Make Cannabis Queer Again: Inside the Birthplace of the Legal Marijuana Movement
It was nearly midnight when I pulled up to the “Castle” — a multi-storey walkup with a painted stone façade and rainbow mural, nestled in the heart of San Francisco’s Castro District. From inside the front door, a winding psychedelic stairwell, adorned with rainbow swirls, neon string lighting, and glitter on the walls led up to an even more magical landing, where a pair of dogs greeted me, followed by my host John Entwistle.
Stained glass shaped like cannabis leaves served as lamp shades hanging from the living room ceiling; and the walls were covered with framed documents (including Prop 215 to legalize medical cannabis), old historical flyers, a rainbow cannabis leaf mural, and photos of the late Dennis Peron, Entwistle’s husband, with other historical figures like Jack Herer. Here I stood where Peron lived — the birthplace of the legal marijuana movement.
As the title of the memoir by Peron and Entwistle puts it, Peron was a “gay hippie outlaw [who] legalized marijuana in response to the AIDS crisis.” One of San Francisco’s most notorious pot dealers, Peron was mobilized to legalize cannabis when the gay community, including his lover, Jonathan West, needed medical marijuana to treat symptoms of the virus, and the pharmacueitcals used to treat it. A “career cannabis activist,” Peron dedicated his life to marijuana law reform — spearheading legislation and facing arrest in the name of providing medicine to the sick.
In the basement of his home, Peron opened the world’s first Cannabis Buyers’ Club to bring medicine to his community. “It wasn’t the hippies per se, it wasn’t the standard establishment marijuana movement players, it was the gay people who legalized pot in California because of the AIDS epidemic,” Entwistle told me.
Chipper and gracious, Entwistle showed me to my room (formerly Jonathan West’s room), playing the role of museum docent as he explained the story behind all the documents and photos surrounding us on the walls. Much of this paperwork, he reminded me, had led up to measures that didn’t pass — but did, ultimately, make way for the success of Prop 215, the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, to legalize medical marijuana in California by citizen vote. A framed copy of the initiative hung on the wall right outside my room.
There, in the middle of the night, Entwistle rattled off stories about baiting law enforcement by calling the cops on their own pot farm, and bringing press to the Buyers’ Club, only to have the cops (usually) not give in to their trolling. They risked arrest in order to make a statement, set a precedent in court, and ultimately change the law. When police did raid the Buyers’ Club and arrest Peron a month before the election, the Club was allowed to reopen after Prop 215 passed. “We laughed our way through two federal raids,” Entwistle recounted fondly. “Dennis’ slogan was give it away before the cops get it.”
Peron’s rebellious streak began after his service in the Air Force, having used the military as a way to get away from home on Long Island. “Dennis was radicalized by Vietnam,” Entwistle said. “He was a smart guy and very sensitive. He saw the disruption and death over there, and he liked people. Seeing people kill people is always a terrible thing.”
After his service, Peron committed himself to a life of activism pursued through opposition to mainstream authority. Back then, growing your hair long, especially if you were a man, was seen as a rebellion. “It was about ‘I’m not part of the patriarchy, I’m not cutting my hair short like a militarist,’ ” Entwistle explained. Long hair and marijuana were what Nixon and the pro-war right hated most, he added. “Those were the two things that a man could do that would flip those guys out, they couldn’t take it — so bingo.”
While Peron rose to the ranks of San Francisco’s most notorious pot dealer, he also worked within the aboveground system to eventually put himself out of business. In 1978 — just before the assassination of Harvey Milk — he helped pass Prop W, a local measure that directed the San Francisco district attorney to stop making marijuana arrests. Though the measure was approved, it was not implemented. In 1991, Peron was also instrumental in the passage of Measure P, which made cannabis the lowest enforcement priority in San Francisco; and in 1998, two years after the passage of Prop 215, he ran for governor in the Republican primary against California Attorney General Dan Lungren (who eventually lost the election to Gray Davis).
While Peron, Entwistle and their colleagues ran in adjacent circles to the hippie youth movement, they didn’t see cannabis legalization as an issue just for so-called potheads. They treated legalization as an issue that concerned another, much older demographic. “It was an old people thing,” Entwistle said, noting other heroes like Brownie Mary, a feisty, working-class granny-type, who baked hundreds of pot brownies for AIDS patients. “We embraced the older people and made it all about senior citizens.”
Not dissimilar from today’s cannabis movement post-legalization, activists have always worked to de-stigmatize cannabis by showing its utility for everyone from sick children to the elderly: Patients, rather than “potheads,” have always been the public-facing force on the frontlines of the movement.
But what strikes me as different about Entwistle and Peron is their continued activism — even after they accomplished their goal of legalizing medical marijuana. Peron carried on the path of public service to run for governor, and to this day, Entwistle still rallies for everything from bicycle lanes in San Francisco to continued reform even within California’s legal pot paradigm. An activist to his core, at the latest High Times Cannabis Cup in Sonoma County this June, Entwistle spoke on behalf of Senate Bill 34 — a bill that would stop the state from taxing cannabis that is given away (i.e. not for sale).
With Green (and greed) Rush in full swing these days, especially here in California, it was both refreshing and inspiring to observe firsthand the work of a literal grassroots activist. That’s especially because I’ve noticed a growing tension between the movement and the industry: One, a collection of people aiming to always improve the laws, and the other, a collection of people benefitting off those reforms. The movement and industry need each other — the industry today would be nothing without the continued work of the movement, and the movement, too, has seen an uptick in progress (especially at the federal, legislative level) thanks to how the industry and its branding experts have changed the public perception of cannabis in the marketplace.
But without paying homage to the movement — to the queer activists, and yes the hippies, too, who risked their freedom and reputations to make marijuana legal — cannabis would be (and to an extent, is) well on its way to becoming just another corporate American industry, i.e. one that doesn’t prioritize equity when it comes to the LGBTQ community, people of color, or women.
That’s why this month of June — Pride Month — I say jokingly, “make cannabis queer again.” And what I really mean by that is that the cannabis industry should do its part to advance equity, to include marginalized groups in the workplace, and to make their products accessible to those in need (not only to those who can afford them). And that’s why legislation like SB 34 is so important — because it eliminates the excise tax on medical marijuana that is donated to patients, therefore incentivizing cannabis companies to make medicine more accessible.