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California Medical-Marijuana Pioneer Dennis Peron Passes Away

After a long battle with lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), beloved California marijuana activist Dennis Peron passed away on Jan. 27 at the San Francisco Veteran’s Administration Health Center. He was 71.

Peron founded the medical-marijuana movement in San Francisco nearly three decades ago. Two years after city voters passed Prop P (which he drafted) passed in San Francisco legalizing medical cannabis in 1991, Peron opened the Cannabis Buyers Club. By 1996, it had 10,000 members and a large storefront on Market Street.

Next on Peron’s agenda was to legalize medical use throughout the state. He and California NORML’s Dale Gieringer wrote the first draft of Prop 215, which would pass with 56% of the vote in 1996, making California the first state to recognize cannabis’ medical benefits.

Also See: How California Legalized Medical Marijuana

Peron famously claimed that “all marijuana use is medicinal.” The vague wording of the new law opened the door for all sorts of conditions, from cancer to insomnia, creating a legal gray area that bordered on complete legalization. Over the next 21 years, pretty much any resident who sought a recommendation for medical use could receive one from a participating doctor.

Since 1996, 29 other states followed California’s lead in legalizing some form of medical use. However, when California voted on full recreational legalization in 2016, Peron opposed the Prop 64 voter initiative.

“Prop 64 is a misrepresentation of what marijuana is primarily for,” he commented at the time. “This kind of legislation will hurt a lot of people, especially small growers and businesses who are trying to provide to their clients but can’t afford to because of the excess regulations and taxation on their products.”

Dennis Peron was born on Apr. 8, 1946 in the Bronx, N.Y. and raised on Long Island, N.Y. in an Italian-American family. After a stint in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, he moved to San Francisco, which was ideal for him since he a was gay man and the city had a large and increasingly accepted and powerful gay and lesbian community.

He’d brought a few pounds of pot back from Vietnam and began dealing. By the mid-’70s, Peron was running a large marijuana operation, called The Big Top, out of his Castro Street. apartment. Original landrace strains from Mexico and Colombia overflowed in bowls; customers stopped by and filled up bags of cheap but potent grass. Peron had become San Francisco’s Pied Piper of Pot.

He started getting involved in local politics, and supported Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay official of a major city when he won a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. Peron helped Milk, who was also a former Long Island resident, connect the Castro districts gay voters with the hippies in nearby Haight-Ashbury. But Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated less than a year later by gay-hating Supervisor Dan White. Peron, who was portrayed by Ted Jan Roberts in the 2008 movie Milk, was devastated.

When AIDS decimated the city’s gay men in the 1980s, many discovered that marijuana could ease the disease’s devastating effects. Peron, who’d lost his partner to AIDS, was a natural leader for the struggle to gain safe access to the healing herb.

After his successes with medical marijuana, Peron moved to Lake County north of San Francisco, where he grew his own plants. But ultimately he returned to city and the comforts of Castro Street. Ravaged with cancer, he became frail, but his closest friends held onto hope that he would be able to overcome the disease. Surely, medical cannabis helped Dennis Peron to the very end.

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