Last Saturday, Dennis Peron passed away at the age of 71 due to respiratory failure, and San Francisco lost one of the greatest marijuana reformers of all time.
Since returning to the Bay Area from Vietnam with two pounds of cannabis, Peron established himself as a cornerstone in both the local supply chain and policy reform world, as he led San Francisco and then California to legalizing the use of medical marijuana via Proposition 215 in 1996.
Peron entered the limelight in the 1970s when he opened Big Top Café, where customers were able to buy and smoke cannabis openly as they socialized with their friends and neighbors. This was exceptionally ahead of its time, and as they did on many other occasions when it came to Dennis, SFPD came knocking and the Big Top’s run was over — a small setback in Peron’s path forward.
Peron had been inspired to become politically active after his late partner Jonathan West used cannabis to treat the symptoms from AIDS, a virus that devastated the LGBTQ community in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood where Person resided. Through the wild 1980s, AIDS traumatized gay communities across the nation, and the Castro was no different, as it was one of the most welcoming and established gay communities in the world. During this time, Peron got a first-hand view of the relief that marijuana was providing Jonathan and others.
These local realities and a sense of compassion inspired Peron to lead the effort to pass Proposition P, the nation’s first medical marijuana initiative, in San Francisco in 1991 with a whopping 80 percent of the vote.
Debby Goldsberry, a longtime activist and dispensary operator who arrived in San Francisco on the heels of the Proposition P, told Cannabis Now that Peron had a massive influence on early first wave operators such as herself.
“He was an inspirational person, no doubt about it,” said Goldsberry. “Dennis showed us that our dreams could come true. If we did the work and did what was right by the American people and the voters, we could succeed.”
Peron wouldn’t rest on his laurels after passing Proposition P, however. He again took the responsibility into his own hands, this time to make sure patients had access. So, Peron opened the nation’s first medical cannabis dispensary. The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club became a fixture in the lives of 11,000 patients who could openly buy, use and share marijuana at the facility. The club would close its doors in 1998, two years after Proposition 215 passed.
Peron led the 1996 effort to pass Prop 215 with the help of California NORML’s Dale Gieringer. On Jan. 30, Gieringer shared his thoughts on Dennis with the New York Times.
“No person is more responsible for the legalization of medical marijuana than Dennis,” said Gieringer. “He was in the right place, at the right time as a gay rights leader at the time of the AIDS epidemic; he had the right experience as a pot dealer, the gumption to go ahead and do it and the trust of the people of San Francisco, who respected his efforts.”
NORML’s founder Keith Stroup echoed the sentiments of California activists in a post on the NORML blog titled “Arguably The Individual Most Responsible For The Rise Of The Medical Marijuana Movement In California, And Eventually Nationwide, Passed Away This Weekend.”
In the piece, Stroup said, “All of us who smoke marijuana, whether for medical or recreational use, are truly indebted to the courageous early work of Dennis Peron. Without his willingness to stand-up publicly and fight for the medical use of marijuana, despite its illegal status at that time, we would not be where we are today.”
Outside of what he did for the sick, it’s not crazy to say Peron will also be remembered for kicking the snowball from the top of the mountain that’s turned into today’s cannabis. While in recent years his main thoughts on the industry revolved around protecting the patients he’d worked so hard for, Peron was as welcoming as ever and could be seen at events all over San Francisco.
On Valentine’s Day in 2017, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors gave Peron a certificate of honor, with the declaration that Peron was “the father of medical marijuana.”
On Jan. 29, the California State Senate adjourned in honor of Peron. “He made such an impact on the people of California, and we send our very heartfelt condolences to his family and his many friends,” said State Senator Scott Weiner. “Dennis, you changed the world.”
Read more about Dennis Peron in our feature from Issue 26: “Dennis Peron: A Cannabis Folk Hero Who Never Sold Out.”
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