San Francisco: Cannabis Buyers’ Club


Marijuana prohibition is alive and nasty in the United States. Politicians
rant about lack of prison space for murderers and rapists while laws
they’ve instituted imprison patients and caregivers for five years, ten
years, and longer.


But the Cannabis Buyers’ Club, with a membership of almost five thousand,
operates openly in San Francisco. Local law enforcement and the federal
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) know where the club is. They know that
hundreds of people buy and consume marijuana there on an almost daily
basis, but the club operates without interference.


“Proposition ‘P’ is the foundation of the Cannabis Buyers’ Club,” said
Dennis Peron, the club’s founder. Peron wrote Proposition P, and in 1991
San Francisco voters passed it by eighty percent. As a result, San
Francisco law enforcement agencies assign the lowest possible priority to
enforcing laws against people who use, grow, or provide medical
marijuana. The feds, however, still want to put Peron and his friends
away. In April of this year the DEA put San Francisco’s resolve to the
test.


“The feds came to bust us,” said Peron. “The DEA read an article about us
and got their panties in a wad. They brought twenty agents in from around
the country. They stood outside that door videotaping and followed members
home – including one member who was taking marijuana to dying friends.”


The club notified City Hall and rallied club members to action. According
to Peron, five hundred club members showed up in front of the Federal
Building and chanted:


Hey, hey, DEA,
pack your guns and go away,
the Cannabis Club is here to stay.
Racist, sexist, DEA,
the Cannabis Club is here to stay.


The city turned down the feds’ request for thirty reinforcements, so the
DEA did, indeed, “go away”.


As Peron recounted the powerful experience, he reveled in the sense of
freedom that came out of it. “The locals are not going to bust us, the feds
are not going to bust us. In other words, we’re not gonna get busted.”


Then his voice hushed with compassion and resolve as he considered that,
still, it could happen. “Essentially, if they did bust us, what have they
got? Five thousand AIDS and cancer patients in the winter of their lives. I
would not give this up easily. A lot of these people don’t have anything
left to lose – they would not give this up easily.”


At the Club
On a Tuesday In July


When I arrived it was almost noon, the club had been open about forty
minutes. A few men were standing on the sidewalk as two more men in the
doorway checked membership cards and allowed people inside. (Yes, men
outnumbered women by far.)


Once through the door and into the stairwell, I was presented with a
sensory preview of things to come. I enjoyed the aroma of herbaceous smoke,
the sound of lively conversation, and faces smiling from photos on the wall
as I climbed toward two men stationed at the top of the stairs.


Later, I learned that there are six guards: these two, for security and
physical assistance; two on the street, to watch out for members’ safety as
they leave the club (which probably accounts for those who appeared to be
loitering); and two at the door. These, and all other paid staff, are
members of the club. This means that each has glaucoma, AIDS, cancer,
multiple sclerosis, arthritis, or another condition for which marijuana is
known to provide relief.


The fact that each staff member uses marijuana as medicine may partially
account for the exceptionally helpful, friendly, and understanding
staff. Much of the for-profit and not-for-profit world could benefit from
lessons if the club staff had time to offer them.


Dennis Peron, Founder of the SF Buyers' Club


When Dennis Peron invited me, he told me that I would love the club. He was
right. The Cannabis Buyers’ Club is a happening place! Every seat was
taken. Dozens of members sat in groups around tiny, round tables like those
found in cocktail lounges and coffee houses.


The walls and ceiling are nearly covered with articles of art and whimsy
that Peron has collected on his travels around the world. The result is
multi-cultural and artsy: masks, fans, marionettes, mobiles, and more. The
club feels like a fusion of coffee house, salon, wine bar, and the type of
family gathering many of us only wish we could experience.


New members were busy learning the ropes (no pun intended). Staff explained
the difference between smoking and eating marijuana and helped each new
member determine what avenue was best for him.


Some members have only enough energy to sit quietly, but many smoked or ate
part of their cannabis prescription while enjoying time with
friends. Members can choose among more than one grade of marijuana, baked
goods at a range of potencies, and Merry Pills: high-grade THC and olive
oil in a capsule. Staff place the herb or herb products into small plastic
bags and affix self-adhesive prescription labels to the outside before
handing them to members.


I introduced myself to a man standing near me and asked if he had been
coming to the club long. (We chuckled at the clich&eacute pick-up line this
brought to mind.) “They call me Alex,” he said, and told me he had gained
ten pounds in the three weeks since he had become a member. I tried to
imagine Alex ten pounds lighter and couldn’t, he didn’t have it to
spare. He added, “I’m just forty, and I’ve outlived most of my friends.”


“It started out about marijuana,” said Peron after the club closed for the
day, “but it really ended up being about love, friendship, justice, and not
being alone. These people are very sick and they feel scared, and, you
know, the first thing a sick person does is withdraw, and that’s the last
thing a sick person should do.


“We have over four hundred senior citizens that come here for arthritis,
glaucoma, pain, etc. We have an old woman trapped in her wheel chair, day
in and day out. Marijuana makes her feel a little bit better. I don’t
require a letter of diagnosis for people sixty-five or older – things wear
out – or for people who are blind or deaf, as they say it helps their other
senses.


“First they tell us that marijuana has no medicinal value, then they take
one component of marijuana, [synthesize it]and allow it to be marketed as
medicine,” said Dennis. He went on to say that the plant in its natural
state is complete and far more helpful, and if it weren’t illegal then
patients and caregivers could grow their own or buy it for very little. The
synthetic pills cost eight dollars each, and many of the patients that need
THC must combat nausea to avoid wasting away, and so can’t keep a pill
down.


The club buys most of its cannabis from hundreds of small growers. Some is
donated, but most is bought at a discount and marked up ten percent to
cover the rent and pay staff. When Peron was asked how growers arrange to
sell to the club, he said, “They can call me on the phone, I’m in the
book.”


As I left, I took another look at the photos in the stairwell, now images
of flesh and blood people I had shared conversations with. A laugh, a
painful memory, today’s reality. Jason’s face was prominent, because his
photo was a close-up, because his smile is radiant and his hair is red. He
treats his severe arthritis with marijuana. His mother told him about the
club in February of ’94 after he was stabbed trying to buy his medicine on
the street. Now he gets the herb that helps him and enjoys helping others,
without becoming collateral damage in the War on Drugs.


Postscript


No, I didn’t get high being around all that smoke for a few hours, but I
did receive an unexpected gift. Normally, the stairs and sidewalks I
navigated would have worsened the knee pain that had been making me wince
and cuss for about three weeks. When I awoke the next morning my knees were
almost pain free.


Thank you, Cannabis Buyers’ Club!

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