Seeing through the smoke


Christopher Gallagher

In Dennis Peron, we lost a cannabis advocate and pioneer

Ar 180209731
Associated Press file

Dennis Peron in 1996.
Ar 180209731
Associated Press file

Dennis Peron in 1996.

“I came to San Francisco to find love and to change the world,” he said. “I found love, only to lose him through AIDS. We changed the world. Through the legalization of marijuana, we have a kinder America.” – Dennis PeronLast weekend we lost a heavyweight CannaBoss, a man to whom anyone who has used cannabis here in the 21st century, as openly and easily as we are able to, owes a debt of gratitude. Dennis Peron, the dynamo behind California’s Proposition 215, the first legal, state-sanctioned medical marijuana program, died on Jan. 27 from lung cancer.

Peron was born in the Bronx, New York, and raised on Long Island. He decided that the middle class suburbs wouldn’t be where he lived out his days: “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,” Peron said in a 2014 interview. So he joined the Air Force and shipped out to Vietnam. On his way to Southeast Asia he made a stop in the city that would become home for the rest of his life, San Francisco.

He returned to the City By the Bay after completing his military service. He brought two pounds of weed with him and launched a 40-year run as a dealer in the most active neighborhood there, the Castro, setting up in a big old Victorian crash pad that came to be known as the Castro Castle. That spot became a whirlwind of activity through the 1970s and ’80s as Peron and his compadres hosted a restaurant downstairs, The Island. Upstairs was ground central for his cannabis sales; both floors became known for their fervent gay rights political and social discussions and led to clashes with the city’s elected officials and, especially, the San Francisco police department.

Peron was busted several times, including a 200-pound affair that earned him a six-month sentence in 1978 and was shot in the leg by a cop during one of the police actions. The murder that year of Mayor George Muscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk set Peron and many others around him even more squarely on the path to activism, but it was tragedy that spurred him to become the driving force behind California’s groundbreaking legalization measures starting with San Francisco’s Proposition P in 1991, which legalized medical cannabis within city limits and, five years later, the Compassionate Care Act, the statewide medical marijuana program that began the march toward nationwide access that continues to this day.

The 1980s brought the AIDS crisis with it, to San Francisco and the Castro in particular. It was during this era of his life that Peron turned the corner from pot dealer to cannabis supplier for those on the front lines of the epidemic that had descended upon his neighborhood. He supplied the plant material for the proving ground of cannabis as a viable modern medicine. Peron and those around him in the hospitals and homes of San Francisco came to realize that marijuana worked where so many standard pharmaceutical medications failed. It gave sufferers relief from pain, nausea, and the mental duress of what was considered at the time to be a “death sentence.” But it could not save his partner, Jonathan West, who passed away from AIDS in 1990. It was the anguish of the loss of West that spurred Peron: “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,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1996 interview.

Roll one, light one, smoke one this week for Dennis Peron, a CannaBoss who leaves a legacy we all benefit from.

Christopher Gallagher lives with his wife and their four dogs and two horses. Life is pretty darn good. Contact him at chrstphrgallagher@gmail.com.