An unrelenting advocate for marijuana’s decriminalization, Dennis Peron was pushing a wheelchair for a woman with multiple sclerosis on a dirt road at his Lake County pot farm sometime about 1998 when the sound of a helicopter had them look to the sky.
The Chinook hovered close and Peron locked eyes with the armed law enforcement officers sitting in the open doors, the wind of the thrumming tandem rotors blowing through Peron’s 150 marijuana plants, some as tall as a house, recalled his husband, John Entwistle.
That’s what Peron wanted: A high-profile pot farm that would attract attention from law enforcement, a test case for California’s medical marijuana law he helped to write.
“He looks up, ‘Go away, beat it!’ laughing at them and waving them off,” said Entwistle. “He was like the man in Tiananmen Square standing up to the tanks.”
The helicopter paused before flying away, he said.
Peron, who had late-stage lung cancer, died Saturday at a San Francisco hospital. He was 71.
Peron’s brazen activism and civil disobedience over decades is widely credited with setting in motion the state-by-state march toward decriminalizing cannabis use that began in 1996 with California’s landmark Compassionate Use Act and continues today. Twenty-nine states have passed laws allowing its use, though the federal government still lists marijuana as a controlled substance without any health benefits, akin to heroin.
Peron was the one person in Sonoma County that communities across Northern California called when they wanted to push local government to signal their support for marijuana’s medicinal use. Peron’s Russian River vacation home in the Villa Grande community near Monte Rio was a site of many parties and strategic planning sessions, said longtime Cazadero resident Carol Miller, 71, who is currently living in Hawaii.
“Dennis, he was wonderful, he was quite a character,” Miller said. “One could always count on Dennis to speak. If it was the kind of situation you were trying to draw participants to, his presence was valuable.”
Marijuana was central to the livelihoods and culture of Cazadero residents and other communities west of Highway 101, said Miller. Law enforcement raids were frequent, with teams of federal and state officers dropping down in helicopters to rip out backyard marijuana gardens. Miller said her family’s six-plant garden, grown to help her treat medical issues, was eradicated on at least three occasions during raids.
“Like all of the folks in West County, we experienced the terrorism of CAMP,” said Miller, referring to the now-defunct Campaign Against Marijuana Planting law enforcement eradication program.
In the early 1990s, Miller and other members of the Sonoma Civil Rights Action Project sought Peron’s advice when they decided to push the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance allowing for medical marijuana’s production and use. He gave them advice, money and his penchant for public speaking.
In 1993, Peron spoke before Sonoma County supervisors at a standing-room-only board meeting urging action. On Oct. 12 that year, they passed a resolution calling for federal and state lawmakers to “support returning cannabis/marijuana medical preparations to the list of available medicines.”
Born in the Bronx in 1946 and raised on Long Island, Peron arrived in San Francisco with about 2 pounds of pot in his duffel bag after serving in and being jaded by the Vietnam War. He joined a commune in the Haight-Ashbury district and sold marijuana.
To Peron and his peers, the criminalization of marijuana was a symbol of government overreach, and it was an issue tied closely to other causes — the right to be gay, the right to not die in war, the right to get high.
“Dennis was radicalized at a very young age and at that time marijuana was the feather in the cap,” said Entwistle. “It was more symbolic of a whole agenda than it is now. It was the core of the anti-war, pro-peace, pro-environment, pro-gay agenda.”
Peron sought the spotlight, always available for an interview and usually surrounded by an entourage of his friends, supporters and his dogs. In the early 1980s, Peron was flown east to speak at “smoke-ins” at Washington Square Park in New York City, usually with some California pot in his luggage. That’s where he met Entwistle, who eventually joined Peron in San Francisco. Peron and Entwistle would be married more than 25 years later by prominent defense attorney Tony Serra during a ceremony on stage at the 2013 Emerald Cup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
Peron was arrested time and again, always defiant and determined that smoking marijuana was not a crime. In 1977, he was shot in the thigh by an undercover cop when police raided his Market Street marijuana “supermarket,” a case that led to a prison stint and abruptly ended construction of a lodge and cultural complex in Geyserville on a property that then was sold to the founder of the Isis Oasis Retreat Center.
But Peron’s work shifted toward advocacy as the AIDS epidemic took a deadly toll on San Francisco’s gay community. His partner, Jonathan West, died in 1990 from complications related to the disease.
The next year, Peron opened the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, widely considered the nation’s first dispensary, in open defiance against the U.S. drug war.
Peron received one of the first calls from Cazadero in 1992 when deputies burst into a home there and interrupted Mary Jane Rathbun, a 70-year-old IHOP waitress and activist better known as “Brownie Mary,” as she prepared a batch of about 20 dozen marijuana brownies.
Peron and Rathbun had written a book together — “Brownie Mary’s Marijuana Cookbook” — but he didn’t know she’d been secretly doling out pot brownies to AIDS patients at San Francisco General, according to his husband.
“He immediately went right into form, ‘We are going to fight this,’ he said,’ ” recalled Entwistle, who was with Peron when he got the call. “Mary was famous in San Francisco for pot, but we didn’t know she had been distributing brownies to AIDS patients. She wasn’t even telling us. Nobody knew that.”
Peron hung up the phone, made a pot of coffee and started calling every reporter listed in his Rolodex, “making calls one after the other about this grandmother in Santa Rosa that was going to have the pot fight of the century.”
Media coverage of Rathbun’s Sonoma County case began shifting the public discussion about marijuana activism away from a rebellious anti-government movement to one focused on the way people were using pot to ease the effects of serious health conditions such as AIDS. Prosecutors dismissed all charges against her when a judge said she could use a medical-necessity defense.
“Together, the two of them changed the history of marijuana in Sonoma County and California,” said Sarah Shrader, Sonoma County chairwoman for Americans for Safe Access. “For decades he pulled strings to get things done.”
It was rural, hard-scrabble Lake County where Peron set the stage to show a medical marijuana garden was possible based on Proposition 215, which allowed the use of medical cannabis.
Peron had made a living from selling marijuana, but he had written the state’s medical marijuana law to create a system of patients and caregivers producing and using the plant for health reasons.
Peron organized about 100 people with serious health issues to be members of a collective served by the farm at the 20-acre property of Jack “Magic Jack” Marcley off Spruce Grove Road near Lower Lake. Peron invited the sheriff to their first planting, which led to their first visit from federal drug officers.
After several raids — their crop ripped out each time — they’d argued their cause and reached an understanding with local law enforcement, according to Entwistle. They had no weapons, no alcohol and no money on site, and they kept strictly to the collective model.
The Chinook helicopter that hovered over Peron that day in Entwistle’s memory left and the officers who viewed their farm didn’t return. Peron’s longtime collaborator and fellow activist, Wayne Justmann, who worked on the Lake County project, said local charges in Lake County were dismissed but pressure from federal drug agents investigating the farm eventually led Peron to shut it down about 2002.
“Whether you believe it works is irrelevant,’’ Peron said to a Press Democrat reporter in 1996 during an interview at his San Francisco dispensary. “They believe it works. They believe it helps them. They believe it’s stimulating their appetite and easing their pain. They believe it’s improving the quality of their life.’”