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Many people have carried the flag of cannabis policy reform over the years, but few have been as instrumental to changing the conversation on medical cannabis and cannabis culture in general than two gay men; Harvey Milk and Dennis Peron. In this article, we’re going in-depth on the very queer history behind cannabis legalization.
Harvey Milk was a Jewish Navy veteran from an immigrant family. Born in Woodmere New York in 1930, Milk spent the early part of his life as a Naval officer stationed in San Diego. In 1955, he resigned from the Navy after being officially questioned about his sexuality and moved back to New York where he would work in a series of civilian professions. He was a school teacher, a stock analyst, and later a production associate on Broadway. Milk also became increasingly politically involved at this time in his life, actively protesting the Vietnam War.
In late 1972, Milk relocated to the Castro district of San Francisco where there was a burgeoning gay community and opened a camera store. Milk’s charisma and theatricality made him a very relatable figure in the Castro. Milk got involved with community organizing very quickly in the Castro, using his camera store, Castro Cameras, as a community center and later as a campaign headquarters when he ran several campaigns for office. This community organizing laid the foundation for the Castro to become the Gay Mecca that it is today.
Through his community organizing, Milk befriended Dennis Peron, another New York transplant. Peron was an out gay man and a vocal cannabis advocate. He was the owner of the restaurant The Island, another center of the gay community in the Castro and a headquarters for one of Milk’s campaigns.
A little over a year after Milk relocated to San Francisco, he ran for election for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk lost, but the campaign placed him as a community leader and a political force to be reckoned with. Milk went on to create and lead the Castro Village Association, an LGBT business association that was established to protect and nurture current and future LGBT businesses in the Castro, effectively carving out the Castro as a gay community and creating a blueprint for other gay communities across the nation.
In 1975, Milk ran again for a joint city/county supervisor role and narrowly lost. By this time, he had become recognized as the political spokesperson for San Francisco’s gay community and had befriended San Francisco and California State Senator George Moscone.
Milk was persistent in his pursuit of public office. He had sworn off visiting gay bath houses and smoking cannabis as he saw his larger goals as too important to risk. He ran on a progressive platform, seeking free public transportation, legalization of cannabis, and removing the influence of large corporations in local elections. In 1977, Milk won his final campaign for the office of City Supervisor and became the first openly-gay elected official in United States history.
One of his most influential contributions Milk made as Supervisor, in relation to cannabis, was the campaign supporting Proposition W. Proposition W was a non-policy proposition that urged San Francisco’s District Attorney and Chief of Police to stop arresting and prosecuting those caught growing, cultivating, selling, and using cannabis. The measure passed by 63% demonstrating a serious interest in reform.
Sadly, Milk would not live to see the reach of his influence. Milk was assassinated on November 27th, 1978 along with Mayor Moscone by Dan White, a former City Supervisor and colleague of Milk and Moscone. In a shocking display of normalized homophobia, White was charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter -- a lesser sentence than murder, and only served five years of his seven and two-thirds sentence. White’s lawyer’s used the “diminished capacity” defense and claimed that White was not in his right mind.
Though Milk’s life was tragically cut short, his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of LGBTQIA+ folks around the world. More specifically, his cannabis advocacy lived on through his friend Dennis Peron.
Dennis Peron was born in the Bronx, New York in 1945 but grew up in Long Island. He served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, which heavily influenced his pursuit of legalizing cannabis. He came back from his deployment to San Francisco with two pounds of cannabis in his Air Force issued duffel bag that he used to begin his own grow operation. Openly gay, Peron was drawn to the community and social activism of the Castro.
Living in a commune in the Castro, Peron became known as a cannabis activist -- holding regular smoke-ins and growing and selling cannabis out of multiple storefronts around the Castro. He became friends with like-minded Gay Rights activist Harvey Milk, and even offered his restaurant, The Island, as a campaign Headquarters for one of Milk’s many political campaigns.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Peron continued to grow and distribute cannabis in the Castro. In the late 1980s, his partner Jonathon West was diagnosed with AIDS. Taking care of West became Peron’s number one priority. Peron had believed in the palliative qualities of cannabis for years and saw them relieving the nausea and myriad of symptoms his partner was experiencing firsthand. This deepened Peron’s then 20 year relationship with cannabis.
One night in 1990, the San Francisco Police Department raided Peron and West’s home. Upon finding four ounces of weed, the police arrested Peron and charged him with possession with intent to sell. At this point, West was extremely ill. He was 90 pounds and covered in Kaposi Sarcoma lesions, a skin cancer that is common with an AIDS diagnosis. The four ounces of weed were West’s private supply and the only thing that was keeping him alive.
In one interview, Peron noted that this was the moment things changed for him. He looked down from the upstairs landing in their home to the foyer where the police were roughly handling the very sick man that he loved. Over medicine that was helping the love of his life stay alive. This would start a chain of events that eventually lead to the legalization of medical cannabis in the state of California.
A trial later followed where West testified that the cannabis was his and that it was for his treatment. The court dropped the charges and two weeks later Jonathon West died. Inspired by the legacy of his partner, the benefits of cannabis, and the lack of action being taken by the Federal government in the AIDS crisis Peron went to work advocating for compassionate use of cannabis. Joining with other activists, Peron co authored Prop P, a proposition from the city of San Francisco asking the state of California to add cannabis to its list of approved medicines for the treatment of AIDS, glaucoma, cancer, and other illnesses and to not prosecute doctors who prescribed cannabis. The proposition passed with an overwhelming majority.
In 1992 Dennis Peron, along with another Castro Cannabis Activist “Brownie Mary” Rathbun, opened California’s first medical dispensary, the San Francisco Buyers Club. Originally intended for AIDS and cancer patients, the San Francisco Buyers Club soon became a treatment center for a lot of very ill people. Peron and his other partners in the San Francisco Buyers Club got to work almost immediately lobbying for cannabis legalization at the state level.
In 1996 all of Peron’s hard work and determination paid off when Proposition 215, a proposition co authored by Peron, was passed and California became the first state in the Union to legalize cannabis for medical use. Peron maintained that all of his activist work was a labor of love for his late partner Jonathon West. The passing of Proposition 215 started the last twenty years of decriminalization and legalization of cannabis across the United States.
“To this day, everything I do I think about Harvey and what he would have done,” said Peron in one interview in 2010. “We were conspirateurs, we wanted to make San Francisco… A bigger and better world starts here in San Francisco. Harvey was cut down before his dreams came true and I am still trying to carry on his dream. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Harvey Milk.”
Law enforcement and other opponents to cannabis continued to harass Peron. The San Francisco Buyers Club was eventually shut down by a federal ruling in 1998 and Peron shifted his interest into farming and cultivating cannabis while giving it away to medical patients for free.
Peron, who passed away in January of 2018 due to complications of lung cancer, did not support recreational use. He believed that all people who used cannabis were using it medicinally, they just didn’t want to admit it. He also thought the legislation written to legalize recreational cannabis favored large corporations and would put small pot operators at risk, a harsh truth California is currently dealing with.
Today, medical cannabis is available in some form or another in more than 30 states. Cannabis users and activists alike have a direct connection to the gay rights activists of the 1970s and 80s. If it wasn’t for Harvey Milk, Dennis Peron, and the thousands of other LGBTQIA+ activists and cannabis users through the years, we may not be having this conversation today. In one interview, Peron said he came to San Francisco to fall in love and to change the world. He didn’t know at the time that it would be his love that would change the world.
- merry jane - Queer activist history of medical cannabis
- background on California drug laws
- United Patients Group info on AIDS epidemic and cannabis
- Legalization timeline
- Overview of changes in Cannabis law
- Prop W
- Prop P
- Timeline of Cannabis laws in California and the U.S.
- Harvey Milk and Cannabis
- Harvey Milk bio
- News article from Milk’s Assasination
- information on Moscone and Milk
- information on Moscone
- Harvey Milk Foundation
- General information on Dennis Peron
- Harvey Milk and Dennis Peron
- Peron and Jonathon West
- Video interview with Dennis Peron
- Info on the SF Buyers Club
- NY Times