“I wanted to legalize love … along the way, I legalized marijuana!”
This quote, from a mural in Dennis Peron’s Castro Castle, a beloved San Francisco guest house, reflects the life of the father of medical cannabis, Dennis Peron, who passed away on January 27, 2018. Dennis co-authored Proposition 215, otherwise known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. The law was enacted on November 5, 1996, by the ballot-initiative process, with 55.6 percent of votes in favor. That set off more movements for legalization across North America.
Dennis Peron was born on April 8, 1945, in the Bronx, New York City, into an Italian-American family and grew up on Long Island. He served in the United States Air Force in Vietnam and took part in the Tet Offensive in 1968. After the war, he relocated to the Castro District in San Francisco and became an active Yippie organizing smoke-ins. He also sold cannabis and later advocated for its medical use after observing how AIDS patients benefited from using it in treatment.
The Emerald Magazine had the opportunity to learn more about Dennis by speaking with two of his dear friends. Behind the larger-than-life figure was a friend and mentor who touched the lives of many people in the cannabis industry. Laura Costa and Cara Cordoni share their stories of friendship with Dennis. Laura is a farmer, writer and curator of a veterans’ retreat, The Fox House, in Eureka, California. She was introduced by Wayne Justman after Dennis had had a stroke in 2010.
“For the first year or so, it was a casual friendship. I loved stopping by and sharing as much as possible, trading stories and seeing my friends. When I ran into some legal trouble in Los Angeles, Dennis gave me advice. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the standard ‘Brownie Mary defense.’ When it was all over, my charges were dismissed.”
“Dennis became my advisor. I would call him often for advice, or to tell him a story, or (to go on) a date—he loved to get picked up and taken out. When Cara and I met, she fell right into step as a consort with Dennis. He may have been gay, but he loved the ladies, too.
“Dennis had an amazing sense of humor, and no topic was out of bounds. So renowned for the serious moments of his life, few people know about the soft side, the funny, loving, dancing side of Dennis Peron.”
Cara is a coach and activist and came to know Dennis through her artistic partner Laura in 2016. They met at his Castro Castle. “At sixty-nine years old, Dennis had survived a stroke and was battling lung cancer. He was little, with a shock of white hair and fragile as a bird, and also rocked a crooked grin and had a sparkle in his eye. He enjoyed company, and he was engaged and opinionated. He was funny, so sharp and wry, which blended uniquely with his over-riding kindness and his raunchy humor, too. I visited him often with Laura, and we took him to local cannabis events like the Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa. We were friends, and I was honored to know him the last two years of his life.”
When not working on advocacy and activism, the father of medical cannabis spent his time dancing. He had won contests in his youth. Dennis was a free-spirited man with a kind heart. This was put to the test when he lost his partner, the love of his life, Jonathan West, to AIDS. At that point, Dennis focused all his efforts toward helping patients gain legal access to growing and using cannabis for their medical treatments. It was in 1991 that he organized the passage of San Francisco’s Proposition P, a resolution calling for the state government to issue permits for medical cannabis. The resolution received a vote of 79 percent. Dennis also co-founded the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club that same year, making it the first public cannabis dispensary. He also collaborated with Brownie Mary on a cookbook with recipes for edibles.
Proposition 215 was the highlight of all Dennis Peron’s efforts toward the legalization of cannabis. However, he was strongly opposed to Proposition 64, also referred to by supporters as the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act,” with the full name “Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act.”
Cara and Laura further explained Dennis’s stance on the matter. “Regarding Prop. 64, his opposition was that we did not need it, that Prop. 215 did not need replacing. Everything in Prop. 64 was about commerce, and Dennis always said, ‘This is a plant, a medicine,’ and that it was successfully getting where it needed to go. Yes, we needed to improve our testing, but nothing was worth disrupting patient access to medicine. However, Prop. 64 was focused on enforcement and commerce and missed compassion entirely.”
Dennis believed that the true mark of cannabis medication is compassion and that anything commercial ruins the gesture. After all, Proposition 215 was the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. He believed that people need more than just medicine. Other than cannabis, Dennis knows very well the importance of basic necessities, like food. He expressed support for feeding people and did his part whenever he can. Cara and Laura would like to let everyone realize the importance of his legacy.
“There is no formal organization to carry on Dennis’s legacy at this time. We continue to introduce folks to Dennis and promote his vision of the Garden of Social Change in person and through social media. Just inside the door at Dennis’s Castro Castle is a mural that reads, ‘Dennis Peron’s Garden of Social Change.’ This quote explains a lot about Dennis. He used to say, “I wanted to legalize love … along the way, I legalized marijuana!”
Cara and Laura are currently working on collaborating with event organizers like Jim McAlpine of the New West Summit in setting up a memorial space. They did a memorial this year, bringing pictures and memorabilia in Dennis Peron’s Garden of Social Change. They also expanded the garden as Dennis would have wanted. Topics on compassion and social change were discussed during the gathering.
Both women have fond memories of Dennis. For Laura, one of the fondest was the election season of October 2016. “I call it the ‘Whistlestop Trip.’ Dennis wanted to go to Southern California to do some campaigning against Prop. 64. My daughter lived in San Diego then, so we planned a road trip. It was dark already, the first day when we left his place in SF. As we went over the old Bay Bridge, we talked about the new bridge being built alongside, and that soon, just like this old bridge, Prop. 215 would be history. We stopped that night at Anderson’s, on I-5, and had pea soup for dinner.
“Over the next 12 days, we worked our way from San Francisco to San Diego and back to San Francisco, then straight on up to Humboldt to my place, then back to San Francisco. Our days were filled with new friends, old friends and media appointments. We took every opportunity to stop at places where we could share a few joints with random people and see as many sunsets as possible. We went to the beach several times, and the redwood forest behind HSU. Through all of this, we talked, Dennis and I, and that is my fondest memory.
“My second-favorite memory: doing mushrooms with Dennis and a few other unnamed souls up in Fairfax after shooting some documentary footage. We went to a really nice dinner and proceed to cut up like grown teenagers. Dennis was memorable, always.”
Cara remembers the first few days of December 2017, shooting the Compassion Calendar, which was an art project to raise funds to support Dennis.
“I had hoped to have five hundred dollars for Dennis through sponsorships and donations by the end of that day, and I only had fifty. Down in Dennis’s room at the Castro Castle, I handed Dennis the case and said, ‘Dennis, this is just a fraction of what I hoped to have for you. Please take it as a gesture of our intention to support you with this project.’
“He smiled so sweetly, put his hand on his heart and said, ‘Thank you. I’m proud of you and what you’re doing.’ His words washed over me like a blessing. I was so grateful for his words, for his appreciation.”
The next part of the lesson came the following day while overhearing a conversation Dennis was having with Wayne Justmann, his longtime friend, and his brother Brian Peron, in which he said, ‘Money? I’ve seen a lot, I’ve shared a lot,’ and then with a grin,‘I’m rich when I have twenty bucks.’ Instead of having fallen short with the fifty dollars we had at the end of the day, from Dennis’ perspective, he’d been made rich two and a half times over. I felt humbled and inspired as I often did with Dennis.”
Family and friends will always remember Dennis Peron as a kind and compassionate soul. His life’s work was founded on love.