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Dennis Peron: The Father of Medical Marijuana

Dennis Peron with marijuana plant as background

One of America’s most well-known medical cannabis activists, Dennis Peron is affectionately referred to as the “father of medical marijuana.”

Dennis Peron used marijuana throughout his adult life, first trying it during his military service in Vietnam and later dispensing the medicinal plant to AIDS patients in San Francisco during the 90s.

Once inspired by moments of loss and ridicule, Dennis Peron is now celebrated as a pioneer of the cannabis movement who influenced many and changed the political debate about marijuana in the United States.

Here’s a look at the life of Dennis Peron and his significant role in making cannabis accessible for medical use nationwide.

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The Early Years of Dennis Peron

Dennis Robert Peron was born in 1945 in New York City. He grew up in Long Island and was raised in a middle-class Italian American family. In 1966, now a young adult, Peron was drafted by the U.S. military, where he ended up joining the Air Force and serving in Vietnam.

It was in Vietnam that Peron tried weed for the first time. According to a 2014 interview, Peron returned from Vietnam with two pounds of cannabis tucked in his military gear. This marked the start of his 40-year-long career as a medical marijuana activist.

On his return from Vietnam, Peron settled in San Francisco, where he felt accepted by the hippie culture. He planted his roots in the city’s counterculture Castro District, started a commune, and began selling weed.

Peron’s Marijuana Business, Harvey Milk, and Run-Ins With the Law

In no time, Peron’s cannabis business flourished. He offered products for sale from storefronts and ran a restaurant that also sold marijuana on the side. During the mid-70s, he met fellow activist Mary “Brownie Mary” Rathbun. The two became friends, and at some point, Brownie Mary started selling her weed-infused brownies at what was called Peron’s Big Top Supermarket.

The Castro District was also home to gay activist Harvey Milk, Peron’s friend who later became the first openly gay man elected to public office in California. In 1977, Milk made history when he was famously voted into the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Though business was booming, it also attracted unwanted attention. Peron had multiple altercations with police (this was also during Nixon’s War on Drugs era, known for its zero-tolerance policy) and was even shot in the foot during a police raid.

Eventually, Dennis Peron was arrested for possession of 200 pounds of marijuana. Unlike his prior arrests, this was too big a charge to walk away from, and he found himself serving a six-month jail sentence.

In 1978 while Peron was serving his sentence, San Francisco voters passed Proposition W, a non-binding measure to end cannabis arrests and prosecutions. Unfortunately, it never went through as Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated less than three weeks later, and incoming mayor Dianne Feinstein disregarded the initiative.

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The AIDS Epidemic and San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club

As the AIDS crisis unraveled in the 1980s, the Castro District in San Francisco — a popular neighborhood in the gay community — was one of the worst-hit areas.

Brownie Mary, who was volunteering at the San Francisco General Hospital, and other people affected by AIDS started noticing that marijuana gave patients relief. Most notably, its appetite-stimulating properties seemed to help with symptoms of wasting syndrome (cachexia), which is marked by weight loss and weakness.

Peron’s partner Jonathan West was one of many AIDS patients who used marijuana to alleviate symptoms. In 1990, police raided Peron’s home and arrested him for cannabis possession. West, severely ill at that time, testified that it was for medical use, and Peron was let go. West succumbed to the disease two weeks later.

After his partner’s death, Peron made it his goal to honor West’s legacy. He started with Proposition P, a measure to legalize medical marijuana in San Francisco. Peron also co-founded the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first public marijuana dispensary in the country.

The club began as a way to dispense medicine to people with AIDS, cancer, and any other health condition the plant could help with. At one point, the club’s membership exceeded 8,000 patients.

A Voice for Cannabis Legalization

Having seen firsthand how marijuana helped improve the devastating symptoms of AIDS and cancer, Peron started pushing for legalization.

The first step was gathering enough signatures to qualify Proposition P, which would make the medical use of cannabis legal within the San Francisco city limits. In 1991, the ballot measure passed with an impressive 78% of the vote. Confident he could enact real change, Peron ramped up his activism and co-authored a cannabis cookbook with Brownie Mary.

In 1996, Dennis Peron and a handle of other activists authored a statewide voter initiative known as Proposition 215. The campaign faced heavy opposition from law enforcement, elected officials, and then-California Attorney General, Dan Lungren. Lungren even ordered a police raid of the buyers club a month before the vote and arrested Peron.

Proposition 215 still passed with 56% of the vote, making California the first state to legalize medical marijuana in the country. The victory paved the way for other states to legalize the crop.

Peron lived to see his life’s work bear fruit on several fronts. When California legalized same-sex marriage, Peron married his longtime partner John Entwistle. The pair spent their later years together until Peron died from lung cancer in 2018. Announcing Peron’s death, his brother Jeffrey Peron eulogized him as “a man that changed the world.”

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