SAN FRANCISCO, April 1998: It was the kind of wacky-sweet political and cultural concordance likely to be recalled again and again for generations as a hallmark of San Francisco’s off-beat character. And like so many other mind-bending events here in the nexus of hippiedom, queerness, AIDS activism, and marijuana wars, it all occurred amid a crush of media. For many, in fact, it was the ’60s all over again, with a distinct late-’90s twist.
On Monday afternoon in San Francisco, amid a barrage of television cameras and reporters’ questions, a popular county sheriff and a revered, gay, marijuana seller got together to deliver a major slap in the face of California Attorney General Dan Lungren. The two old friends, backed by their Mayor and District Attorney, united to let their state’s AG know, in no uncertain terms, that they strongly disagree with his senseless quest to circumvent the will of California voters who overwhelmingly legalized medical marijuana by passing Proposition 215.
What might have turned out as an ugly citizen-police confrontation, had it occurred under different circumstances or in almost any other locality, instead transpired as a near love-fest between natural foes.
To comply with the letter of an order issued on April 15 by Superior Court Judge David Garcia, at the behest of Lungren, Sheriff Michael Hennessey and at least a dozen of his deputies politely entered the famed, now-former Cannabis Buyers Club at 1444 Market Street, greeted its founder, gay activist and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dennis Peron, smiled at his merry-making band of pot-smoking patients, and respectfully ordered everyone to vacate the spacious, five-story premises, which since 19__ had served as San Francisco’s primary hemp haven and dispensary.
When Hennessey first told Peron he had no choice but to come in and shut the club, “I told him we weren’t going to resist and that there would be no confrontation,” said Peron. “He said he was going to obey the law, and I said I was too.”
After entering the building precisely on schedule, at 1:30 p.m., Hennessey and his deputies casually combed its interior, going through the motions of confiscating whatever pot plants and paraphernalia they found. To satisfy them, Peron and club volunteers conveniently left behind several scraggly pot plants, some bongs and pipes, and a heap or two of marijuana “shake”, meaning the shaken-out leaves of pot plants. All other hemp plants and products had previously been removed from the premises, as everyone well knew.
Out on the sidewalk, in front of the building, dozens of buoyant club clients, along with the media types, craned their necks upward in fascination as they watched deputies, behind the windows of the club’s second-floor offices, sort out the confiscated items. Occasionally those below would wave, while those up above would grin down and acknowledge the cheers.
Every once in a while Hennessey would pop outside to answer reporters’ questions, and occasionally he invited Peron and some of his associates inside to help carry out the eviction. But never did the officers touch or remove any client files, and nary a discouraging word was uttered by anyone.
The whole affair, the much-anticipated, well-choreographed shut-down of Peron’s dispensary, was set in motion by Lungren, whose right-wing views and rival gubernatorial candidacy blinded him to the need of patients for the one medicinal substance — THC from marijuana — that could ease their nausea and relieve much of their pain.
Yet despite Lungren, who has indicated he wants nothing more than to put all medical-marijuana clubs out of business permanently, Judge Garcia issued only a limited order, charging Peron and one assistant with violating the provisions of Proposition 215 by selling cannabis products not just to prescription-wielding patients, but to primary-care givers as well.
That order required Peron to cease selling pot and to close his club, and called on the sheriff to enforce the action. It did not, however, prevent Peron from ceremonially passing the keys to the shut building’s owner, Mr. Zacharia, who then turned around and handed a new set of keys to Hazel Rodgers, a 78-year-old glaucoma victim who for years has volunteered at the club where she obtains the marijuana she was prescribed as a relief for her condition.
By 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Rodgers was in charge of a reincarnated medical-marijuana establishment, the Cannabis Healing Center, in exactly the same place, with exactly the same clients as before.
“Hazel instituted a couple of new policies,” Peron told the B.A.R. on Tuesday afternoon. He spoke by phone from the new club, where he was busy giving interviews to reporters from around the country. “She no longer allows caregivers in building, and does not issue cards to caregivers. We’re now in conformance with the new law and the court rulings.”
Peron, who served as a primary caregiver to thousands, claimed he never knew it was against law to dispense medical marijuana to other primary caregivers. Even so, he added, relatively few such individuals came to the club anyway, “maybe 5 percent” of all those coming to the club for pot.
“Now if they want to come here,” suggested Peron, “they’re going to have to be diagnosed with something and get a prescription.”
It is precisely Peron’s willingness to openly confront hostile state (and federal) authorities, his conviction that marijuana eases suffering and should be made readily available to those who need it, and his theatrics in popularizing his cause that have revered him to thousands if not millions of progressive voters and politicians throughout California, while infuriating conservatives like Lungren.
“A hundred percent of what I’ve been doing is spreading a message of hope and empowerment,” said a relaxed, smiling Peron as he milled about among a host of admirers, media types, television news cameras, and deputies on the sidewalk in front of the club in which he is no longer allowed to take an active role. “I’ve been carrying this thing for six years, and I’m ready to have this chapter of my life close.”
Peron added that he now plans to devote himself full-time to his quest for the governor’s seat.
Meanwhile, those who have worked with Peron in running the club continue to do so under the new banner and Rodgers’ management. They also look at this latest maneuvering in the fight for medical marijuana as just one more step toward complete victory.
“In this [judge’s] decision, both sides claim victory,” said John Entwistle, who has been at the side of Peron since the club first started in a storefront on 19th Street at Castro. “It enables us to continue to exist and serve patients. Everyone’s coming around. We’re a large group of people, and we’ll influence the rest of the nation. Just because the judge shut down the club for a few hours doesn’t mean the genie goes back in the bottle.”