In a two-part conversation, we spoke to John Entwistle Jr., husband and collaborator of the late cannabis advocate Dennis Peron—subject of the documentary, Dennis: The Man who Legalized Cannabis. Entwistle was a vital part of Peron’s cause, from co-authoring Proposition 215, to opening the Cannabis Buyer’s Club.
Today, he still lives in the colorful home on Castro Street dubbed the “Castro Castle” he shared with Peron and continues to preserve his legacy by archiving images, footage, and documents that tell this incredible story. Much of these archives were integral to the making of this film, as are Entwistle’s on-camera interviews, which are equal parts effervescent and deeply touching. It’s his candor, wit, and warmth that bring Peron’s story to life, and help us remember the importance of this civil rights movement and the people who made it happen.
“We’re celebrating one man and we're learning the history of a people. There's a lot of changes that occurred in San Francisco, and Dennis' life reflects that. He came here from Vietnam, he was a hippie, and then the AIDS thing happened. It’s a beautiful story.”
Peron was a fearless and determined cannabis advocate whose 40-year career began in the early 1970s when he smuggled a duffle bag full of cannabis back from Vietnam (where he served in the Air Force) and started selling it out of illegal storefronts in San Francisco.
Dennis and San Francisco in the 70's and 80's
“Dennis had always been politically active at a grassroots level here—and wherever he was,” says John Entwistle Jr. “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!”
Entwistle first met Peron in the 1980s in New York. Both men were Yippies—a youth-oriented countercultural offshoot of the free speech and anti-war movements of the 1960s. They organized “smoke-ins” on Fifth Avenue and gatherings in Washington Square Park, and recruited the charismatic Peron, who was gaining a reputation for his illegal cannabis “supermarket” Big Top in San Francisco, to speak. “He came out here to give people a sense of the bigger picture and the history of the thing,” says Entwistle. “And there were very few people in America that were standing up—fully—to the cops. Dennis, Gatewood Galbraith, Jack Herer—and Dennis was the one on top of everything. We were kindred spirits.”
They would spend days rolling hundreds of joints to distribute at the smoke-ins. “This was a wartime event,” says Entwistle. “We wanted everybody to smoke pot, and we would give away a lot for this purpose. But this was New York City and you couldn’t just walk around giving out pot—you had to do it in a certain manner. We had pockets full of joints and would just keep lighting them and passing them around. You can distribute a lot of pot in a crowd that way and nobody can really pin it down. Did you light that joint or are you passing that joint? Where did that come from?”
Peron's Work in the 90's
Entwistle eventually moved to San Francisco, where the pair opened the Cannabis Buyer’s Club in 1991, converting Peron’s underground business into a public dispensary, where medical users could purchase cannabis along with Brownie Mary’s famous baked goods, and socialize in what quickly became a safe haven for those battling with HIV and AIDS.
It was the AIDS epidemic in the ’90s that turned attention to the use of cannabis for medical conditions. Dennis was instrumental in passing Proposition P in San Francisco in 1991, and Proposition 215 in the state of California in 1996, putting him on the map as the man who has done more for the legalization of medical cannabis in California than anyone, before or since.
All of this was inspired by an historical verdict in a trial against Peron for cannabis possession, the result of a bust in January 1990, that he endured after decades of being raided, forced to close, and valiantly reopening, time and again. (According to The New York Times, during one bust, at his 11-room supermarket on Castro Street, Peron was shot in the leg by an undercover police officer. A prison sentence for possessing 200 pounds of cannabis ensued.)
On that fateful January evening, police raided Peron’s home, arresting and charging him with possession with the intent to sell. “I was busted in that one as well,” says Entwistle. “They dropped the charges on me early in the game, but they literally axed my door down and came through with guns out. It was not a little thing.” The cannabis belonged to Peron’s then-husband Jonathan West, who testified—just before his death from AIDS complications in 1991—that it was his medicine.
“The judge dropped the charges on Dennis, based on Jonathan's testimony,” Entwistle recalls. “That was 1991 and we had just been through the AIDS epidemic. Nothing but seven years of grinding death. First, they said it was the gay cancer—it's not like they even had a name for it—and nobody wanted to talk about it. Then all of a sudden, it's too big to be quiet. Next thing you know, you're seeing people wasting to nothing, Kaposi sarcoma all over their bodies … going blind. And it's everybody, man.” Peron and Entwistle walked out of court, flabbergasted. “A judge, from out of nowhere, walks on water right in front of you, and does something that no one ever saw coming in their life. It was like, all of a sudden, the whole thing ends.”
Buoyed by the verdict, the Cannabis Buyer’s Club was born, honoring West and the HIV and AIDS patients who had come to rely on Peron’s cannabis and the inclusive, supportive community that surrounded it. But he didn’t stop there. He planned to use the club as a trojan horse, so that others could benefit from this newfound tolerance of medical cannabis. “We didn't think we were going to have a club, we thought we were going to have a bust,” says Entwistle. “We did it for court trials, so that somebody else could then cite our case and sell pot to AIDS patients. It was very naïve, looking back.” But the busts didn’t come, and the club got bigger and bigger, until its final closure by a federal judge in 1998.
Dennis Peron's Impact
Without Peron, the cannabis landscape would not look how it does today. “We really hit it on the head with this film. It's going to wake people up to where this [movement] came from. And it's important to remember where you come from,” says Entwistle. “When PAX gave $50,000 to the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in San Francisco in Dennis’ memory… he would've loved that. He would've f...ing gotten up and hugged you for that. It built a bridge between PAX and the community and brought all of us closer together. Then they turned around and funded this great movie, and they did it because they wanted to honor the guy that started this whole damn thing. And they're totally right. You couldn't have picked a better guy to honor. Dennis really is the man.”
Watch the documentary here