The Indispensable Leader of the Marijuana Movement
Last weekend at the Emerald Cup, a sprawling hempfest held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Dennis Peron got a lifetime achievement award and I got to present it. The marijuana legalization movement would not have achieved its great breakthrough in 1996 had it not been for Dennis, the founder and maitre’d of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.
Proposition 215, the ballot initiative by which California voters legalized the herb for medical use that November, was for sure a collective effort; but Dennis’s biography and personal fearlessness made him the indispensable leader. He had been challenging the marijuana laws by direct action since 1969, when he came back from Vietnam with two pounds in his Air Force duffle bag, and by legal and political means since 1970, when he was first busted by the SFPD narcs.
Dennis simply refused to accept that anybody —no cop, no district attorney, no judge— could tell him he didn’t have a right to smoke marijuana. “And the right to smoke it means the right to get it,” he would explain, “which means people have to have the right to grow it and sell it.”
Dennis was and is Puckish —clever, mischievous, and pretty. Even in his late 60s, even after suffering a stroke, his mind is still light on his feet. He’s from the Bronx originally, grew up on Long Island, one of five kids in an Italian-American family. His mom was a housewife, his dad an accountant employed by the city of New York.
He first came to San Francisco on his way to Vietnam in 1967. When the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive began in February ’68, Dennis’s unit was pinned down for a week outside Saigon. He saw a lot of death. He was assigned to stack the body bags. It was during this time, he says, that he came out as a gay man. He came home saying, “I want to dedicate my life to world peace.” He was convinced that marijuana was inherently an anti-war drug, due to its calming effect and the sharing ritual associated with its use. A hippie from head to heels.
In the 1970s and ’80s Dennis was busted for selling pot more than a dozen times, and after every bust he would resume selling out of his living room, which would become a legendary salon. In ’74 he opened a restaurant called “The Island” at the corner of 16th and Sanchez Streets in the Castro district. Pot was always in the air and could be purchased in the flat upstairs. Tony Serra, the flamboyant criminal defense specialist, was put on a retainer. Dennis’s friend Harvey Milk —a camera store owner who headed the Castro Street Merchants Associations— used The Island as campaign headquarters when he ran unsuccessfully for State Assembly in ’75.
I met Dennis in this period through a neighbor who worked for Catholic Social Services and brought me to this house on Castro Street where you could knock on the door and say “I’m a friend of Dennis’s” and be led upstairs to a living room where everyone was smoking joints and talking with a record player always on. This hippie heaven was on the third floor of a Victorian, with windows letting in the sun through Indian block print cotton and lace curtains, houseplants everywhere, a used but very good Persian rug, bowls from Cost Plus filled with Acapulco Gold, Colombian, Thai weed… Looking at Michael Zagaris’s photo of George San Marin rolling joints, you can almost hear Big Brother and the Holding Company. (They played to close the Emerald Cup, and were as great as ever.)
Dennis seemed to know thousands of people on a first-name-only basis. The phone would ring and Dennis would say, “I know so many Judies. Are you the Judy who works at Wells Fargo or the Judy who works at the aquarium?”
I covered one of his trials and was struck by how many people waved hello as he walked down Van Ness Avenue. Of one passerby I asked, “Is she a customer or a friend?” Dennis lilted, “Oh, you know, friends become customers, customers become friends.”
The “Miracle Ounce”
The San Francisco narcs hated him. During one raid on his Castro St. flat —widely known as “The Big Top”— Dennis was shot in the thigh by a cop named Paul Mackavekias. The raiders were dressed in plain clothes and looked like thugs and Dennis assumed he was being ripped off by a gang. (Which he was. The SFPD Narcotics Squad even had their own colors —Hawaiian shirts.) He stood at the top of the stairs with a half-empty four-gallon water bottle held aloft as if to defend himself when he took the bullet. I interviewed him in the hospital and began to get to know him.
The ensuing trial took four months (the court stenographer became a good friend of Dennis’s). The officers who testified at length, mainly Mackavekias and his partner Greg Corrales, the second man through the door, got to spend days listening to contemptuous jive from Dennis’s diverse crew. Mackavekias snapped. All his testimony was thrown out after he blurted, in the presence of witnesses, that he wished he’d killed Peron so there’d be “one less faggot in San Francisco.” Dennis received a lighter sentence as a result of this outburst, and wound up doing seven months in jail in San Bruno.
Some 20 years later, at the height of the Prop 215 campaign, Dennis would goad Dan Lungren, California’s rightwing Attorney General, into a self-defeating tantrum at a press conference. Recalling Mackavekias’s outburst, Dennis said, “These macho cops just can’t stand the idea that a skinny little faggot won’t fold up and go away because they say so.”
Dennis had gotten involved in electoral politics working on Harvey Milk’s campaigns for supervisor in 1973 and ’75. They had first met in New York, where Milk had helped produce a show about Lenny Bruce, which he took Dennis to see. Milk was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in ’77, becoming the first openly gay elected official in the country.
Dennis then drafted and collected signatures for an initiative —named Prop W, as in weed— whereby the people of San Francisco instructed their law enforcement officials not to press any marijuana-related charges. It carried, and Mayor George Moscone notified the police that possession of an ounce or less should henceforth be ignored.
Very soon Dennis saw the contradictions in decriminalization. “It’ s the ‘miracle ounce,’ ” he observed. “It’ s illegal to grow marijuana, it’s illegal to possess a pound, it’s illegal to sell or buy it. Where did all those people get their legal ounces? Every one of them must be a miracle!”
He was planning a rigorous legalization campaign at the state level when the assassination of Milk and Moscone by a former policeman named Dan White took away his most significant allies and turned the local political landscape into a cratered wasteland as the 1970s came to an end.
Then came the epidemic. And again Dennis saw a lot of death.
Marijuana and AIDS
Dennis says he decided to change his tactical approach —to stop crusading for legalization and to concentrate on making marijuana available for those in medical need— as his longtime companion Jonathan West was dying of AIDS in 1990. “Jonathan was taking many prescribed drugs,” Dennis recounts, “and there were severe side effects, from nausea to loss of appetite. Marijuana was the only drug that eased his pain and restored his appetite and gave him some moments of dignity in that last year. And of course I had hundreds of friends with AIDS who relied on marijuana for the same reasons: appetite, relief from nausea, relief from pain, to be able to sleep.”
On the night of January 27, 1990, a squad of SFPD narcs came to his house and busted Dennis for selling pot. As Dennis tells it, “There were four ounces of Thai weed in the house and it was Jonathan’s. I wasn’t dealing at that time because taking care of him had become my full-time job. He was very thin and he had KS [Kaposi’s Sarcoma] lesions on his face. The cops made a big production of putting on their rubber gloves before tearing up the place. When they saw the picture of me and Harvey [in which the two young men are hugging] they went into a harangue about ‘that fag.’” Dennis says he recognized one of the cops as a former bodyguard for Moscone. “I told him, ‘Great job you did protecting George.’”
A vision of the cannabis buyers club came to him later that night, Dennis says, as he was lying on a cement slab at the Mission Station. “The cops were coming by and banging with their nightsticks and yelling, ‘Hey, Peron, we’re gonna get you!’ And I was thinking about Jonathan all alone and without any marijuana. And I was thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where he could go and be among friends?’ Jonathan had the KS on his face and I was thinking, ‘He wouldn’t be ashamed here.’ And the place in my dream was the buyers club.”
Jonathan West died in September 1990, two weeks after testifying at Peron’s trial that the confiscated pot belonged to him. He was down to 90 pounds. “Doesn’t that tell you something?” says Dennis. “He lived to testify at my trial and then he let go of life.”
The Medical Marijuana Movement
The first version of the cannabis buyers club was launched in a flat on Sanchez Street in October, 1991. Dennis had three quarters of a pound, which he said he would provide to people who needed it for medical reasons —and free to those who couldn’t afford it.
He was taking his cue from the Healing Alternatives buyers club around the corner on Church Street, which had been established to provide vitamins at cost to AIDS patients and to obtain an Israeli egg-yolk extract known as AL-721 that was commercially unavailable in the U.S. and had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He was also inspired by the HIV community to act on the available anecdotal evidence instead of waiting for the medical efficacy of marijuana to be proven at an academic research center and published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The millions of Americans who started smoking marijuana in social settings in the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s were generally unaware that it had been widely prescribed as a medicine in the not-too-distant past. Over the years we figured out or heard about medical applications —from a friend of a friend in the VA hospital who used it for spasticity; an aunt who made it through chemo by smoking pot; a grampa who requested it for pain— but there was no journal, no institute tracking who was using marijuana for what medical purposes and to what effect.
In starting the cannabis buyers club, Dennis Peron provided a setting in which people who were using marijuana for medical purposes could compare notes and get a sense of their numbers. Berkeley psychiatrist Tod Mikuriya, MD, seeing “a unique research opportunity,” signed on as medical coordinator and began interviewing members about their conditions, pattern of marijuana use, and results.
As always, Dennis hoped to bring the law into conformity with his operation. In 1991 he drafted and organized support for Proposition P (as in pot), whereby “The People of the City and County of San Francisco recommend that the State of California and the California Medical Association restore hemp medical preparations to the list of medicines in California. Licensed physicians shall not be penalized for or restricted from prescribing hemp preparations for medical purposes to any patient.”
Prop P carried San Francisco with 80% of the vote. The Board of Supervisors then passed resolution 741-92 —a medical marijuana measure introduced by Terence Hallinan—which Dennis cited as “the authority by which the buyers club will supply cannabis and other hemp byproducts to those who can benefit by it.”
By the fall of ’93, the cannabis buyers club had outgrown the original Sanchez St. location. Dennis rented and decorated a 2,000 square foot room above a bar on Church and Market. Mikuriya designed an admissions protocol which Dennis and his staff attempted to follow. By the summer of ’94 there were 2,000 members.
The club not only attracted sick people who used it as a dispensary and floating support group, it also became a center for people who considered themselves activists in a political reform movement. Dennis began holding monthly Sunday night meetings at the club. Among those who came were Dale Gieringer, PhD, the head of California NORML. Valerie Corral and Mike Corral came up from Santa Cruz. Val has epilepsy, the result of an accident suffered in the ’70s; Mike had become a grower to develop strains that worked best for her. There was Jack Herer, author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes, who had been pushing for legalization since the early ’70s from his home base in the San Fernando Valley. Pebbles Trippet, a migraine sufferer who’d been arrested often over the years for marijuana possession and transportation, challenging each conviction on the basis of “medical necessity” (and eventually establishing transportation as an “implicit right” on appeal). Tod Mikuriya, MD, the Berkeley-based psychiatrist who had compiled and self-published an anthology of the pre-prohibition medical literature on marijuana. Bill Panzer and Rob Raich, lawyers from the East Bay. Bob Basker, a union man and longtime ally of Dennis’s, and John Entwistle, Dennis’s closest political confidante (and as of yesterday, his spouse!)… Historian Michael Aldrich, PhD, and his activist wife Michelle. Community organizer Gilbert Baker. Chris Conrad, who was writing Hemp for Health with Mikki Norris. Mary Rathbun —a waitress who’d been baking edibles for AIDS patients, widely beloved as “Brownie Mary.” David Smith —not the David Smith who founded the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. Basile Gabriel, Lynnette Shaw, Scott Imler, Dave Bowman, Vic Hernandez… To name a few.
In ’ 94 and ’ 95 these activists helped draft and lobby for bills introduced by State Senator John Vasconcellos (D. Santa Clara) that would have made marijuana use legal, with a doctor’s approval, by patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma. The short list of conditions was insisted on by law enforcement and accepted by Vasconcellos to get majority support. Both bills passed the legislature —Milton Marks of San Francisco had sponsored them in the state senate— only to be vetoed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson.
By the start of ’95 the S.F. Cannabis Buyers Club had some 4,000 members and Dennis was looking for an even bigger place. Terence Hallinan had been elected district attorney —meaning that San Francisco’s top prosecutor was now a defense specialist who, as a supervisor, had introduced a resolution that legitimized medical marijuana use in the city. And Willie Brown, also a former criminal defense lawyer, was mayor. Dennis seemed secure in his home base, unaware that Greg Corrales, who had risen to head the SFPD narcotics squad, had launched an undercover investigation of this club.
Dennis proposed overcoming Gov. Wilson’s veto of the Vasconcellos bills by an initiative through which California voters would change the state’s Health & Safety code to legalize marijuana for medical use —and not just for the few conditions specified in Vasco’s bill. For 25 years he had been mounting legal defenses and political campaigns to establish his right to operate a real-world business. He was making progress, slowly but steadily. He was convinced that any jury or electorate checking out his club would endorse his right to run it the way he did.
One Sunday evening in mid-August the activists meeting at the cannabis buyers club voted 39-1 to devote themselves to getting an open-ended medical marijuana initiative on the ballot. The only dissent came from Jack Herer, who in 1994 had organized a drive to legalize hemp for all uses. Herer considered it philosophically untenable to work for anything less than comprehensive legalization. Pebbles Trippet reminded him, “If medical wins, I wouldn’t be facing jail.” Herer came to support the initiative in due course.
The first draft of the measure that would become Proposition 215 had been written by Dennis and Dale Gieringer of California NORML in July ’95 and revised in the months to come in negotiations that included John Entwistle, attorney Bill Panzer, Valeric Corral, and others. It was Valerie who insisted that the initiative establish the right to cultivate.
At the Cannabis Buyers Club Dennis had been observing —and Dr. Mikuriya was documenting— patients with an extremely wide range of medical problems who obtained relief from marijuana. Mikuriya agreed with Dennis that the ballot measure should apply not only to patients diagnosed with a short list of specified medical problems but to any condition for which it proved beneficial.
Although many activists thought the open-ended approach would undermine the initiative’s chances of passing, Dennis had the moral authority to prevail. He was the undisputed leader of the movement and he was doing the real work of providing marijuana to people in need on a daily basis. The final draft filed with the Secretary of State reflected Dennis’s view of himself as a “caregiver.” (AIDS patients at the time were receiving care from an array of sources —food from Open Hand, legal help from the SF AIDS Foundation, etc.) The initiative’s open-ended nature was asserted in the first sentence, which allows doctors to approve “the use of marijuana in the treatment of cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.”
Dennis also prevailed initially on the question of how signatures would be raised. Attornye Bill Panzer and others advocated raising money to hire a professional signature-gathering firm. (Proceeds from the cannabis buyers club could not legally be used for that purpose.) Dennis’s line was, “Let’ s do it with love.” Meaning, let’s have club members go to their friends and friends of friends with the petitions. He had always developed support for his operations in this direct, organic manner, and he saw no reason to change.
1444 Market Street
In August ’95 Dennis leased 1444 Market Street —a narrow five-story building constructed in 1908 that had been vacant for years. Next door was a shelter serving alcoholics and addicts. Across Market St. loomed a massive, ugly building in which hundreds of Bank of America clerical workers spent their days at computers keeping track of who owes what to who. The civic center was a few blocks away on Van Ness.
The building at 1444 Market St. had been damaged in the quake of ’89 and then reinforced with steel girders and crossbeams that broke up the floor space. “It was perfect for a buyers club,” says Dennis. “We just put counters between the girders.” He named it “The Brownie Mary Rathbun Building” in honor of his close friend and ally who’d had several tragicomic run-ins with the law for the crime of baking cannabis goodies for AIDS patients. The city of San Francisco, if it knew how, would give 1444 Market St. landmark status, or at least put up a plaque. History was made there.
The third and fourth floors —the main floors of the club— were decked out with rugs and serapes, houseplants, origami birds, mobiles, incandescent lamps, bookshelves, artwork, political signs, a couple of television sets, a large aquarium. There was plenty of natural light, the ceilings were high, the furniture was comfortable, the place was kept spotlessly clean. It was an extension of Dennis’s living room.
The ground floor was devoted to offices —one for registering club members, one for registering voters and collecting signatures for the initiative. The second floor was where most of the staff worked. A small room adjoining the staircase was devoted to campaign materials and political literature for patrons to read and distribute. (The leaflets were not just about marijuana. Dennis’s commitment to gay rights and world peace never waned.) That room also housed a heavy-duty photocopy machine, which nobody made more use of than Pebbles Trippet.
Wholesome food was served on paper plates for $1. (There was no kitchen at the time and it all had to be prepared elsewhere and brought in). In the cooler, along with the bottled water and fruit juices and sodas, there was a large supply of liquid nutritional supplement (“Ensure”) for patrons who couldn’ t hold down solid food. Bowls of oranges were strategically placed on every floor.
The bud bar
Samples of the buds for sale were displayed under glass cake covers on the counters, labeled as to type (“Mexican sinsemilla,” etc.) and priced by a star system (1 star = $5/per eighth of an ounce, up to 4 stars = $55). The typical sale was for an eighth, but budtenders —which is what the vendors were called— would sell up to an ounce if the buyer could document that he or she was leaving town or going into the hospital. Patrons seeking to buy larger quantities were directed to Dennis, who would sell a pound occasionally to buyers whose stated intention was to distribute it to sick people.
By the spring of ’96 Dennis had 16 bakers working as subcontractors. He would get the leaf from the growers and provide it to the bakers free. It was all he could do to keep up with the demand, selling between 300 and 500 baked goods a day —brownies, rice krispies, pudding, every baker had a different specialty. “This was something they did at home,” Dennis says. “They really enjoyed it and they got paid by the piece, $2 or $2.50. We’d sell them for $4 to $5. But you could get it for $3, or free, if you had no money.” The club also sold “merry pills” —a pun on Marinol— containing high-grade marijuana sauteed lightly in olive oil.
More than 90 people were employed, many of whom had AIDS. There were food servers, registration workers, carpenters and custodians, budtenders, bouncers and office workers, as well as people who helped deal with the dealers and growers. Big Wayne Justmann, formerly homeless, was in charge of security. Employees got all the pot they wanted and people who needed cash got cash. Dennis kept no records. He had always managed his business by a seat-of-the-pants method, and that he didn’t change as he did more volume.
To become a member of the cannabis buyers club you needed a letter of diagnosis from a doctor confirming your medical condition. No prescription or letter of recommendation was required, in other words the doctor didn’t have to agree that cannabis should be part of the treatment plan. Membership was granted or refused by a registration worker on the club’s ground floor, based on a protocol developed by Dr. Mikuriya.
District Attorney Hallinan was concerned about the looseness with which Peron operated, and arranged a meeting in June ’96 at which he advised, among other things, that the club not allow members to bring guests. “I also questioned him about the financial side of his operation,” says Hallinan. “He explained that he was making a profit, less than people thought —remember, he had to buy all this marijuana— but his numbers added up in terms of what he said he spent and what he made and what he paid his employees and what he put back into the club. He claims the money they made was going to buy a place on the Russian River, a resort for the club members. Is he a profiteer? We see no evidence of that. He lives with a bunch of people in a small house, he doesn’t have a new car, he doesn’t take vacations, he doesn’ t have a big family that he’ s trying to leave a fortune to. He says ‘The club is my family.’’
By the summer of ’ 96 the S.F . Cannabis Buyers Club had about 10,000 members. Dennis estimated that about half had AIDS. People 55 or older were automatically qualified for membership. Others, Dennis said, had insomnia, chronic pain, menstrual cramps, colitis, epilepsy, arthritis, debilitating emotional problems, “and many other conditions, some of which I’ve never even heard of.” Mikuriya, who had published an anthology of the pre-prohibition medical literature on cannabis, documented the newly reported uses.
At any given time the crowd bellying up to the bars included a certain percentage of perfectly healthy people who were there as guests. (In June of ’96 the practice of allowing club members to bring guests was abandoned at Hallinan’s urging.) For sure the parons included some who had entered under false pretenses. On a couple of occasions I tried to figure out how many were in this category, with help from Lynne Barnes —better known as Geo-—a former oncology nurse at UCSF Medical Center who had become a full-time volunteer at the club. It was a macabre exercise and was being conducted at the same time, unbeknownst to me, by undercover narcotics agents, who probably skewed my survey by their presence.
Dennis defended his practice of admitting everyone over 55 by asking, “Don’t you think people that age have the right to decide what they want to treat their aches and pains with?”
When allies expressed concern that his looseness might jeopardize the cause of Proposition 215, he would reiterate, “This is about more than marijuana, it’s about compassion. It’ s about America. It’s about how we treat each other as people.”
The presence of some perfectly healthy people contributed to the environment he was trying to achieve. Although a large percentage of people at the club were visibly ill, the place did not have the feel of a hospital ward; quite the opposite, it had the feel of a happening fern bar serving people of all ages and all types.
Dennis’ s ultimate looseness in the eyes of his detractors was to allow a young parent with a toddler in hand to enter, on occasion, a room containing second-hand marijuana smoke. Dennis says that he does not think smoking marijuana is good for kids, then adds, “Did it ever occur to these people who are so concerned about the toddlers that the toddlers might have AIDS, too? Or that mom really needs her medicine, which is impossible to get anyplace else? Would they rather she left her kid in the car?”
The Helpful Usurpers
By late January, 1996, it had become clear that Dennis’s network of volunteers could not come up with enough signatures to place the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 on the ballot. Some 433,000 valid signatures were needed by April 24; Dennis’s followers claimed to have gotten 175,000 of uncertain validity. Bill Panzer believes that number was inflated.
Enter Ethan Nadelmann, a drug-policy expert who ran a Manhattan think tank called the Lindesmith Center (now called the Drug Policy Alliance), through which he allocated $4 million annually on behalf of financier George Soros. Nadelmann has a law degree from Harvard, a doctorate from Princeton, and had written a book about the drug war. He knew the effort to get a medical marijuana initiative on the California ballot had a strong chance of success. Soros agreed to back a professional signature drive after reading a New York Times article that said Dennis already had gathered 200,000 valid signatures. (A false claim that achieved its purpose.)
Nadelmann was concerned about Soros et al being perceived as out-of-staters exerting political influence in California (which of course they were). He also wanted proof that the reform effort had support beyond Dennis Peron’s circle of friends. He got reassurance on both counts in February when George “I Guarantee It” Zimmer, president of the Men’ s Wearhouse, a resident of Oakland, pledged $105,000 towards a professional signature drive.
Nadelmann then kicked in $350,000 from Soros; $300,000 from Peter Lewis, the owner of Progressive Insurance in Cleveland; $100,000 from John Sperling, a professor of economic history whose Phoenix-based Apollo Group owned 88 private colleges.(and who was also backing a medical marijuana initiative in his home state of Arizona), and $50,000 from Laurence Rockefeller.
“All these individuals, as businessmen, consider drug prohibition wasteful and costly,” said Nadelmann in an interview with your correspondent, “and each has personal reasons for feeling strongly about it.” Of Soros he said, “He has a practical concern about the drug issue: it’s in danger of bankrupting the country. We’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on the war on drugs, if you count law enforcement, medical costs, and lost productivity.” In other words, the donors represented an enlightened faction of capital.
There were strings attached to the money. Nadelmann demanded that control of the campaign be placed in the hands of a “professional,” and he selected a Santa Monica consultant named Bill Zimmerman. “Dennis Peron is a remarkable character,” Nadelmann acknowledged in an interview with your correspondent, “and it’s true that the movement was ‘organic,’ in that he got his signatures through volunteers. But if I had one moral to draw from this situation, it’s to go straight to the professionals and avoid the hassles involved in starting with the grass roots.”
Zimmerman, upon getting the fat cats’ money from Nadelmann, created a front group called Californians for Medical Rights (CMR) and hired a competent outfit called Progressive Campaigns to get the signatures. The signature gatherers were paid 60¢ per —high for a popular measure— and the rate was upped to $1 per signature before they had more than enough.
On April 24 Zimmerman and a lobbyist in his employ named Jim Gonzalez presented some 800,000 signatures to Secretary of State Bill Jones. It was Jones —a Republican career politician actively involved in the No-on-215 campaign— who selected Zimmerman’s rather than Dennis Peron’s ballot arguments in support of Prop 215 for inclusion in the Voters Handbook. These ballot arguments would subsequently be interpreted by judges to weaken the law passed by the voters. The initiative was written, Panzer says, as “a bar to prosecution.” The ballot arguments turned it into “an affirmative defense,” meaning the cops could keep arresting and the DAs could keep hauling people to court for cultivation, distribution, and even possession.
The State Invades the City
Prop 215 was well ahead in the polls when Nadelzimm took over the campaign. A statewide survey in June by David Binder Associates had put the margin of support at 60-40. Most of those polled said they had made up their minds based on personal experience —their own or a loved one’s— and/or media coverage of the San Francisco club. The opposition was led by an over-confident Attorney General Lungren and other Republican politicians and law enforcement officials who assumed the American people would buy their War-on-Drugs propaganda forever. His strategy was to make the vote a referendum on Dennis Peron and the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.
On Sunday morning August 4, some 100 agents from the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, supervised by John Gordnier, the Senior Assistant Attorney General who had obtained the court order, raided 1444 Market Street. Simultaneously, five smaller BNE squads raided the homes of Buyers Club staff members in and around the city. The raiders wore black uniforms with BNE shoulder patches. They seized 150 pounds of marijuana, $60,000 in cash, 400 growing plants, plus thousands of letters of diagnosis that citizens had brought from their doctors and left on file at the club.
“It was strange not seeing any San Francisco police,” remarked Basile Gabriel, one of the employees detained for questioning that morning, “it felt like the state had invaded the city.” The club’s front door had been battered in and the raiders hung black drapes over the windows to conceal what they were doing from civilian observers on Market Street. Mayor Willie Brown said the high-profile bust had been carried out unbeknownst to him, and he accused Lungren of “Gestapo tactics.”
The San Francisco Medical Society protested the confiscation of medical records as a violation of doctor-patient confidentiality. Dennis charged that closing him down was “step one in Lungren’s No-on-215 campaign. It was timed to kick off the Republican convention in San Diego. They want to make the war on drugs a big issue because what else have they got?”
It turned out that Lungren had taken the case against the SF Cannabis Buyers’s Club at the request of Dennis’s old nemesis, Greg Corrales. Corrales had first brought the results of his investigation to San Francisco’s district attorney —Arlo Smith, Hallinan’s predecessor— who decided prosecution wasn’t warranted. Then he’d tried to interest the local DEA office, which also decided to pass.
Then Corrales went to the BNE, which is under the state attorney general, and the BNE decided to conduct its own three-month investigation, which involved all kinds of techno-surveillance —including a helicopter!— and agents going to elaborate lengths to gain membership. These dirty tricksters forged letters of diagnosis on fabricated doctors’ letterheads and even set up phone lines so that a club registration worker calling to confirm a patient’s letter would reach an agent at BNE headquarters pretending to be a doctor’s receptionist —a doctor with a Japanese name! Sneaky, aren’t they?
Dennis considered opening the club in defiance of the court order. He was dissuaded by attorney J. David Nick, who thought he could get the terms of the shutdown modified in Superior Court by promising to tighten up the admissions procedures.
Members kept streaming by in the days after the bust, and expressed their dismay and anxiety as they stood outside the closed front door, with its big red cross and heart painted on the plate glass. Many went across the Bay and joined the newly formed Oakland Cannabis Cooperative. Several San Francisco churches began serving as dispensaries. New clubs were launched in the Mission District (Flower Power) and at Dennis’s old location at Church and Market (CHAMP —Cannabis Helping Alleviate Medical Problems).
A few of Dennis’s so-called allies in the Yes-on-215 campaign did not want to see him reopen. They argued that ongoing publicity around his operation would jeopardize their chances of success at the polls on November 5. Bill Zimmerman went so far as to urge the northern California ACLU chapter not to file an amicus brief on Dennis’s be- half. “Every time I debate Brad Gates,” said Zimmerman, referring to the Orange County Sheriff, a No-on-215 leader, “he always begins by saying, ‘This bill was written by a dope dealer from San Francisco,’ and emphasizes the looseness with which the Cannabis Buyers Club was run.” Zimmerman said he had developed an effective counter: “If Prop 215 were law, we wouldn’t need such clubs.”
Why, I asked Dennis, had he come up so short on the original signature drive? “I think I underestimated the climate of fear,” he said. “People think twice before they sign a petition that involves drugs. It’s like the McCarthy period —people worry if their name will go down on some list, if they’ll lose their job. Where are the liberals who will stand up and say, ‘This has gone too far?”
Doonesbury to the Rescue
The liberal who stood up was Garry Trudeau, the creator of Doonesbury. On September 8 John Entwistle had gotten a call from a friend in Connecticut who said he’d been at a party with Trudeau —a longtime advocate of reforming the marijuana laws— and that the cartoonist had expressed serious interest when the conversation turned to Proposition 215 and the recent bust of the Cannabis Buyers Club. Entwistle then spoke to Trudeau on the phone and sent him a packet of news stories describing the bust and the general situation.
On Monday, Sept. 30 the Chronicle, the LA Times, and many other papers in California ran a Doonesbury strip in which Zonker’s friend Cornell says, “I can’t get hold of any pot for our AIDS patients. Our regular sources have been spooked ever since the Cannabis Buyers’ Club in San Francisco got raided…”
Attorney General Lungren feared the impact these strips would have on the Prop 215 campaign. He urged the newspaper publishers who carry Doonesbury to spike the entire set. “Alternatively,” he suggested in a letter to the media owners, “your organization should consider running a disclaimer side-by-side with the strips which states the known facts related to the Cannabis Buyers Club.”
Lungren provided an op-ed piece stating the facts as determined by his BNE investigators. The club “Sold marijuana to teenagers. Sold marijuana to adults without doctors’ notes. Sold marijuana to people with fake doctors’ notes using phony doctors names and in some cases written on scrap paper. Allowed many small children inside the club where they were exposed for lengthy periods of time to second-hand marijuana smoke. Sold marijuana to people whose stated ailments included vaginal yeast infections, insomnia, sore backs and colitis —hardly terminal diseases. Sold marijuana in amounts as large as two pounds, greatly exceeding the club’s ‘rules.’”
Lungren called a press conference for Tuesday, Oct. 1, to reveal some of the evidence that had been assembled against Peron and the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. During the question-and-answer session he got irritated by a question about Doonesbury. “Skin flushed and voiced raised, Attorney General Dan Lungren went head-to-head with a comic strip Tuesday…” is how Robert Salladay began his Oakland Tribune story. Don Asmussen in the SF Chronicle lampooned “Lungren’s War on Comics.” The New York Times devoted two full columns to the brouhaha, including a quote from Peron: “Crybaby Lungren… I think he’s just gone off the deep end. Waaa!”
According to the polls, a gradual decline in support for Prop 215 ended Oct. 1. Lungren had Peron arrested Oct. 5 on criminal charges that included conspiracy to distribute marijuana —one more effort to make the vote a referendum on this infamous San Francisco pot dealer. Press conferences to denounce Prop 215 were called by Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and Joseph Califano of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (who flew out to San Francisco to publicize a misleading poll). Former presidents Ford, Carter and Bush released a letter calling a No-on-215 vote. Senators Boxer and Feinstein were also opposed, as was Gov. Gray Davis (all Democrats). The very popular former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop carried the No-on-215 message in the final ad campaign.
Proposition 215 passed on November 5, 1996, with 56% of the vote. We, the people, had had it with their lies.
The Morning After
A law passed by ballot initiative takes effect immediately —so, as of 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 6, California’s Health & Safety Code included a new section, 11362.5, incorporating the text of Prop 215.
Also at 12:01 a.m., all California law enforcement officials received a fax from Attorney General Lungren advising, “The focus in cases involving potential marijuana violations should be on whether the medicinal use defense is factually applicable.” In other words, keep confiscating, arresting and prosecuting as before and let the courts decide whether those taken into custody can claim an “affirmative defense” as medical users.
Officers involved in marijuana busts were instructed to “Ask early whether the person is taking medication, what medication for what condition, at which doctor’s direction, and the duration of treatment… whether the individual is a patient or caregiver. If he/she says patient, then ascertain name of doctor and caregiver. If caregiver, ascertain for whom, for how long, and on what basis.”
Lungren called for putting the burden of proof on the defendant and forcing doctors to testify in open court to confirm cannabis approvals. He summoned his troops —every police chief, sheriff and district attorney in California— to a Dec. 3 “Emergency All- Zones Meeting” in Sacramento at which tactics would be discussed in detail. Dennis had no illusions on the night Prop 215 passed —he knew Lungren could and would resist its implementation.
And to this day in California, politicians and the law-enforcement lobby are violating the letter and the spirit of the law that Dennis and we, the people, created in 1996.
Fred Gardner edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice, now online at BeyondTHC.com (where you’ll find graphics accompanying this article, and more).