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December 03, 2019
The Brief But Detailed History of Denis Peron, San Francisco and the Medical Marijuana Movement

BY MARIE LODI

The journey to cannabis legalization has been a long one, but a major part of its complex trajectory has to do with the beginning of medical marijuana movement, which took root in San Francisco in the 1980s, thanks to activist Dennis Peron.

After getting discharged from the Air Force in 1960, Peron, a gay man, came to San Francisco to start a new life. “I came home from Vietnam with two pounds of cannabis, and started a career that lasted 40 years,” Peron told Leafly in 2014. In 1974, Peron opened a restaurant called The Island, and began supplying cannabis to patrons, dodging arrests and charges along the way. He also befriended openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk, who had used The Island as his campaign headquarters at one point.

With the ‘80s came the AIDS crisis, and Peron distributed cannabis to patients to help alleviate their suffering. The crisis then affected Peron personally; his partner, Jonathan West, passed away from AIDS in 1990. “At that point, I didn’t know what I was living for. I was the loneliest guy in America,” Peron told the The Los Angeles Times in a 1996 interview. “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.”

It became Peron’s life mission to legalize cannabis, despite being arrested, thrown in jail, and even enduring shots fired at him by police. It 1991, he collected enough signatures to put Proposition P on the city’s ballot. The initiative, which advocated the medicinal use of cannabis within San Francisco’s city limits, passed with 79% of the vote. Peron then began working towards statewide legalization; simultaneously, he opened the nation’s first public marijuana dispensary, called the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club, with his partner, John Entwistle, and fellow activist Mary Jane Rathbun, known as “Brownie Mary.” Where Peron was known as the “father of the medical marijuana movement,” Brownie Mary was known as “the Florence Nightingale” of the cause. Together, Peron, Entwistle, and Rathbun lobbied for Proposition 215, which allowed California to become the country’s first state to legalize medicinal cannabis. 

Peron passed away in 2018, leaving behind an incredible legacy that indelibly changed the cannabis industry. However, he’d probably argue  that point. “This was never about me,” he told the LA Times. “All of this, all along, was about love and compassion.”

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