Dennis Peron: The Marijuana Mouse That Roared
By Paul DeRienzo

Published in High Times August 1998, issue 276

Dennis Peron, longtime fighter for legal pot, gay-rights activist and candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of California, always seems happiest when he's got Pinky, his pint-sized Pomeranian, cradled in his arms or curled up on a nearby chair.

Pinky in hand, Peron, a white-haired 50-something figure who's always in motion, is lighting up one cigarette after another as he answers an endless procession of phone calls. He seems even happier than when he's puffing on a fat joint stuffed with some of Northern California's finest medical marijuana, grown right on the club premises or at a recently leased 20-acre ranch about two hours' drive from the city.

We're in the nerve center of what Peron started in 1995 as the Cannabis Buyers' Club; later changing its name to the Cannabis Cultivators Club after a state court said it could no longer use marijuana. Last April. It was forced to change its name again to the Cannabis Heating Center. Located prominently in a five-story building on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, it's also Peron's campaign headquarters and a living challenge to his arch-nemesis, state Attorney General Dan Lungren.


Dennis Peron has fought for the legalization of pot, gay rights, and other worthy causes for many years. Learn about marijuana and why many people feel this is an issue that should be addressed much more aggressively. Find out why other illegal drugs might not be receiving the same kind of attention that marijuana fosters and how you can do your part to raise drug awareness in your community.

Pinky never fails to brighten Peron's days. He often refers to the dog as his gubernatorial running mate, even as his image as California's premier pot dealer careens through the front pages of the state's main newspapers and the evening TV news shows, and Dan Lungren-Peron's opponent in the Republican primary-tries incessantly to shut down the Cannabis Healing Center and put him in jail. The attorney general, son of former President Richard Nixon's doctor, is an outspoken proponent of a constitutional amendment to force teenagers to get parental approval to have an abortion. He's a cultural warrior in the mold of Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan, and gay, pot-smoking pacifist Dennis Peron is his natural adversary.

Peron is a legendary figure in San Francisco politics: a Vietnam veteran, marijuana dealer, AIDS activist and close friend and political associate of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the city's board of supervisors, who was assassinated in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone. When the killer. Fellow Supervisor Dan White was given a light sentence after claiming "diminished capacity" because he binged on junk food. Hundreds assaulted the halts of government, torching a number of police cars. Peron missed the action because he was in jail, convicted of running the Big Top pot supermarket in a converted commune on Castro Street, in the heart of the city's vibrant gay community.

Peron tells how the 1978 Big Top bust, one of more than a dozen that put him away for nearly two years, went down. His pot business had become phenomenally successful, but with a million dollars in twenties stashed in a closet, he succumbed to paranoia. When a group of men bashed down his door. His first thought was robbery. As he was about to hurt a bottle down a flight of stairs at the invaders, a shot rang out, smashing into his thigh. Peron says he knew the unidentified men were trying to kill him when a second shot whizzed within inches of his head. Not yet realizing the man who shot him was a cop, he begged him to "take the money" he had stashed in the closet, even as a gun was pressed into the center of his chest. He says he believes his life was spared when another officer walked into the room at just that moment.

At Peron's trial, the officer who shot him justified his action by saying his death would have meant "one less faggot in San Francisco." But despite the ordeal, one outcome that served Peron well arose from the shooting and the jail term: a good relationship with county Sheriff Michael Hennessey, a relationship that would serve Peron well 20 years later.

In April, San Francisco Superior Court Judge David Garcia handed down a ruling in response to a civil suit brought by Lungren. The judge ordered the Cannabis Cultivators Club to "immediately cease operations" and vacate the premises, and both Peron and club cofounder Beth Moore were "permanently enjoined" from direct sales to "caregivers."

The term "caregiver" has become a noun of contention in an ongoing struggle among Peron, his supporters and detractors in the medical-marijuana movement and Lungren. One persistent critic of Peron's tactics is Scott Imler, the director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers' Club. He says the problem is that Proposition 215, passed by 56% of California voters in 1996 to provide pot for sick people urged lawmakers to devise specific provisions for the distribution of marijuana to patients, which never happened. Therefore, the issue of how the sick wilt get marijuana has been "dropped in the laps of locals." In Imler's view, Peron has been "playing a cat-and-mouse game" with the "legal fiction" of using "primary caregivers" to provide medical marijuana through the Market Street club.

Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, defined a primary caregiver as an individual who "has consistently assumed responsibility for the housing health or safety" of medical- marijuana patient. In December 1997, the state court of appeals ruled that Peron's original Cannabis Buyers' Club had not qualified as a primary caregiver, and last February the state supreme court decided not to hear an appeal. In the April ruling, after Peron stipulated in court that the club had provided marijuana to other caregivers, Judge Garcia held it in violation of the state's public-nuisance law. He then ordered that either the county sheriff or state authorities raid the club, remove any contraband, evict Peron and turn the keys over to the landlord.

Dennis Peron's immediate response was quick, angry and trumpeted by banner headlines in the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. "POT CLUB VOWS TO DEFY JUDGE." He initially raised visions of the 1993 massacre at Waco, Texas, and reporters seemed ready for a confrontation. Peron was angered by what he called "a game of semantics" by Lungren in what he termed a blatant attack on the thousands of people who depend on the club for relief from cancer, chronic pain, AIDS and other illnesses.

But later Peron said he thought better of his earlier prediction of fighting "tanks on Market Street." It's likely that he saw the error of his ways after taking phone calls from two old friends, Sheriff Michael Hennessey and the city's district attorney, Terence Hallinan. They planned an orderly transfer of the club's front-door keys: from Peron to the sheriff on April 20, and then to the club's 93-year-old landlord. Victor Zacharia, who the next day turned the keys over to the renamed Cannabis Heating Center and its new director, Hazel Rodgerswho celebrated her 79th birthday on the day she took the helm.

Lungren, planning to close down the club-and, by extension, his chief Republican primary opponent's campaign headquarters-called Rodgers a "fig leaf," charging that the elderly woman, who suffers from glaucoma and other serious ailments "was no different than any other drug dealer."

While Lungren has targeted Peron's club and others throughout the state (see sidebar), he has backed off from total opposition to medical marijuana. The attorney general says he supports a proposal by State Sen. John Vasconceltos of San Jose, the state legislature's leading medical-marijuana advocate, for a study of marijuana's therapeutic usefulness. But he adds that pot should be fought with the "vigor of the fight against the tobacco industry."

In his order, Judge Garcia left enforcement to either the state's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, which is under Lungren's direct control, or to DA Hallinan and Sheriff Hennessey. Hallinan comes out of a family that has provided two generations of radical lawyers and politicians in San Francisco. As for Hennessey, during the transition from Cultivators Club to Healing Center he smiled broadly as his men searched the club, allowing several marijuana plants to be removed by Peron. How could a sheriff be so cool? asked HIGH TIMES. Hennessey laughed and said without hesitation, "It's San Francisco." He had a "Peron for Governor" bumper sticker on his official patrol car.

Peron's crisis-response team relies on John Entwistle, a longtime activist who also tends to the club's lush gardens of marijuana plants destined for its patients, including dozens being cultivated on a former hippie commune 100 mites north of the city. Entwistle also screens the stream of visitors who come up to the glass-walled campaign headquarters on the second floor and gives the candidate a running analysis of how his media spin is working.

Tacked to the wall of the office is a sign proudly reading "This Is a Free-Drug Workplace." But Peron, sitting at a desk dominating the room, was having second thoughts about the images of war and Waco he had evoked. "We're lawmakers, not lawbreakers." he philosophized as another fat reefer circulated. "How could I be your governor if I broke the law?" In this beautiful old city built on hills overlooking breathtaking bay and ocean vistas, what would be unusual in other parts of the United States has long ago become commonplace: hippies, gay rights, AIDS activists, and marijuana. But as Peron paced the floor nervously with Pinky in hand, planning the transition, he had reason to fear that things could go badly.

In the summer of 1996, with polls showing a clear majority ready to vote in favor of Prop 215, AG Dan Lungren made his first move against the clubs, ordering Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement troops to raid the Cannabis Buyers' Club. The officers came crashing through the doors wearing rubber gloves and. according to Peron, calling patients "faggots" (HighWitness News, Nov. '96). Peron and other club organizers were indicted in nearby Alameda County, because prosecutors feared they could never convict them with a San Francisco jury. Those criminal charges against Peron are still pending.

After the arrests it turned out that the club had been under close watch for months, with hundreds of hours of video and audio surveillance collected by hidden cameras and microphones, and helicopters were used to follow club members to neighboring counties so Lungren could establish criminal charges outside of San Francisco. The authorities also seized medical histories and records for more than 12,000 patients kept on file at the club.

That experience taught Peron and his associates valuable lessons, and now computers are carefully monitored to keep the information secure. Despite the fears that state police might again come through the club's doors, raiding the gubernatorial campaign's office in the same stroke, the work of both went on as the phone rang and yet another student group asked Peron to come speak.

At Napa Valley College, nestled among green hills 50 miles north of San Francisco, faculty members and students organized a rally in late April celebrating ethnic diversity, featuring Peron and a Jamaican reggae band. As the band finished their set, a teacher got up to make a pitch for support of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico. Bright orange, white and yellow Peron campaign signs with the slogan "Hope, empowerment and compassion for a better world" were plastered on every building in sight.

His theme, as usual, was "A man shaped by war": Vietnam, drugs and AIDS. Peron says what lies behind Dan Lungren's attacks is the same conflict that divided America during the Vietnam war: "A war against the people who hated war, a war against the people who believed in peace and love."

In 1967 Dennis Peron, who says he was a "typical Italian kid from the Bronx," enlisted in the Air Force to escape the draft and possibly the battlefield where Marines and Army grunts were slugging it out with determined and resourceful Vietnamese. But a year later the relative peace of Peron's airbase was shattered by the Tet offensive. The candidate laughs when he describes how one night he decided to take a walk out by the base perimeter to have a smoke and check out "a cute guy on guard duty," when he noticed some activity in buildings across the street. Within seconds a hail of gunfire shattered the stillness, and Peron dived into a trench filled with mud as an armada of helicopter gunships appeared and returned fire. He spent the next month living in miserable trenches, dodging bullets and trying to stay alive. When he returned to the United States he joined a commune in San Francisco, where antiwar protests were common. He says he then dedicated his life to "help bring this country to peace with itself."

Back at the club the atmosphere was businesslike but jovial at the bar, where patients were queuing up to receive medical marijuana, offering "remuneration" rather than buying it in the latest concession to legal semantics. As the minutes ticked away before the prearranged raid by Sheriff Hennessey, volunteer Gary Farnsworth, a tali, thin, graying activist who says he's HIV positive, was supervising the distribution of the two basic grades of marijuana available. A sign above the bar advertised California grown 1-star' marijuana and Mexican variety 1-star" brands. The club distributes nearly 10 pounds of pot a week, which it gets for about $650 to $850 per pound.

Peron says that all one-dollar bills collected at the club are donated to groups working with people with AIDS. He says the last donation was over $30,000.

As Farnsworth advised each member about what kinds of grass were available to treat which ailments, he also fielded questions from reporters. "Let the lawyers practice law and the doctors practice medicine," he proclaimed. He says the club is important both as a source of medical marijuana and for the sense of community it creates for members. "A large majority of our people live in one-room hotels or even on the streets." he told HIGH TIMES, "and this is their outlet, this is their family, their only chance to talk and mingle with other people."

In the back corner of the spacious floor, where comfy chairs surround a big-screen color TV, midday news programs were featuring their own interviews with Peron and club members done earlier that morning. Nearby is the "Jerry Garcia memorial elevator," a converted freight elevator decorated with hundreds of brightly colored origami birds hanging from the ceiling. The paper birds are the creation of volunteer Randi Webster, who stood smiling, supported by two crutches, among the milling patients, a wreath of mock marijuana leaves on her head. Webster suffers from arthritis, serious knee problems and gallstones. She says that before medical marijuana came into her life she was a "drunk." Now with marijuana, she says she has a "quality of life," adding, "I volunteer here and I get things done."

"If I can't smoke something that God put on this Earth without the government saying it's wrong, then it's really something wrong with our government," says Eugene, another club member. He's 61, a former Navy SEAL who did seven tours in Vietnam. "What we did in Vietnam was wrong," he says, "but we had to do what they told us to do." Asked about the impending raid and the attempts to close down the club, he adds, "I feel rejected, like when I came back from Vietnam."

Another veteran and club member is Leon Mortensen, who spent four years as a POW. He has cancer, chronic pain and a "bullet in the back of my neck, courtesy of Vietnam." He says he takes hundreds of pain pills, but a joint will relieve the inflammation and stop the pain before it begins.

Peron's personal crusade to legalize medical marijuana began with a 1990 bust, when 10 plainclothes narcotics officers showed up at his home just before midnight with a search warrant. The cops ransacked the apartment and forced Peron's AIDS wracked lover Jonathan West onto the floor, where an officer put a foot on his neck. "Know what AIDS means?" he asked. "Asshole in Deep Shit."

The search turned up four ounces of top-quality Humboldt green, and Peron was arrested for possession with intent to sell. At the trial, West-weighing 85 pounds, his skin covered with lesions-testified that the marijuana was his, for his AIDS and cancer. The judge dropped all the charges, denouncing the arresting officers. West died a week later,

So in 1991 Peron wrote Proposition P. a San Francisco medical-marijuana initiative that was supported by 80% of the voters. Back then he said, "I'm all for legalization, but-if I had to give up smoking to allow five million people who need it as medicine to get it, I'd be glad." Today he has radicalized his message, proclaiming that "all use of marijuana for some reason, even if it's as small as stress or anxiety, is a medical reason." This position enrages some other buyers'-club advocates, who maintain Peron is a clown whose antics are turning an important issue into a laughingstock. Peron replies that it might be "laughable when you think about the munchies, but it's not laughable when you have AIDS and haven't eaten for three or four days."

Some of the tension may come from the increased attacks on the two dozen other buyers' cooperatives that emerged after Prop 215 was passed and have been struggling to survive ever since. Since last October, when a coalition of California's medical-pot dispensaries met and signed an "Affirmation of Principles"-only Peron's club refused to sign-at least half a dozen of them have been forced to close. Several others are facing criminal charges and civil lawsuits.

Activists blame state lawmakers and the federal government, who were specifically urged by Prop 215 "to implement a plan to provide for the safe and affordable distribution" of medical marijuana. Legislators at the state capital in Sacramento haven't shown much interest in taking up the issue. Federal drug-enforcement officials are also fighting Prop 215, arguing in civil court that marijuana use for any purpose violates federal taw.

Despite the legal ambiguities, Peron is interpreting one tine in Judge Garcia's April ruling to justify his latest project: that he may legally "possess, cultivate and use marijuana" for his own medical needs, and may also "cultivate and provide" marijuana as a "bona fide primary caregiver" to other patients. With the decision in hand, Peron approached Rodney K. Mitchell, the sheriff of Northern California's Lake County, to announce he would be growing medicinal marijuana on a 20-acre former hippie commune called Little High Valley, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. The hillside ranch was once owned by a local character named Magic Jack, who, according to a former'60s commune member who dropped by for a surprise visit was rumored to be a "Satanist." The ranch has a house where volunteers, guests and hangers-on lounge about as gardeners till the land, preparing to transplant hundreds of marijuana plants currently housed in growrooms.

A large take occupies some land with a beach and an old pump-house that used to send water to the hilltop, where the ruins of an old hippie camp are scattered. The site is locally notorious, having been raided for pot several times in the'60s and'70s, so there's no expectation of secrecy or privacy. In a separate cabin a volunteer tends a crop, while he expands a newly built grow area. On the porch more than a dozen two-foot high plants are absorbing sunlight in full view of any helicopters and a nearby road. John Entwistle uploads new photographs to the Internet each day, documenting the pot farms development. Peron says Sheriff Mitchell told him with a laugh that if there is a bust, it'll be fully covered by the media.

Peron is ready if that day should come, but he hopes it doesn't come today, as he takes a shovel and begins the laborious toil of turning the rich soil, surveying the spectacular mountain valley where cows serenely chew their cud.

Not far away, Pinky is yapping joyfully as the candidate takes a break to down a glass of cold lemonade and light up a joint. He's come a tong way, the man who once answered the question "Who is Dennis Peron?" by laughing; "I'm a nobody and a dreamer." It seems that for Dennis Peron, at least for now, the dream has come true. *

 

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