The last time I saw Dennis Peron was in 2008 at the NORML Conference in Berkeley. It happened to be my birthday. He gave a speech right before the panel I was scheduled to moderate with my Pot Culture co-author Shirley Halperin. We were promoting our book, which had just been released, and had invited the Doors’ Ray Manzarek to be on the panel. (He contributed an article to the book and lived in Napa.)
Dennis went long that day, forcing us to cut back the time of our panel. No worries. Dennis was at the top of his game and the crowd cheered him on. Afterwards, Ray and his wife took Shirley and I out for my birthday dinner. It was a great day.
Dennis will go down in history as the father of medical marijuana. He wasn't the first to recognize its medicinal benefits, but he did lead the campaign for legalization first in San Francisco, his home city, and then the entire state of California with Prop 215 in 1996. Since then 34 more states have passed medical marijuana laws.
He became the point person in the medical-pot movement when AIDS devastated the gay community in the '80s and '90s, claiming his partner among many others. For several years, Dennis operated the city's first dispensary, the Cannabis Buyers Club, until it was shut down in 1998. A friend of Harvey Milk's, Dennis had a small part in Milk, which earned Sean Penn an Oscar for his portrayal of the slain San Francisco supervisor.
Dennis had an interesting life. Born and raised in New York on Apr. 8, 1945, he signed up for the Air Force and was deployed in Vietnam. Pot was plentiful there, so he brought some home with him and began to sell it. This began Dennis' long and illustrious career as a dope dealer (back then marijuana was also referred to as dope or grass). By the mid-'70s, he started operating the infamous Big Top Supermarket out of his Castro St. apartment.
I lived for a year in San Francicso from 1975-1976, but never went to Big Top. My friend Ed Bender did go there and recalls:
"After being checked out by some very large security guards, we were led into the main room with a big table with bowls of herb. You could sample whatever you wanted. It more than 40 years ago and I still remember it well."
As the post-Prop 215 years went by, Dennis moved north to Lake County to grow his own plants. He was pretty quiet politically until Prop 64 – the Adult Use of Marijuana Act - made the ballot in 2016. Surprisingly, Dennis opposed it. Regulations and taxes were never his thing. That's why Prop 215 was so vague. It allowed all conditons, but failed to create a regulated market. Now with the mass of regulations and taxes driving legal prices through the roof in California since commercial sales began in 2018, he might have been prescient.
But whether or not he approved of recreational marijuana didn't matter. To Dennis, who passed away on Jan. 27, 2018 at 71 years of age, all marijuana use was medicinal. It should be etched on his tombstone.
This article was originally posted on Jan. 30, 2018. It was updated on Jan. 27, 2021.