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America Mourns Passing of Dennis Peron, Father of Medical Marijuana

January 27, 2018
Dennis Peron, shown here celebrating the 1996 passage of California's medical marijuana law, died today at age 72. (AP Photo/Sam Morris)
Numerous reports out of San Francisco are confirming the passing of Dennis Peron, 72, the legendary cannabis activist who kindled America’s medical marijuana revolution in the 1980s.

Peron’s brother, Jeffrey Peron, posted this on his Facebook page earlier this afternoon:

“Changed the world” is a phrase entirely befitting the life of Dennis Peron.

Peron was one of the first to realize the health benefits cannabis was offering to AIDS patients.

As a leading figure in San Francisco’s gay culture and cannabis underground in the 1970s and 1980s, Peron was one of the first to realize the health benefits cannabis offered to those battling AIDS in the heart of the crisis that overtook that city in the late 1980s.

Working with other local leaders like Mary Jane Rathbun (“Brownie Mary”) and Dr. Donald Abrams, Peron helped pass an ordinance legalizing medical cannabis in the city of San Francisco, then took the movement statewide with the 1996 passage of Proposition 215, the nation’s first statewide medical marijuana legalization law.

Peron and his husband, John Entwistle, continued to be active in the life of San Francisco over the past 30 years.

Until recently, their bed-and-breakfast “Castro Castle” on the edge of the city’s famous gay neighborhood welcomed all travelers, with day-glow decorated rooms that allowed visitors to enjoy an authentic taste of the city’s psychedelic culture. A painted mural on a garden wall memorialized Harvey Milk, the late San Francisco city supervisor who counted Peron as a close friend and early political supporter.

Vietnam Vet: ‘I came back and kissed the ground.’

The Bronx-born Peron grew up on Long Island in a middle class family. “I looked the same as everyone else,” he told me in a 2014 interview at his home in San Francisco. “I fit in like everyone else. But I just knew I wasn’t that person. Number one, I was gay. I knew I had to hide. Somehow I had to hide. I was a good actor. A good hider.”

'I came home from Vietnam with two pounds of cannabis, and started a career that lasted 40 years.'
Dennis Peron

That early acquired skill served him well later, he said, when he needed to hide both his sexual identity and his cannabis consumption. “Two for one!” he said.

Peron was drafted in 1966, and served in the Air Force in Vietnam. That’s where he first encountered cannabis. “The people there catered to the GIs. We were a market for them.”

Peron returned stateside with two pounds of cannabis in his gear. “I came back and kissed the ground. I was so happypartly because I had two pounds with me. That started a career that would span 40 years.”

A Brief Stopover Became a Lifelong Love

Peron stopped over briefly in San Francisco prior to shipping out to Vietnam in 1967. “It was the Summer of Love,” he later recalled. “Perfect timing. Like everyone else, I ate acid and tripped out. The hippies, those people accepted me. I said, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to come back to San Francisco and live my life here.”

Peron tried to join communes, 'but they wouldn't have me. I was too trashy.'

So he did. “I decided I’d be a hippie faggot,” he often said, chuckling, when recalling those days.

Peron applied to join a number of local peace-and-love communes, he said, “but they wouldn’t have me. I was too trashy. I didn’t know who Marx or Lenin were.”

Flummoxed, he started his own commune. “We called ourselves the Misfits,” he said. They lived 25-to-a-house in the Haight. “Bunch of us in a beautiful old Victorian. My brother had a spot in the kitchen, under the table.”

Eventually Peron became one of the city’s flourishing cannabis sellers. San Francisco police busted him any number of times over the years, but Peron usually beat the charge with the help of Tony Serra, the civil rights attorney known for defending the Bay Area’s most famous and infamous citizens.

Harvey Milk and the Aftermath

In the Castro’s heyday in the 1970s, Peron’s Island Restaurant served cannabis upstairs, hot food downstairs, and hosted spirited discussions about politics, cannabis, and gay rights in the booths.

In the late 1970s, he was was arrested while in possession of 200 pounds of cannabis—a charge too heavy for even Tony Serra to wipe away entirely. He served a six-month sentence, which was how he found himself in jail on Nov. 27, 1978, when Milk, the city’s first openly gay city supervisor, and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated by former city supervisor Dan White.

“That was the pivotal moment,” Peron recalled. The collective outrage of the city sent a signal to the San Francisco Police Department, which had been notorious for beating and arresting gay men. “They realized they couldn’t keep busting gay guys just because they didn’t like them. They couldn’t bust them, but that didn’t stop them from harassing us.”

Tragedy Strikes the City

Milk’s murder came less than three weeks after the city’s voters passed Prop. W, which demanded that the police chief and city attorney stop arresting and prosecuting people for cannabis. (That didn’t happen. With the death of Mayor Moscone, then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein took the city’s reins. Feinstein, then as now a fierce cannabis prohibitionist, quashed any further discussion of decrim in San Francisco.)

As the AIDS crisis unfolded in the 1980s, Peron’s neighborhood, the Castro, became ground zero for activists and AIDS patients alike. Peron’s partner, Jonathan West, succumbed to the disease in 1990.

“At that point, I didn’t know what I was living for,” Peron told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. “I was the loneliest guy in America,” Peron recalls. “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.”

MMJ Emerges from the AIDS Crisis

Peron and many others in the city knew how their friends and partners fighting AIDS were finding some relief with cannabis.

The anti-nausea effects helped with the chemo treatments for Kaposi’s sarcoma and side effects of many early experimental drug regimes. The appetite stimulation provided by cannabis helped AIDS patients who were fighting “wasting syndrome,”  a condition in which people find it extremely difficult to eat and digest enough food to stay alive.

“It helped Jonathan,” Peron later recalled. “He was wasting from 142 pounds down to 110.” Doctors prescribed Marinol, the THC formula in a pill. “Jonathan just vomited the Marinol up,” Peron said. “It didn’t make sense.” A few puffs on a joint, by contrast, did everything the Marinol couldn’t.

Prop. 215 Makes History

In the year after West’s death, Peron threw himself into the cause. He raised enough signatures to put Proposition P, which legalized the medical use of cannabis within San Francisco’s city limits, on the citywide ballot.

In Nov. 1991, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed the measure with an 80% vote of approval.

Dennis Peron, takes notes during an interview on the phone, while Gary Johnson lights a marijuana filled pipe in an office at the Proposition 215 Headquarters, formerly the Cannabis Buyers club on Friday, October 11, 1996 in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Peron Robinson)

MMJ Freedom for California

Five years later, Peron and a cadre of allies took a similar measure statewide.

'I knew I had to get everybody' involved in the Prop. 215 campaign, Peron said. 'Clergy, doctors, nurses. I almost had to cut the potheads loose. Too much cultural baggage.'
Dennis Peron, Campaign organizer, California's Prop. 215

Prop. 215 faced heavy opposition from powerful political forces, including police agencies throughout the state.

“I knew I had to get everybody” involved in the campaign, Peron later told me. “Clergy, doctors, nurses. I almost had to cut the potheads loose. I had the votes, and they had a lot of cultural baggage that I couldn’t deal with.

“This coalition was pretty forceful. They just wanted change. They didn’t want people to go to jail for marijuana. And if it helped patients, why can’t they have it? Why? We asked that question again and again. We never stopped asking.”

Prop. 215, approved by 56% of the state’s voters, turned California into America’s first state to legalize the medical use of cannabis.

Marriage and Later Years

Peron lived long enough to see his activism vindicated on two fronts. When same-sex marriage became legal in California, he married his longtime partner John Entwistle, himself an outspoken activist on both national cannabis issues and local San Francisco neighborhood politics.

In Nov. 2016, California voters legalized the adult use of cannabis, and the first retail cannabis stores opened a little more than three weeks ago, on Jan. 1, 2018.

In his final months, Peron enjoyed his days with Entwistle in their Castro Castle, which was no longer accepting traveling guests. He was irascible to the end; reporters calling for a quote about legalization were liable to get an earful from Peron or Entwistle about the imperfections in California’s new law. Without Peron, the law would not exist. But that didn’t mean he was done fighting for something better.

Care to share your memories of Dennis Peron with the cannabis community? Send your anecdote, story, or tribute to Leafly deputy editor Bruce Barcott at therollup@yahoo.com. We will try to publish them next week.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

View Bruce Barcott's articles

  • Natalie Frenshen

    Thanks for doing what you did.

  • Oliver Steinberg

    Prop 215 got 5,382,915 votes in 1996 (56%) in California which outpolled Bill Clinton who received 5,119,835 (51%.) And in Minnesota, which unlike California doesn’t allow voter initiative law-making, in 1996 the Grassroots Party nominated Dennis Peron for President. As an unknown non-politician, he still placed 6th out of eleven candidates in Minnesota, and is credited with 5,378 votes from MN and VT, the two states where his name was on the ballot. Dennis Peron brought about cannabis liberation by proving that the right to vote holds a power we can use to combat, and even to defeat, injustice and tyranny. Wikipedia’s biography of Dennis Peron is incorrect on a minor point, because Dennis wasn’t the first Grassroots Party candidate for President–that honor belonged to Jack Herer, who carried the banner in 1988 and 1992.

  • medcannabis1

    Dennis was an amazing mentor and friend. He brought laughter to the cannabis issues in the dark days of oppression and never turn a person away who was in need.
    I cherished my phone calls to ask questions of the wise sage of the cannabis world, and when visiting SF Dennis’s Cozy Castro Castle was the only place to say and hang with the community.
    It is so sad that he is gone.
    May his light continue to shine and inspire others to stand up for what they believe.
    RIP Dennis…
    Say hi to Harvey .

  • Yell The Truth

    America doesn’t mourn his passing, liberal tyrants are the only mourners.

    • mars220

      Yet you stopped by to comment. Texas is a cesspool for morons like you.

      • mtnmedic

        That’s insulting good Texans. He/she/it needs to go back home to wherever the Taliban or Isis lives.

    • Bob Cratchet

      It’s tyrannical to be against the clearly fascist drug war, and for the legalization of a plant that’s as harmful as a tomato?

    • 360dunk

      How do YOU know what America mourns? The only conversation you’ve ever had about Mr. Peron was with yourself. Admit it, you didn’t even know who he was till he passed away. Fake-@ss fool.

  • great dude

  • Matthew Abel

    Dennis Peron was and remains a hero of the movement to end marijuana prohibition. I’m so glad I had the chance to meet him and thank him personally for what his activism did for all of us.

  • Bob Watson

    RIP Dennis 💖
    (although many of us know he’s just passed into a new phase of existence)

  • Bob Cratchet

    Great motivator and staunch champion. never got to meet him, but always respected him, and was (and am) grateful for his advocacy. He is also right about how sh*tty the new “legalization” law is.

  • Dale Gieringer

    CORRECTION: Just to be clear, Dr. Donald Abrams was never politically involved in Dennis’ political campaigns, in particular San Francisco’s Proposition P Initiative of 1991 or Prop 215 in 1996. Dr. Abrams has always been first and foremost a medical researcher, and has therefore stayed clear of politics. Instead, he left the politics to folks like us.

  • george eady

    THANKS FOR ALL YOU HAVE DONE FOR US ALL

  • Wonderful comprehensive tribute. He was an excellent communicator, a creative activist and charismatic speaker. I only had a brief encounter with him while making a documentary in 1996 but his style and substance had a big impact on me. A shared a few words and screenshots of him speaking in Olympia, WA on the eve of Prop 215 at: http://daveostory.com/daveo-dispatches/kin-pals/dennis-peron-a-few-words-in-memorium-for-a-charismatic-activist/ + a link to see him “in action on the pulpit”. Thanks again for doing such a quality backgrounder on this world changer.

  • blues player

    Still, the stupid country can by hook and crook elect a buffoon clown to a paid office but even with a majority of both parties fail to see the lack of common sense of keeping cannabis criminal.

    Just keeps the underground fat and rich…stupid, stupid, stupid…

    RIP Dennis

  • 360dunk

    Peron approved me for membership in his original Church Street dispensary back in the early 90’s….doctor’s recommendations were not necessary back then. The Cannabis Buyer’s Club was the only place in the country where you could walk up that flight of steps and purchase some weed as though you were shopping at Mrs. See’s. Yes, we were adult kids in a candy store and Dennis made sure the movement didn’t fade away. He was a true pioneer.

  • mtnmedic

    Dennis, you are a true champion of the people. Thank you for your kindness, your love and your compassion for others as well as the force you are behind cannabis legalization. Say “hi” to Harvey for us and enjoy the wonders of the next phase of your life! RIP, old friend.

  • yinrising1

    Sorry to hear about the loss, but can we stop this IDIOTIC PATRIARCHAL practice of saying “FATHER of X”?? No woman ever gets called Mother of anything. OK, you pigs??? What an irritating and cock-sucking practice. We’re stopping it now.

    • Magic Plants

      Are you mad? You put all that disgusting language on this man’s epitaph. How disrespectful. Women get called “Mother of” this and that all the time. You’re just blinded by your own hatred and it’s apparent you’re battling with something internally. I hope you find peace.

  • William

    God bless Dennis Peron. “chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari, who happens also to be gay, is a great, therapeutic and rage reducing book. A great, eye opening read. Fare well, Dennis, you will be missed.