Making Cannabis Safe for Capital

California NORML organized a celebration/symposium on November 5, 25 years to the day that California voters passed Proposition 215, the ballot initiative that legalized marijuana for medical use. The purpose of the all-day event, according to CA NORML director Dale Gieringer, was “to record the history before the people that made it are all gone.”  The venue was perfect —the General’s Residence at Fort Mason, which commands a fabulous view of the Bay and North Beach. There were five panels covering aspects of the sprawling history —the  last years of Prohibition, The Campaign/Implementation, Doctors/Dispensaries, Legal/Prisoners, and The Present/The Future. More than 200 pot partisans and erstwhile activists heard 35 speakers tell their tales. There was so much to say that breaks between the sessions were called off.

The show began with a video welcome from Attorney General Rob Bonta. Introducing the clip, Gieringer described Bonta as “one of the state officials who have done so much over the years to help make Prop 215 actually work.” That blunt assertion was antithetical to the POV of Dennis Peron, the prime mover, who made futile trips to Sacramento in the years after 215 passed to testify against the “enabling legislation” by which Democratic politicians from State Sen. John Vasconcellos to Jerry Brown to Gavin Newsom and Rob Bonta have effectively modified the measure. According to Dennis, all that was needed to make Prop 215 work was for Law Enforcement to respect the letter and spirit of the law.

A co-author who agreed with Dennis, Dr. Tod Mikuriya, has been gone since 2007. So the Prop 215 origin story presented at Fort Mason was one-sided, except for a video statement by Dennis that his friend Davie Smith recorded in late ’95.

Bonta, 49, is a handsome, soccer-playing Yalie, very well-liked by our two mutual acquaintances. (His wife just got elected to his old seat in my Assembly District, running as a “progressive.” She spent $1 million to edge out a Democratic Socialist.) Bonta claims and deserves credit for passing the legislation on which the current tax-and-regulate scheme rests. In 2015 the Assembly passed his “Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act” (MMRSA, pronounced “mersa”).  No physicians were involved in the drafting process, obviously, or the politicos wouldn’t have called it by the name of a deadly pathogen (MRSA, Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Mersa consisted of three separate bills, each, according to Bonta, addressing a problem that supposedly stemmed from Proposition 215. His three bills work in concert with the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA, rhymes with trauma).  The complex scheme imposes a 15% excise tax on cannabis that must be paid by all users —as if it cannabis really medicine after all!  (Prescription meds are not taxed anywhere in the US except Illinois, where the rate is 1%. In almost all states, over-the-counter meds are taxed at the sales tax rate, which in progressive California is 7.25%, the highest in the nation.)

Soon after AUMA took effect in 2018 it became apparent that high taxes were driving consumers away from licensed sellers.  Bonta introduced a bill to reduce the excise tax to 11%, but his fellow legislators, instantly addicted to the extra revenue, voted it down. As AG he has been going after illicit growers and vendors. He proudly announced in his Fort Mason video that the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting had recently eradicated “nearly 1.2 million cannabis plants that were grown illegally.” To some in the audience the once dreaded thwump thwump thwump of choppers has become a welcome sound, and the formerly disdained Camo Buddies are rappelling down to save the environment.  “The wheel of the law turns,” wrote Uncle Ho, “What could be more natural?”

The first panel was called “The Lead-up to Prop 215.”  Gieringer recounted how in 1994 and ’95, medical marijuana bills had passed the state legislature and then been vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson. These bills would have applied only to patients suffering from AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and glaucoma. Dr. Mikuriya scornfully called them “the short-list initiatives.” After Wilson’s second veto, activists meeting at Dennis Peron’s San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club drafted a ballot initiative that could not be vetoed or (it was assumed) weakened by the state legislature. They dubbed it “The Compassionate Use Act of 1996.”

Creating the wording was a truly collective process, with Gieringer, Dennis, Mikuriya, and attorney Bill Panzer playing key roles. Valerie Corral, an epilepsy patient who grew her own medicine in Santa Cruz, insisted that the right to cultivate be specified. Valerie was on the “Lead-up” panel but didn’t take credit for her crucial contribution. Later in the day Pebbles Trippet would acknowledge her role.

At one point three women in nuns’ habits came in and stood against a nearby wall. The garb looked authentic but not much worn, and at a quick glance (it’s rude to stare) they all-seemed 30-something behind their masks. They could have been Bay Area gals repurposing their Halloween outfits or they could have been real nuns from Holy Names, the Oakland college at which George “I Guarantee It” Zimmer, president of the Men’s Wearhouse, had funded a chemistry lab with a plaque honoring Dr. Mikuriya. After a while the three took seats to my right. When a speaker expressed his and “our” great love and respect for “the plant,” I heard myself saying, “So we grow her under lights and deprive her of sexual fulfillment.” The nearest nun cracked up. I asked politely, “Are you real sisters?” She said yes, but not from the order of Holy Names. I didn’t know what to believe.

The second panel, “Taking it to the Streets: The Prop 215 Campaign,” featured the Soros-funded professionals who took over the leadership from Dennis in the early months of 1996. (The usurpers took it to the streets by hiring a professional signature-gathering firm.)  Soros’s lieutenant for drug policy reform, Ethan Nadelmann, and Santa Monica PR pro Bill Zimmerman laid out the Capital-H History that someday will inform Ken Burns’s inevitable Marijuana documentary.

I started muttering audibly. Leif Erikson, MD, was sitting in front of me. I figured he wouldn’t find my jive objectionable because he knew the real story. Which is…

By January, 1996, it had become clear that Dennis’s network of volunteers could not come up with enough signatures to place the initiative on the ballot. Nadelmann notified Bay Area activists that he’d arrange the financing and, as a quid pro quo, replace Dennis as campaign manager. They assented. Then, to allay Soros’s fears that he’d be seen as a carpetbagger (which he was), Nadelmann arranged a $105,000 contribution from George Zimmer, . Soros then came through with $350,000, Peter Lewis of Progressive Insurance with $300,000, John Sperling of Phoenix University and other private colleges, $100,000, and Laurence Rockefeller (!) $50,000.

In April both Zimmerman and Dennis submitted ballot arguments in support of Prop 215 for inclusion in the Voter’s Handbook. It was Secretary of State Bill Jones. a Republican politician active in the No-on-215 campaign, who selected Zimmerman’s ballot arguments. These 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.”  But the ballot argument that Zimmerman drafted for San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan to sign would turn the new law into “an affirmative defense,” meaning the cops could keep arresting and the DAs could keep charging people with cultivation, distribution, and even possession. Only then, as a defendant, could a medical user cite their doctor’s approval. (Pro-cannabis MDs often had to take time off to confirm their diagnoses in court as a result of the “Yes” ballot argument.”

Years later I asked Hallinan why he had signed the ballot argument. He said he assumed whatever Zimmerman wrote was right on because “We go back to the DuBois Clubs” (a youth group set up by the Communist Party in the 1950s as a recruiting mechanism). I never wrote about this because the only headline I could think of was “The Commie Conspiracy to Weaken Prop 215.”

Prop 215 was well ahead in the polls when Nadelzimm took over the campaign. A statewide survey in June ’95 by David Binder Associates had put the margin of support at 60-40. 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. Their strategy was to make the vote a referendum on Dennis Peron and the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.

On Sunday morning August 4, about 100 agents from the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, supervised by  Senior Assistant Attorney General John Gordnier, 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.

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).

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.

Bill Zimmerman went so far as to urge the northern California ACLU chapter not to file an amicus brief on Dennis’s behalf. “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?”

The liberal who stood up was Garry Trudeau. On Monday, Sept. 30 the Chronicle, the LA Times, and many other papers in California ran a 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, fearing the impact these strips would have on the Prop 215 campaign, 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.

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