With the explosion of states legalizing cannabis for medical and recreational use, a barrage of pot products—from diamond dabs to dog treats—and a growing general acceptance that those who use cannabis maybe aren’t destroying the moral fabric of America, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, it was very, very different.
It’s also easy to forget those who laid the groundwork. While it’s just really super that there are lots and lots of pretty young things with endless Instagram feeds of themselves smoking joints, that visibility is only so much noise when you consider the work done by those who came before. So I wanted to look at a man who did more to help our cause than all of today’s social media cannabis influencers combined.
Dennis Peron passed away on January 27 in San Francisco at age 72. Simply put, we wouldn’t have a legal cannabis industry without his decades of selfless work, which earned him the title “Father of Medical Marijuana.”
Peron was drafted into the Air Force in 1966 and served in Vietnam, where he first came across cannabis. It agreed with him so much that he smuggled two pounds home to the United States when he was discharged. Before he shipped out, Peron had made a stopover in San Francisco and dropped some acid, and later said he felt so accepted by the hippies there that he decided that city was where he would make his home. “I decided I’d be a hippie faggot,” he laughingly told an interviewer years later.
Peron settled into the Castro District, opened a B&B (with weed growing upstairs), and began work as a political and gay rights activist, supporting and helping to elect the city’s first openly gay candidate, Harvey Milk, to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He also sold weed—lots of it—which got him arrested numerous times, culminating in a 200-pound bust that landed him in jail for six months. He was in jail in 1978 when he heard the news that Milk and Mayor George Moscone had been assassinated.
Peron’s longtime partner, Jonathan West, contracted HIV, and died from AIDS-related complications in 1990—a time when science didn’t have much to offer those afflicted, and gay men were dying at a horrific rate.
In 1996, Peron told the Los Angeles Times, “In my pain, I decided to leave Jonathan a legacy of love. I made it my moral pursuit to let everyone know about Jonathan’s life, his death, and his use of marijuana and how it gave him dignity in his final days.” (Sniff... stupid dusty room.)
He drafted Proposition P, a ballot measure to legalize the use of medical cannabis within San Francisco. He gathered enough signatures to get it onto the ballot, and in November 1991, it passed with 79 percent approval.
Next, Peron partnered with Dale Gieringer of the California chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and wrote the first draft of Proposition 215, which legalized medical cannabis use for all of California. It passed in 1996 with 56 percent of the vote and was the country’s first medical cannabis initiative.
Peron was a thoughtful individual who didn’t always see eye to eye with the current generation of cannabis activists. He spoke out against Proposition 64, the California cannabis initiative for statewide recreational legalization. (It passed in 2016 with 57 percent voter approval.)
“Prop 64 is a misrepresentation of what marijuana is primarily for,” he said. “This kind of legislation will hurt a lot of people, especially small growers and businesses who are trying to provide to their clients but can’t afford to because of the excess regulations and taxation on their products.” (Sound familiar, OMMP advocates?)
Regardless of where Peron stood on recreational cannabis, his pioneering efforts brought us to where we are today. Considering that San Francisco has just announced an initiative to dismiss or reduce all cannabis misdemeanor and felony convictions dating back to 1975 and will clear those arrest records, the country is edging closer and closer to a sane attitude toward the devil weed.
So raise your bong, joint, pipe, vape, edible, or whatever you have on you to Dennis Peron. We are grateful.