Bill Zimmerman or Bill-Did-Us-In?


The author of the lame “General Petraeus or ‘General Betrayus?'” ad for was none other than Bill Zimmerman, the Santa Monica p.r. man installed as Prop 215 campaign manager in the Spring of 1996. Zimmerman was assigned to replace Dennis Peron by Ethan Nadelmann (who was bankrolled by George Soros and several other billionaires, including a Rockefeller). Under Zimmerman’s leadership Prop 215 started to lose its lead at the polls, but this reality went unpublicized and Zimmerman could and did claim credit for the monumental win in November.

Zimmerman is passing off his “General Betrayus” ad as another triumph. According to Tina Daunt of the Los Angeles Times, “Bill Zimmerman, the veteran democratic campaign manager who produced the controversial ads, said the group is pleased with the outcome.

“‘The intent was to elevate these issues by drawing attention to the facts,’ Zimmerman said. ‘The idea was to jump start the debate. We succeeded in doing that.'”

Elevate what issues? The juvenile mockery of Gen. Petraeus’s name diverted attention from the war itself. It could not have come at a better time for the War Party -just as the murder of 11 Iraqi civilians by Blackhawk mercenaries and Maliki’s futile expulsion order exposed the pretense of an independent Iraqi government. And it played right into the Administration’s hands by elevating Petraeus’s personal role (even if there had been no pun on his name).

“With Zimmerman as the ad man, MoveOn has defiantly added more of an edge to its efforts,” wrote Ms. Daunt. MoveOn reportedly got a big influx of contributions after Bush attacked the ad; so maybe it actually was a success in their terms.

The Hijacking of Prop 215.

By January, 1996, it was clear that Dennis Peron and his friends and allies were not going to come up with the signatures needed to get the medical marijuana initiative on the ballot. New York-based Ethan Nadelmann agreed to fund a professional signature drive in exchange for which he would run the campaign (via Zimmerman). Zimmerman then submitted ballot arguments emphasizing Prop 215 as an affirmative defense for those arrested (i.e., business as usual for law enforcement). Dennis and his lieutenant John Entwistle submitted alternative arguments emphasizing that the measure would be a bar to arrest and prosecution. Zimmerman’s weaker version was approved and his status as campaign manager confirmed by Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican.

Prop 215 was ahead in the polls by a 60-40 margin when Zimmerman took over the campaign. Prospective voters said they’d made up their minds based on their own or a family member’s experience and/or media coverage of Dennis’s San Francisco Buyer’s Club. The No-on-215 campaign was led by an overconfident Attorney General Lungren and other politicians and law enforcement officials who assumed the populace would buy their war-on-drugs propaganda forever.

Zimmerman ordered Peron not to talk to reporters and set about projecting a more respectable image -his own. “Every time I debate [Orange County Sheriff] Brad Gates,” Zimmerman complained to an interviewer, “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 would counter, “If Prop 215 were law, we wouldn’t need such clubs.”

Zimmerman produced three TV ads that ran in Southern California depicting doctors and pharmacists in conventional settings, but his modest campaign was overwhelmed by news stories focused on Peron after an Aug. 4 raid by 100 black-clad state Bureau of Narcotics agents closed the SFCBC. When Dennis challenged the legality of the closure order, Zimmerman convinced the northern California ACLU chapter not to file an amicus brief on his behalf.

The raid on Dennis’s club came to the attention of Garry Trudeau (thanks to John Entwistle) and soon there appeared 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 … ” Lungren urged California publishers to spike Doonesbury and held a press conference to reveal the evidence his investigators had assembled against Peron and the SFCBC. He lost his cool during the question-and-answer session. “Skin flushed and voice raised, Attorney General Dan Lungren went head-to-head with a comic strip Tuesday … ” is how Robert Salladay began his Oakland Tribune story.

A gradual, month-long decline in support for Prop 215 ended Oct. 1, the day of Lungren’s press conference. The AG had Peron arrested Oct. 5 on criminal charges that included conspiracy to distribute marijuana -one more effort to make the vote a referendum on him and his club. Strong opposition was voiced in the closing weeks by Drug Czar McCaffrey, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Gray Davis, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, C. Everett Koop, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George HW Bush, and 57 of Calfornia’s 58 district attorneys, but Prop 215 passed by a 56-44% margin, with more than 5 million people voting yes. The wall of Prohibition was cracking.

Zimmerman’s version of the campaign was relayed thus by Hannah Rosin of the New Republic in February ’97: “The passage of Proposition 215 surprised even its most zealous supporters. In the months before the November election, they fought what they thought was an uphill battle against an enemy that tried to portray them as a front for the seedy drug dealers on Market Street… The pro-215 advocates stuck to their line: the referendum was simply about limited, medical use of the drug, and then only in extreme cases… The pro-215 activists tailored their image midstream; they hired a pinstriped professional, Bill Zimmerman, to run the campaign, and to run it at a conspicuous distance from people like Dennis Peron. ‘He was pictured on election night smoking a joint and saying, “Let’s all get stoned and watch election night returns,” Zimmerman recalls. ‘That kind of behavior supports the opponents’ view that we are a stalking horse for legalization… He could ruin it for the truly sick.’ Zimmerman’s images stuck.”

As soon as Prop 215 passed, Zimmerman was hired by Nadelmann to arrange (progressively weaker) medical-marijuana ballot initiatives in other states. After voters in Oregon and Washington approved theirs in 1998, Rolling Stone published a piece on medical marijuana by William Greider that dubbed Zimmermanm, who happened to be his primary source, “the national head of the movement.” Greider proclaimed, “If this year’s outcome turns out to be an important turning point, one explanation may be that the 1998 referendum propositions were different [than Prop 215]. They were designed to be law-enforcement friendly, and they included new regulatory rules that avoid much of the legal ambiguity and conflict that followed California’s decriminalization vote in 1996.” But the ’98 election did not turn out to be a turning point. It may have been hard to see, because a super-nova keeps expanding after it explodes, but the movement led by Dennis Peron had begun to cool and lose political momentum from the time he was pushed aside in April 1996.

60 Minutes Rewrites History

The first segment on 60 Minutes Sept. 23 was just plain embarrassing -reporter Scott Pelley asking the President of Iran questions on the level of “When did you stop beating your wife?” Pelley asked, “What do you admire about President Bush?,” which drew a look of bemused consternation.”What trait … ” Pelley added helpfully. Ahmadinejad tossed it back: “As an American, tell me what trait do you admire?” There was a flicker of fear in the CBS man’s eyes but he came up with, “Well Mr. Bush is without question a very religious man.” Ahmadinejad still looked bemused as he replied, politely, “What religion, please tell me, tells you as a follower of that religion to occupy another country and kill its people, please tell me, does Christianity tell its followers to do that?”

The second segment -“Pot Shops,” produced by David Browning, narrated by Morley Safer, and featuring Scott Imler as a Methodist minister- was an outrageous revision of history. Did CBS lay off all its fact-checkers in an economy move? Roll the tape:

Morley Safer: … Even one of the key proponents of medical marijuana says things have gotten out of hand.

Imler (a 50-something man in a white collar with a prissy voice and a mincing manner): It’s just ridiculous the amount of money that’s going through these cannabis clubs. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

Morley: Scott Imler, a minister in the United Methodist Church (shot of Imler in a white robe preaching to bored people in pews) who has long been active in promoting medical marijuana. Eleven years ago, he was working to pass Proposition 215, the ballot measure that legalized it. Today, Imler has second thoughts.

Imler (smiling, to Morley): The purpose of proposition 215 was not to create a new industry. It was to protect legitimate patients from criminal prosecution.

Morley (over clips of Zimmerman’s Prop 215 ads): The aim back then, reflected in television spots, was for a highly regulated system in which licensed pharmacies would dispense medical marijuana to the seriously ill. Proposition 215’s backers had people with AIDS, cancer, and glaucoma in mind.

Imler (sounding beleagured as he recalls being under enormous pressure from imaginary lobbyists): What happened when we were writing it was, as you can imagine, every patient group in the state and they all have their lobbies -you know, the kidney patients and the heart patients. Every patient group wanted to be included in the list. And so we didn’t want to get in the position of deciding what it could be used for and what it couldn’t be used for. We weren’t doctors. We weren’t scientists. We weren’t researchers. We were just patients with a problem.”

The drafting of Prop 215 was a collective process. The primary authors were Dennis Peron and John Entwistle; Dale Gieringer of California NORML; attorney Bill Panzer; Valerie Corral, a medical user, caregiver and gardener who insisted that cultivation be protected; and the late Tod Mikuriya, MD, who contributed the all-important opening line allowing doctors to approve use in treating “any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” When Imler says, “We weren’t doctors,” he simultaneously claims authorship credit for himself and denies it to Mikuriya, who interviewed some 200 patients at the SFCBC in the early ’90s and documented their ailments.

Gieringer says that Imler attended planning sessions regularly and that his past experience working on an initiative opposing nuclear power proved useful; but Gieringer can’t recall anything specific that Imler contributed to the final version of 215, and acknowledges that the image of patients’ groups clamoring to be protected is absurd on its face. “He was confabulating,” says Gieringer about Imler’s claim on 60 Minutes.

In an email to your correspondent dated 22 Aug 2005 Imler made no mention of any pressure from patients’ groups seeking protection under Prop 215. He wrote, “Enjoyed your recent article about marijuana’s continually emerging efficacy for the wide variety of ailments commonly treated with far more dangerous and expensive pharmaceuticals. You are certainly correct that the ‘movement leaders’ were aware of this reality in ’95 & ’96 during the preparation and campaigning for Proposition 215, which is why the ‘any other condition’ language was included” How and why did Imler came up with his 60 Minutes confabulation? It turned out to be the lynchpin for the whole segment, prefigured by Morley asking in his introduction, “How is the California state law working? The answer involves another statute: the law of unintended consequences.” Click that play button again:

Morley: What you’re saying is you were forced to make the proposition vague.

Imler: We were, yeah.

Morley (over a long shot of the ballot measure’s text): So the law voters passed mentioned not only cancer and AIDS but (suddenly, we see a blow-up of the following words, as if they had been buried in fine print) “…any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” A decade later, if you’ve got a note from a doctor, you can buy medical pot for just about any imaginable condition. (Cut to a young black woman at a dispensary.)

Producer David Browning did not zoom in for a close shot of the words ” any other illness for which marijuana provides relief” because if he had, the viewer would have realized it’s not fine print, it’s the first sentence of the initiative. This was a very subtle, very duplicitous maneuver. (You’re doing a heckuva job, Browning.) The fact that Prop 215 covers people who use marijuana to treat a wide range of conditions is not an unintended consequence of vagueness forced on the authors by patients’ groups. It reflects the understanding that Dennis Peron, Tod Mikuriya and the other authors had developed over years of listening to thousands of medical users.

And it reflects the way the components of marijuana actually work, modulating the rate at which neurotransmitters are released in various systems of the body -cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, excretory, immune, nervous, musculo-skeletal, and reproductive.

It often happens that an ardent disciple will wind up viewing the leader as a betrayer. The leader develops, changes his/her line, responds to changing conditions, etc., and wants the flexibility to do so at all times. The disciple has embraced the leader’s program and/or philosophy at a fixed point in time, and remains committed to his/her understanding of the program while the leader advances. In the early ’90s Dennis’s constituents were mainly AIDS patients. He had lost his lover and all his best friends to the epidemic, and when he talked about “the sick and dying” he wasn’t doing so for effect. By ’96 he had 9,000 club members, many of whom were seemingly able-bodied young men, and he was saying “if they can prescribe Prozac to shy teenagers, all marijuana use is medical.” Imler deplored this line. If he had been truly respectful, had related to Dennis as a leader whose vision was keener than his own, he would not have reacted with such fierce outrage.

“He’s just jealous of me,” says Dennis, sadly. “So, so jealous.”

“A minister? How sinister -it finished her.” -Pete Seeger

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical
practice. He can be reached at


Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at