Dennis Peron: The Life and Times of a Gay Cannabis Pioneer

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Anyone able to enjoy legal access to cannabis in the USA owes a debt of gratitude to a man named Dennis Peron. A businessman and a Vietnam war veteran turned activist, Peron was a key figure in the medical marijuana movement of the 1990s. His successful campaigning for cannabis was the first domino to fall in the battle for cannabis legalization, starting a crusade that is making continuous progress, with 21 fully legal states (along with Washington, D.C. and Guam) and counting.

 Not only did his love and advocacy for the plant change the political landscape in California, but Dennis also became a symbol of hope for queer communities during the AIDS crisis. In addition, his work with Brownie Mary and Harvey Milk solidified Dennis’s place in history as one of the most influential figures in both the cannabis and LGBTQ communities. Ultimately, his influence was felt across the United States as he changed the political debate around marijuana.

Dennis Peron, the Father of Medical Marijuana 

Peron was born and raised in New York, where he began his relationship with cannabis as a precocious teenager. Attracted to counterculture and identifying with the hippie culture, Dennis visited San Francisco in 1967 during the ‘Summer Of Love.’ He noted the hippie culture’s openness, finding them very accepting of the gay community. Shortly after, Peron joined the US Air Force to serve his country in the Vietnam War.

A pioneer and entrepreneur

Having completed his tour with the Air Force, he returned home to the San Francisco ports with two pounds stashed in his duffle bag, kissing the ground upon his arrival on US soil.

“I was happy, partly because I had two pounds with me. That started a career that would span 40 years.” That career began with a move to the Castro district, where he settled and began selling marijuana.

A businessman and a gentleman

After seeing the ravages of war firsthand and surviving its horrors, Dennis was intent on helping the world become a more kind and peaceful place with help from his favorite herbal medicine. The progressive nature of the Castro meant that Peron felt safe enough to openly sell marijuana at his ‘Big Top’ supermarket during the 1970s.

 Since he felt he was providing a necessary service, Dennis defied the law despite the threat of getting arrested. Although he was more worried about being robbed, his bravado led to several arrests and eventually resulted in a prison sentence for possessing 200 pounds.

An advocate and caregiver

Dennis’ imprisonment only made him more determined to make marijuana accessible to those in need. His next venture was an even greater commitment to this mission than ‘The Big Top’. Opening in 1974, The Island Restaurant featured a vegetarian menu and an upstairs area that served marijuana.

The restaurant became a place for cannabis advocates and the gay community to gather, knowing they could safely discuss cannabis legalization and gay rights. As well as providing a safe space for these ostracized communities, Dennis would regularly gift cannabis to those he knew had a genuine medical need, knowing how it could help alleviate symptoms of numerous ailments. 

The Father of Medicinal Marijuana

In Dennis’ eyes, all cannabis use is medicinal, and he felt that everyone who consumed it was doing it for medicinal benefits, consciously or subconsciously. He felt so strongly about this, in fact, that he actually opposed the current Prop 64, which legalized cannabis for adult use in California. When asked about his opinion of Prop 64 in a 2016 interview, he made his thoughts abundantly clear.

“There is no recreational marijuana, they made it up to try and separate people who are medicating and people who are having fun. People who use marijuana don’t get ‘high’ they get normal. The government is trying to demonize these people because they’re having fun.”

— Dennis Peron

This response was perfectly fitting for a man widely known as “The Father Of Medical Cannabis.” Peron not only had first-hand experience of cannabis’ positive impact on quality of life, but he had also witnessed countless friends and acquaintances benefit from it too. Moreover, his civil disobedience and generosity with the plant were testaments to how important he believed it was to make cannabis accessible to anyone who needed it, frequently risking his own safety and freedom to do so.

 The AIDS Epidemic & Dennis’s Advocacy

During a time when being openly gay was also a risk to your safety and freedom, Peron chose San Francisco to settle in so he could be the most authentic version of himself.  Ever since his first visit to San Francisco, Dennis was struck by the accepting nature of the city towards the gay community. Moving to the Castro allowed Peron to do the work he felt was most important for the most overlooked communities.

 Cannabis for the symptoms of AIDS

When the AIDS epidemic began devastating San Francisco’s gay population, Peron knew marijuana could help with the symptoms and resulting pain. Ever the altruist and activist, he provided free or very cheap cannabis to anyone suffering, knowing how it could help minimize nausea and stimulate appetite. These two qualities alone make cannabis an invaluable tool to help AIDS patients maintain a healthy weight in the face of a disease that results in the body wasting away.

Perhaps more than ever, Peron knew he was answering a calling. So he responded by doing everything he could to help the community that had welcomed and seen him for who he really was.

Advocacy for the community

His Island Restaurant had helped create a safe space for open discussion and gatherings, giving the community the room to organize advocacy efforts. At the same time, he focused on providing cannabis for the market upstairs. However, during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Peron became much more involved and vocal in the fight for gay and LGBTQ rights.  Thus he began his journey as a prominent gay activist.

He began appearing on televised debates where he made a case for cannabis and demanded equal rights for the LGBTQ community. He was increasingly dedicating his time and energy to helping those afflicted rather than selling cannabis. By the end of the 1980s, he had stopped selling entirely due to personal tragedy.

Peron’s personal experience with AIDS

When Peron’s partner Jonathan West became sick and eventually died from AIDS in 1990, Dennis could take some solace in how marijuana helped ease Jonathan’s suffering in his final days. After Jonathan died, his advocacy focused on creating awareness around AIDS and how helpful cannabis was for the palliative care of AIDS patients.

Now that cannabis had proved to be helpful when no traditional medications seemed to help as much, it began changing the impressions of several people across the country. During this period, Peron created viable support for a change to state law, a momentum that would eventually result in the successful passing of Prop 215 in 1996. Yet, again, our cannabis leader Dennis Peron fought for more.

Harvey Milk, Brownie Mary & Dennis Peron

The groundwork for this historic effort began two decades prior when Peron made the Castro neighborhood his home and started various cannabis ‘supermarkets.’ While running the upstairs supermarket at the Island Restaurant, Dennis met and became friends with Harvey Milk, a businessman, gay rights activist, and aspiring politician.

 At the Flore Café, he would share a marijuana joint with Mary Rathbun, AKA Brownie Mary, a divorced waitress who aimed to build herself a retirement fund by selling pot brownies.

The Castro was the perfect meeting ground for these three pioneers, and it is hard to overstate the neighborhood’s importance in their notable achievements.

Dennis and Harvey Milk

Connecting over their Long Island origins and a shared desire to instigate real change, Peron and Milk’s friendship grew rapidly. It wasn’t long before they were making a difference to the Castro and beyond.

In 1977, Dennis assisted Harvey Milk’s historic campaign to be successfully elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. This made Milk the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, giving the LGBTQ community an elected official who they could identify with. He made an impact immediately, passing a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation for both employment and accommodation.

In return for Peron’s help, Milk used his political influence to help Dennis pass Proposition W in 1978. As a result, another historic collaboration encouraged local law enforcement and the district attorney to stop arresting and prosecuting those growing, distributing or possessing marijuana.

Unfortunately, they would never get another chance to work together on further advocacy efforts. Before he could complete a full year in office, Harvey Milk was murdered by a disgruntled ex-Board of Supervisors colleague.

Dennis and Brownie Mary

Besides sharing joints, Dennis and Mary shared a similar philosophy around social activism and personal freedom. Quickly becoming friends, Peron began selling Mary’s brownies at his ‘Big Top’ supermarket on Castro Street. They both lent their efforts to the AIDS crisis, with Mary volunteering in hospital wards and Dennis educating advocacy groups on the benefits of cannabis. To help suffering patients, Dennis gave away countless ounces of weed, while Mary baked and gave away hundreds of infused brownies.

After their first-hand experience during this harrowing time, they joined forces twice more to lobby for legal access to cannabis for medicinal purposes. In 1991, Dennis and Mary were instrumental in passing Proposition P, which legalized the medicinal use of cannabis within San Francisco’s city limits. This was the first time since the 1930s that doctors could legally recommend marijuana without fear of losing their medical licenses. Moreover, it was the precursor to the first-ever statewide law permitting the same.

In the following years, Peron and Brownie Mary continued to gather support from various groups for a similar law to Proposition P that could benefit all of California. This culminated in another historic victory in 1996, when Proposition 215 passed, permitting legal access to cannabis for medicinal use throughout the Golden State.

Three heroes of the Castro neighborhood

The amazing work these three pioneers accomplished was all born out of meeting in the Castro, one of the only places in America where they were free to be themselves. The Castro provided an ideal environment for organizing multiple movements that would go on to make history, exerting an influence that spread far beyond the edge of our humble neighborhood. Peron, Milk and Brownie Mary are forever etched into the folklore of the Castro, with their work and achievements celebrated in various forms of homage throughout the neighborhood.

 Dennis Peron made the Castro his home and an epicenter of the medical marijuana movement through his various ’supermarkets.’ This directly connects the Castro to every subsequent cannabis law he helped pass in California and shapes an integral part of the neighborhood’s story, past and present. 

Cannabis Legalization Efforts 

Those cannabis supermarkets were the predecessors to the dispensaries that opened across California after the monumental night when Proposition 215 passed. The law allowed residents to access cannabis for almost any medical ailment via recommendations from doctors who would not have to fear losing their license for helping a patient with marijuana.

 The law was also the culmination of the work that started more than 20 years ago, right here in the Castro. There were crucial milestones along the way, and each successful legislation campaign resulted in an even greater one that followed.

A condensed timeline of Dennis Peron’s legalization efforts 

  • Cannabis ‘Supermarkets’ (early 1970’s): Illicit and clandestine cannabis markets in Peron’s various Castro homes.
  • Proposition W (1978): Directed San Francisco District Attorney to stop arresting people for possessing, distributing or growing cannabis.
  • Proposition P (1991): Allowed San Francisco residents to consume medically recommended cannabis.
  • Cannabis Buyers Club (1994): The first compassionate ‘dispensary’ opened with Brownie Mary and several others.
  • Proposition 215 (1996): Allowed California residents to be medical cannabis patients and caregivers while allowing physicians to recommend cannabis without fear of losing their license.

Proposition 215 was undoubtedly Dennis Peron’s most influential contribution to the efforts to legalize medical cannabis, providing for a whole state of people with the same care he did for his people in the Castro. An undeniable tone was set, and shortly after California passed Proposition 215, other states began passing similar initiatives and discussing legalization.

Constantly pushing the limits of the laws he helped pass, Peron was harassed, arrested, jailed, and even shot by the police. Yet, he was relentless in his defiance of federal law when it came to providing cannabis because he knew how many people would stand to benefit. This was civil disobedience with a heart, a compassionate approach constantly challenging state and local law to evolve.

Peron’s work on Proposition 215 shaped the early stages of California’s journey toward legal weed. Still, he was not in favor when the emphasis shifted from compassionate caregiving to capitalistic commerce. Nevertheless, after the failure of Proposition 19 in 2010, Proposition 64 successfully passed in 2016, regulating and taxing cannabis for medical and recreational use across California.

The Lasting Legacy of Dennis Peron

 For someone with an incomparable legacy in medical cannabis, Peron staunchly opposed efforts to regulate and tax cannabis because he felt all cannabis use is medicinal. He saw the ‘recreational’ tag as a way for the government to exploit and tax a medicine that should be available to anyone who needs it.

 Peron intuited that this was setting a bad precedent for a substance with more healing properties than hedonistic ones. This is one of the reasons he is considered the “Father of Medical Marijuana” or the “Patron Saint of Cannabis,” and cannabis activists everywhere continue to preach his message that cannabis is a valuable medicine.

 While the current version of legalization is suffering from some of the issues that Peron warned against, we are thankful that cannabis is becoming normalized for fun or relief from some form of discomfort. One of the main reasons this is even a possibility is thanks to the work of pioneers like Dennis, Brownie Mary, Harvey Milk and others.

 Peron’s advocacy work slowed down in his final years, and he passed in 2018 after a battle with late-stage lung cancer. However, the numerous goals he helped accomplish for both the cannabis and LGBTQ communities are something we celebrate daily at Flore and are still commemorated throughout the Castro neighborhood.

 We welcome you to come and visit us in one of San Francisco’s most historic districts! Across the street from our location, you can see the Flore Café where Dennis shared that first joint with Brownie Mary. Then, visit the “Castro Castle” site and enjoy gorgeous, sun-grown cannabis from Humboldt in the same neighborhood where Dennis Peron started this whole movement from. We’ll happily share everything we know about Dennis, Mary and the rest of the Castro’s heroes. We hope to see you soon!

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