushed a proposition to legalize possession of an ounce or less in San Francisco. He stopped crusading for legalization and focused on making marijuana available for medical use as his longtime companion Jonathan West was dying of AIDS in 1990. The first cannabis buyers club was launched in a flat on Sanchez Street in October, 1991. In ’93 Dennis rented and decorated a large space above a bar on Church and Market. The club moved again in ’95, with membership approaching 7,000, to 1444 Market St., a five-story building. Dennis began organizing in earnest a statewide campaign to legalize marijuana for medical use (Prop 215).
In January, 1996, when the signature drive was coming up short, Ethan Nadelmann -a drug-policy-reform advocate funded by George Soros and several other billionaires- offered to hire a commercial signature gatherer on the condition that Dennis be replaced as campaign manager by a "professional" from Santa Monica. The initiative was already ahead in the polls and the professional’s only discernible effect was to draft ballot arguments that ultimately weakened it in the courts. George Soros et al have received a disproportionate share of the credit (and blame) for Prop 215; their only real contribution was an infusion of cash.
Many activists shook their heads disapprovingly when Dennis generalized, "All marijuana use is medical." (His accompanying line was "In a system where they prescribe Prozac for shy teenagers…") They thought he was being tricky (they were projecting) and they failed to respect the research he’d done, the real work of listening to thousands of men and women describing their marijuana use. Dennis was sincere when he modified his demand in 1990 to "medical use," and he was sincere in ’96 when he concluded that "All use is medical." But he’s no perfect saint. During the Prop 215 signature drive, Dennis exaggerated to a New York Times reporter the number of people who had already signed. The high number found its way into print, the article convinced Soros that the initiative had a chance, and the rest is history.
FRED GARDNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org