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Lifestyle, Politics, Research

Who Was Dennis Peron and How Did He Impact Cannabis Legalization?

Bethan Rose

by Bethan Rose

July 27, 2021 08:00 am ET Estimated Read Time: 5 Minutes
Who Was Dennis Peron and How Did He Impact Cannabis Legalization?

On January 27, 2018, the cannabis industry bid a solemn farewell to one of its most notable lobbyists – Dennis Robert Peron. Since his birth on April 8, 1945, Peron was destined to become an influential figure in the ever-changing cannabis space. Without the American activist and businessman’s consistent efforts to lead the U.S. drug reform movement, the landscape of legal cannabis might be very different today. Before the 71-year-old’s death, he was best known for co-authoring California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996, A.K.A. “Proposition 215“.

A Brief Insight into the Fascinating Life of the Late Dennis Peron

Aside from his work in the field of political cannabis debates, Peron, a gay man, was also an active LGBT advocate. The self-proclaimed smoker admitted to consuming cannabis since the tender age of 17. Following a stint serving in the Air Force, where he witnessed a lot of death and violence in the Vietnam War, he took the leap and moved to San Francisco. His venture involved meticulous planning, with Peron boldly smuggling two pounds of cannabis into a duffle bag before flying to the California city. 

I came back and kissed the ground,” he told Leafly reporters in 2014. “I was happy, partly because I had two pounds with me. That started a career that would span 40 years.”

This was a risky move that eventually paid off. With his stash, the Republican saw an opportunity to start dealing cannabis from a San Francisco supermarket in the 1960s. His status as a cannabis kingpin soon prompted him to lead a victorious campaign to legalize medical cannabis use in California.

After Vietnam, Peron decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to world peace and publicly declared his homosexuality. A man who lived by his words, Peron spent the rest of his life trying to raise awareness about cannabis. Consequently, he helped to dissolve the negative stigma that was long associated with the plant. According to his spouse John Entwistle Jr., the cause of Peron’s death was respiratory failure; late-stage lung cancer. He was confirmed deceased at a San Francisco hospital on January 30, 2018.

Mr. Peron Felt the Heat from Law Enforcement on Many Occasions 

Before his untimely death, Peron was praised for his dedication to raising awareness about the cannabis plant. Fearless and devoted, the Bronx, New York native was arrested on numerous occasions. In fact, during one particular incident that occurred at his Castro Street-based “cannabis supermarket”—where the second floor was designated for his dealings—an undercover police offer shot him in the leg.

As if that wasn’t enough, Peron was soon imprisoned for illegally possessing 200 pounds of cannabis. Despite his criminal record (and clear devotion for exposing the benefits of cannabis,) Peron eventually earned a reputation as a political activist. 

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This was spurred on by the AIDS crisis and Peron’s acknowledgment of cannabis’ potential for enhancing the quality of life among palliative care patients. Not only this, but Peron also emphasized the fact that cannabis helped him to remain sober following years of alcoholism. Another incident that saw law enforcement target Peron took place in January 1990. One evening, the police proceeded to raid the home of Peron and his former lover Jonathon West. Diagnosed with AIDS, West was suffering from a debilitating condition and was on the verge of death. 

During his final moments, Peron took on the responsibility of caring for West, who was experiencing severe nausea and pain due to the medications he was consuming. Aware of cannabis’ therapeutic properties, Peron stashed four ounces of cannabis inside his house for the sole purpose of treating his former lover. In an unfortunate turn of events, a police raid led to Peron being charged with cannabis possession and the intent to sell.

“Now, I’ve sold marijuana in my life… lots of it, but I was not selling that night,” reads an excerpt from Mr. Peron’s autobiography, “Memoirs of Dennis Peron: How a Gay Hippy Outlaw Legalized Marijuana in Response to the AIDS Crisis” (2012). “There were four ounces of the best marijuana in the world in the house,” and Mr. West was the owner, he claims. The charges were dropped six months later, after Peron protested his innocence and had West testify that the cannabis was, in fact, his own.

Peron Was a Lifetime Achievement Award Winner

Prior to his death, a lifetime achievement award was bestowed upon Peron at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds-based Emerald Cup an annual event described as “California’s definitive cannabis cup.” Based on his efforts to increase plant access and stimulate cannabis reform, his accolades are well-deserved.

During his time lobbying for statewide cannabis legalization in California, Peron launched the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club. Inspired by his ex-partner’s experience, the medical cannabis dispensary was initially established in 1994 with the aim of assisting AIDS and cancer patients. With time, the club gained respectful recognition and expanded to support more people with a broad scope of serious illnesses. 

In the later stages of his life, Peron owned and operated a 20-acre cannabis farm near Clearlake, California. Then, in 2017—one year before his death—San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors awarded Peron with a certificate of honor.

Notwithstanding the struggles Peron experienced in terms of police backlash, cannabis lobbyists from all over never lost sight of his dedication; particularly so after proposition 215 was approved in California back in 1996. Last year, California—which has served as inspiration for other U.S. states and global countries to follow suit—cannabis sales revenue topped $4.4 billion; thus proving the monumental impact that Peron’s life has had on the industry as a whole.

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