In part one of a two-part conversation, we spoke to Dale Gieringer, state coordinator of the pro-legalization organization California NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) since 1987. With a Ph.D from Stanford in economics and public policy, Gieringer published a pioneering report on the economics of legalizing cannabis in 1994 and went on to help organize and write the 1996 medical marijuana initiative Proposition 215 with Dennis Peron, which legalized medical cannabis in California. Here, Gieringer shares his memories of Peron, who transformed his understanding of cannabis and led him to become one of America’s leading advocates for cannabis legalization.
“What would have happened in the last 24 years if we didn't do Prop 215 in California? I really don't know,” says Dale Gieringer, who co-authored the medical marijuana initiative with Dennis Peron that was passed in 1996, and shares his accounts of Peron and the movement in the documentary Dennis: The Man who Legalized Cannabis. “But there's no question that initiative would not have happened as soon as it did, when it did, if it weren't for Dennis. It was Dennis' idea first to do a medical marijuana initiative.”
Gieringer met Peron in 1990 and took an immediate interest in his cause. Little did he know that meeting would change the course of his career. With his work for NORML, “I was approaching this issue from a personal freedom perspective,” he says. “I had no idea marijuana was useful for so many conditions—epilepsy, spinal trauma, AIDS…” Working with Peron opened Gieringer’s eyes to the world of compassionate use, paving the way for his lifelong research and activism in the field.
“I got involved with the movement because I believed that adults have the right to use marijuana like they use alcohol. And the medical thing seemed, to me, to be the province of a very small minority of actual users,” he adds. “Dennis saw it differently. He regarded every marijuana user he came across as just [the same as] the rest. And this was partly because of his experience with the gay community in San Francisco and the AIDS epidemic, which really helped us get that first medical marijuana initiative passed in San Francisco. Dennis knew he had this wide family of followers who either had HIV or knew people who did, and that a lot of marijuana is medicine, one way or another.”
Peron also taught him how to do an initiative campaign. “Dennis had been a political activist in San Francisco before I met him and he had won the first San Francisco marijuana initiative in 1978, which was basically this resolution telling the District Attorney not to prosecute people for marijuana,” he says. “And that initiative won well over 60% of the vote, which says a lot about the high popularity of marijuana at the time. He had been involved in gay rights activism in San Francisco. He was well connected to people on the board of supervisors, and he had a team of followers who would organize and collect ballot signatures.”
Gieringer was instrumental in the drafting of Prop 215. He consulted his friend Dr. Tod H. Mikuriya, a California psychiatrist who later became widely regarded as the grandfather of the medical marijuana movement in the US. A controversial figure with government authorities, Mikuriya’s medical philosophy was derided by the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Bill Clinton as “the Cheech and Chong show.”
“He was the premier medical cannabis practitioner doctor, back in the day,” says Gieringer. “In the 70s he published a book of papers on the medical use of marijuana for pain management, going all the way back to the 19th century. And he was an advocate for marijuana in his practice. He started treating patients even before it was legal, and by the time Dennis Peron got operating in San Francisco, he had thousands of patients on file.” Gieringer would continue to work with Mikuriya for years to come, conducting surveys that supported the medical benefits of cannabis, particularly in patients with chronic pain. On the night Prop 215 passed, “we partied,” he recalls. “When midnight came, I lit up a joint for a cancer patient I knew—the first legal toke in California.”
Not only did working with Peron change Gieringer’s perspective on cannabis, but he was effective in changing the world’s perspective. “Something that impressed me very favorably about Dennis in general, as opposed to [hemp activist and friend of Peron] Jack Herer… Jack Herer was your typical hippie. Dennis had a clean act. He didn't have facial hair; he wore a tie—sort of loosely around his neck—and he spoke very well. It was hard not to like him. He was a great salesman and he didn’t really exude this hippie odor that a lot of marijuana advocates had previously.
The press attention he brought to medical marijuana—especially with the Buyer's Club in San Francisco, where the media could come from around the world and see patients who were obviously using cannabis for medical reasons—I think improved the whole image. He was very good at selling this whole new concept of medical marijuana in a way that nobody in the pot movement was able to do.”