Jun 22, 2020

Dennis Peron and San Francisco in the 1970s

Dennis Peron and San Francisco in the 1970s

Dennis Peron’s career as an activist began long before he helped pass Proposition 215 in 1996, making medical cannabis legal in the state of California. In the ’70s and ’80s, his work in the gay rights movement in San Francisco paved the way for him to find his voice and become a powerful ally for the causes he believed in. We owe a lot to the courage and fortitude of Peron and his peers – a story brought to life in the documentary Dennis: The Man Who Legalized Cannabis. To learn more, we spoke to his partner John Entwistle Jr. about Peron’s first foray into cannabis activism, his work with Harvey Milk, and the San Francisco scene in the ’70s.

“Dennis had always been politically active at a grassroots level here—and wherever he was,” says John Entwistle Jr. on the phone from the colorful “Castro Castle”, the home he helped build and shared with Peron up until his passing in 2018. “A little San Francisco history: We had redistricting back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and this was a big issue for how we elect our leadership. It was always done by city-wide elections for all members of the board of supervisors, the mayor, and everybody else. And a lot of people thought that meant individual neighborhoods weren't having enough say or getting their needs met. So, they came up with district elections … and they created a district that encompassed the Haight Ashbury and the Castro neighborhoods. When that kicked off in the very early ’70s, it was like rolling out the red carpet for somebody to get on the board of supervisors who was either a hippie or a gay person. This was unheard of before, but the opportunity still had to be harvested.”
 
It was at that time the revered politician Harvey Milk (who eventually became the first openly gay elected official in the history of California in 1977) moved from New York to San Francisco, taking advantage of the growing LGBTQ movement in tandem with the growing political and economic power of the city. “You had guys from the gay community—Rick Stokes, for example. He was very associated with the mainstream gay agenda, which is great, but it wasn’t necessarily the hippie agenda. And then you had guys like Terence Hallinan running for office out of the Haight Ashbury. Back then, Terence was a real hippie guy—a civil rights leader and a radical young lawyer. But the gay people were never going to elect this guy [because he] was a straight man—very straight. And so, the issue became: how do we find a candidate that both communities will really like, and will really celebrate?”
 
This is where Peron found his groove. “Because Dennis was a gay, hippie pot dealer,” he says. “And he was transcendental—the bridge between the two communities. Completely acceptable to both and loved by both.” Peron was a huge supporter of Milk. “And Harvey was in the same boat: a gay guy, but also a pot smoker and a hippie. A lot of the original crew of gay guys that came out here were basically all of that genre. But that changed when it became more of a mainstream thing. When 100,000 people show up, they're going to bring the values of a more mainstream group than if the first radical 15 show up, who might've been a bit more free-thinking. In any case, we needed somebody, and that’s where Harvey Milk and Dennis came in. And they fought for years. There were three campaigns to get him elected, and it was the third that was successful.”  
 
Shortly after Peron moved to San Francisco—fresh from Vietnam, where he had served in the Air Force—he opened up The Island, a collectively-run vegetarian restaurant that quickly became a hippie hangout. “A lot of campaigning came out of The Island,” says Entwistle. “They were looking to do things collectively. Space was cheap back then and people needed jobs. They started the restaurant with food stamps and it was a hit right from the beginning. Dennis always subsidized it. He was selling pot upstairs. And it brought a lot of people together.” The Island soon became a political hub. Peron started the Island Democratic Club where he signed up 90 to 200 core people to vote in elections as a group. “And they actually had some power,” he adds. “They participated in a couple of small local elections and really shook up the machine, because they could go in there 90-strong, bullet vote for one candidate, and either sink or help somebody.”  

The first political campaign Peron worked on with the club was Prop 19 in 1972. “That was the statewide legalize cannabis effort,” says Entwistle. “It got on the ballot, which was amazing to begin with. They went out there and collected around 600,000 signatures, which in five months is very hard to do. They got 33% of the statewide vote on a legalize marijuana ticket and, perhaps even more importantly, in San Francisco they got more than 50%.”
 
This small but important victory connected Peron to people like Gordon Brownell, who became California’s first registered marijuana reform lobbyist in 1973 and served on the board of cannabis advocacy non-profit, California NORML. “It helped Dennis learn more about politics,” he says. “He was very moved by the guys that started NORML. He wanted to be one of those people, and to carry on this mission and be influential and push this thing down the line.” 

Following the huge response to Prop 19 in San Francisco in 1972, Peron gained the momentum he needed for a lifetime of cannabis activism. “Every battle has been incremental,” says Entwistle. “During that period Dennis was continually challenging the cops—and very blatantly. They’d bust his club and arrest everybody, and he'd just be out there again the next day on a megaphone saying, ‘I will not be stopped.’ His thinking was: This is wrong, somebody’s got to sell pot—and by God it’s going to be me!” 

-- Written by Natalie Shukur 

Natalie Shukur is a British-born, Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and creative consultant. She writes about lifestyle, fashion, design, art, and culture for publications including VogueCondé Nast Traveller, and Cabana

Watch the documentary here