Dennis Peron (R) sorting and weighing a fresh shipment of marijuana for sale. Peron is a Prop. 215 activist for the legalization of medicinal marijuana and the founder and owner of the Cannabis Buyers’ Club in San Francisco. (Photo by Axel Koester/Corbis via Getty Images)
It was 25 years ago today that California voters approved medical marijuana, setting off a nationwide chain of legalization — but hitting hard highs and lows along the way.
For perspective: In the November 5, 1996 election, Californians voted to hike the minimum wage up to five whole dollars an hour. Here in San Francisco, voters elected a fresh new face to the Board of Supervisors named Leland Yee, whose career would take an interesting turn, while famed sex-work activist Margo St. James fell just short of winning a Board of Supervisors seat in that election.
But the most enduring decision California voters made 25 years ago today was to pass Proposition 215, the legalization of medical marijuana. That first-ever state-level medicinal pot approval set off a wave of cannabis legalization across the U.S. that now covers most of the country.
This medical marijuana initiative was born here in San Francisco — in a booth at the Castro’s Cafe Flora, as the brainchild of local celebrity weed dealer Dennis Peron and the infused-brownie folk hero Brownie Mary. “It was Cafe Flore where Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary met and came up with the idea of Prop. 215,” the cafe’s current co-owner Terrance Alan told SF Evergreen.
But the early legal medical marijuana era was a time of homegrown buds and valid letters from a doctor, not the slick, luxe, convenient dispensary scene of today. And even though medical marijuana became “legal,” many dispensaries and providers were raided or arrested over the years while building the $4.4 billion a year California cannabis industry we know today.
1996-2004: Medical Marijuana Was Legal, but Dispensaries Still Weren’t
Above we see a 1996 photo inside the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first dispensary ever to operate in the United States. But it was not called a dispensary, and it was 100% illegal, yet it brought cannabis pain relief to a city population with the highest per-capita rate of HIV infection. Peron (far right) and his gang were cast in the media as California kooks, but their Prop. 215 movement had lined up mainstream funding from Democratic megadonor George Soros, Progressive insurance CEO Peter Lewis, and Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer (“I guarantee it”).
They may have been helped by a raid by state police, wherein the club’s clients and employees, many HIV-positive and visibly sick, were arrested and handcuffed.
“It just did not look good to drag dying people to jail,” says Alia Volz, author of Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco, whose mother’s pot brownies were sold at the club. “It was embarrassing to arrest these incredibly sick and frail people. In that huge raid, the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement rather thoughtlessly played right into that.”
To the dismay of those narcs, Prop. 215 would pass by a 56%-44% margin. Not everyone could get medical marijuana, the text of the law allowed it for people suffering from “cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, spasticity, glaucoma, arthritis, or migraine” conditions, and one needed a valid doctor’s recommendation.
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Published: November 05, 2021
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News