A campaign sign for Dennis Peron, a groundbreaking medical marijuana activist. Photo courtesy J. Tony Serra
From 1994 to 1998, Dennis Peron ran one of San Francisco’s most successful marijuana businesses, openly flouting federal and state law by providing the drug to anyone who walked through the door of his Cannabis Buyer’s Club (CBC), with one catch: you had to be sick or disabled to get in.
Modeled after buyer’s clubs for AIDS patients, which gave those suffering from the disease access to non-FDA approved drugs that could help manage the illness, Peron created the CBC as a safe place for AIDS patients to buy and smoke marijuana. Over time, he expanded its clientele to people with disabilities, the terminally ill and the elderly.
Peron was inspired to open his CBC after a raid on his home in 1990. A known marijuana dealer and activist, police busted in with a warrant after receiving a tip that he was selling. They confiscated 4 ounces of marijuana and charged Peron with intent to distribute. But the bud wasn’t Peron’s—it was his lover’s, Jonathan West.
“Now I’ve sold marijuana in my life- lots of it,” Peron wrote in his self-published memoir, How A Gay Hippy Outlaw Legalized Marijuana in Response to the AIDS Crisis. “But I was not selling it that night.”
West was in the late stages of AIDS, and marijuana helped him combat the nausea and loss of appetite he experienced as common side effects of the dozen-plus drugs prescribed to him. West passed away two weeks after the raid.
“In my pain, I decided to leave Jonathan a legacy of love,” Peron told the LA Times in 1996. “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.”
West wasn’t the only AIDS patient using marijuana to ease pain and nausea. A 1990 Washington Post article reported on an “underground network of AIDS patients passing the word about the drug’s medicinal benefits.” And the story of how marijuana came to become the medically celebrated and largely decriminalized drug it is in America today is inextricably tied up in the struggle of early AIDS patients and those who fought for their right to use it.
The story of the medical marijuana movement begins with Bob C. Randall, who, years earlier, became the country’s first legal medical marijuana patient. Busted for growing pot on his Washington, DC sun porch, a 1976 court case ruled in favor of his then-novel defense that smoking marijuana was a medical necessity, claiming it was the only drug that kept his degenerative glaucoma from rendering him completely blind.
In response, the federal government created the Compassionate IND (Investigational New Drug) program, permitting Randall and 14 other patients with debilitating diseases to smoke government-provided marijuana. In the process, Randall and his wife, Alice O’Leary, began advocating for marijuana legalization on medical grounds, essentially founding the medical marijuana movement as it’s known today.
In 1990, after a Florida court ruled HIV positive couple Ken and Barbara Jenks’ possession of marijuana was a medical necessity, the Jenks became the first AIDS patients admitted to the Compassionate IND program. The news brought the IND program and the medical potential of marijuana to national attention.
“Before the AIDS crisis, things had been very quiet for the medical marijuana movement, ” said Drug Policy Alliance Director Ethan Nadelmann.
O’Leary and Randall began actively encouraging AIDS patients to apply for the IND Program. Randall founded the Marijuana AIDS Research Service, which helped people with the disease apply, and handed out AIDS-specific application forms at a National AIDS conference in 1991. As a result, the previously obscure IND program received hundreds of applications and accepted at least 28 new patients, according to the book Harm Reduction: National and International Perspectives. Directly after the increased demand, the program was quietly disbanded in March 1992, effectively shutting down the only legal route to medical marijuana.
Back in San Francisco, Peron had been recruiting marijuana, AIDS and gay activists in the fight for medical marijuana. In 1991, he ran a Vote Yes campaign for Proposition P—an ordinance allowing patients to use medical marijuana within city limits. It won in a landslide 4-to-1 vote.
“We were really shocked at how strong our support was,” said Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, who worked with Peron on the Prop P campaign. “It was the middle of the drug wars. We thought we would slide by.”
“I knew a lot of cancer patients who secretly used marijuana,” said Chris Conrad, a cannabis and hemp lobbyist. “But the doctors, nurses, patients—they all kept it a secret. It wasn’t until the HIV/AIDS community came along” that the drug’s medical usefulness became well-known, he said. “They knew the government was out to get them anyway. The government wasn’t helping them at all. So they told everyone.”
In 1996, Conrad was asked to help the Proposition 215 campaign, a Peron-authored initiative which would allow patients throughout the state of California to use marijuana for medical purposes. He signed on without hesitation.
By the time the campaign was in full swing, Peron had been openly operating the CBC for two years. TV crews such as Univision and CBS had aired full news segments featuring the CBC’s medical marijuana patients and their stories.
“It was really ingenious,” Gieringer said. “He ran a little media center out of the place.”
A menu from the CBC. Photo courtesy J. Tony Serra
But state narcotics agents had been building a case against Peron all the while, and on Sunday, August 5th 1996, the CBC was raided.
The move backfired. San Francisco city officials publicly criticized the raid, with then-Mayor Willie Brown likening it to “gestapo” tactics in the New York Times. Nationally-syndicated newspaper comic Doonesbury lampooned the raid for targeting the infirm. Despite California Attorney General Daniel Lungren’s insistence that the CBC was a front to sell marijuana to the general public, the public only saw the state coming down hard on the sick and disabled.
While the raid gave Peron and medical marijuana much-needed national attention, the Prop 215 campaign received an influx of cash from left-leaning billionaire George Soros. National drug policy critic Nathan Edelmann was able to hire professional organizers, giving the campaign a last minute push to obtain the remaining signatures necessary to make Prop 215 a ballot referendum in California’s 1996 election.
With the extra money, organization and publicity, Prop 215 passed with 56 percent of the vote. Carefully worded to not impose on federal law, California’s Compassionate Use Act gave state residents an affirmative defense to possess and cultivate marijuana for medical use.
Today, twenty years later, 25 states have legal marijuana programs. Patients who enjoy the drug’s medical benefits today have the work of Dennis Peron, Bob Randall, Alice O’Leary and the AIDS patients who fought to see a life-changing medicine be made legal to thank.