Dennis Peron, aka the father of medical marijuana, was a prominent figure in the medical legalization movement in California. He was an activist who was among the first to argue for the palliative effects of marijuana.

Born in the Bronx, Peron’s lifelong love of cannabis started when he was 17 years old. After serving in Vietnam, he was discharged and smuggled two pounds stateside in his duffel bag. The veteran claimed that cannabis helped him cope with the post-traumatic stress of the war and allowed him to stay sober after years as an alcoholic.

After returning from the Air Force, Mr. Peron attended the City College of San Francisco on the G.I. Bill — while selling marijuana from the second floor of a restaurant. He and a friend distributed pot to AIDS patients, got busted several times, and was shot in the leg by a police officer.

Dennis Peron selling cannabis at a restaurant

Fighting for Patients 

After his partner, Jonathan West, died in 1991 from AIDS, he fought to change the laws that criminalized the possession of marijuana for medical use.  He saw how marijuana eased nausea and pain and joined with other activists to write a ballot initiative called Proposition P.

The proposition recommended that California add marijuana to its list of approved medicines to treat various illnesses — including AIDS, glaucoma, cancer, and multiple sclerosis — and not penalize doctors who prescribed it. The initiative passed in 1991, and in the following year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution to make the arrest and prosecution of those growing or possessing pot for medical purposes the “lowest priority.”

Despite Obstacles, Peron Persevered 

At the height of the US war on drugs in the early 1990s, Peron founded the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the nation’s first public marijuana dispensary. However, even as Californians appeared close to legalizing medical marijuana through Proposition 215, which Mr. Peron helped write, he faced multiple legal obstacles. In August of that year, state narcotics agents raided and closed his dispensary, and in October, Mr. Peron was arrested and indicted in Oakland for criminal conspiracy and possession of marijuana.

San Francisco Cannabis Buyer's Club

His supporters criticized the California attorney general, Dan Lungren, a vocal opponent of Proposition 215, calling his actions politically motivated attacks. After the polls closed on Election Day, Mr. Peron smoked a fat joint and awaited the results. Finally, the call came in, all of his hard work had paid off, Prop 15 passed. Peron regarded the victory as a legacy of love to Mr. West.

In 1998, Peron’s pot club was closed by a judge. Over the course of its operation, the San Francisco Buyer’s Club served over 9,000 clients. Reflecting on Proposition 215 in 2016, he told The Eureka Times-Standard: “We empowered the patients and the voters and the people that don’t believe marijuana is a crime.”