Cliffhanger in California

Despite setbacks and opposition, The Californians for Compassionate Use
pulled it together against all odds and got the Medical Marijuana Initiative
on the ballot for November (and got it passed).

Cliffhanger in California

By Rose Ann Fuhrman

Dennis Peronsrc=”pics/ccc_1.jpg”>

The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club:

Dennis Peron has a habit of disturbing the status quo. He wrote a proposition, approved by 80% of San Francisco voters, that had the police place the lowest possible priority on arresting people who use, grow, or provide medical marijuana.”Proposition ‘P’ is the foundation of the Cannabis Buyers’ Club,” said Dennis in a 1995 interview for Cannabis Canada.

Although there are now cannabis buyers’ clubs in many cities throughout the US, the San Francisco club enjoys unusually strong official support and has grown to approximately 10,000 members. A physician’s letter is the usual requirement for membership, and the club accommodates hundreds of members at a time, in a building only yards away from one of the city’s busiest intersections. Imagine a warmly eclectic wine bar, then imagine a board listing buds and brownies of the day instead of cabernets and chardonnays.

First San Francisco, then the state:

California legislators voted two years in a row to allow physician-recommended medical marijuana for use by patients with certain specified illnesses, yet Governor Wilson vetoed both bills. Californians for Compassionate Use (CCU), directed by Dennis Peron, vowed to go over the governor’s head, to the people, by way of initiative.

The initiative is broader than the vetoed bills; it does not specify for which illnesses a doctor might recommend marijuana. The initiative title and summary prepared by the Attorney General’s office states, “Medical Use of Marijuana. Initiative Statute. Provides that patients or defined caregivers, who possess or cultivate marijuana for medical treatment recommended by a physician, are exempt from general provisions of law which otherwise prohibit possession or cultivation of marijuana.”

Approximately 432,000 valid signatures are required to place the issue on the ballot. More than 750,000 signatures were turned in, well over CCU’s goal of 730,000, which organizers believed would allow sufficient margin for invalid signatures.

Dennis and the CCU exceeded their signature goal, and in late June the Registrars of Voters announced that the initiative had qualified, and would be placed on the November 1996 ballot.

A look back

Considering the circumstances, the accomplishments of the loosely knit CCU were nearly miraculous. While key people were working on wording the initiative and preparing for the huge statewide signature-gathering campaign, other work continued apace. Some assisted patients in their respective areas and/or directed organizations, while others were heavily involved in the expansion of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club (CBC). The club, then over 6,000 members and growing fast, was moving into the newly leased, five-story Brownie Mary Center for Compassionate Use, at Market and Van Ness in San Francisco.

CCU headquarters were established in the building before the CBC was moved in, so, from meeting to meeting we saw the club’s astonishing progress.

Reasons for optimism?

The old club on Church Street had been amazing (see Cannabis Canada, Fall 1995) but this was surreal. The ability of core organizers to make things happen inspired the confidence of regional organizers and signature gatherers. There were other reasons for optimism as well; polls indicated that most Californians favored patient access to cannabis, at least upon a physician’s recommendation.

Still, even optimistic activists knew that mobilizing to collect that many signatures within five months would not be easy. Disagreement about the wording of the initiative continued during the weeks leading up to the campaign, but the phrases “hit the ground running,” and “five short months” became our mantras as we looked forward to beginning in early fall, a popular time for outdoor events and a good time to collect signatures.

The proposed kick-off dates came and went, and it was December by the time the initiative summary came back from the Attorney General’s office and the petitions had been printed. Thousands of signature gatherers did not hit the ground running, but at least the waiting was over.

Chris Conradsrc=”pics/ccc_2.jpg”>

A bold problem

Then, within days, word began to filter down that the petitions had not been printed to state specifications. The summary was to be printed in bold, and yet many agreed that it didn’t look bold. There were arguments over what is and is not bold. Rumors and theories about how and why it happened proliferated, and morale plummeted. Had we come this far to be destroyed by what looked like a formatting error? It looked like the entire effort would go down for lack of a little printers ink.

Many of us had reluctantly begun to direct our energies elsewhere, when activists Scott Imler and Lynette Shaw informed us that a new batch of petitions were being printed in bold, independent of CCU Director Dennis Peron, and that they would be available within days. CCUs core was fractured, but it still held, each individual doing what he or she thought needed to be done.

Outside the core, there was ambivalence. It didn’t feel emotionally safe to get excited. The desire to work with the new petitions was dampened by fears that signatures already collected would reduce the pool of potential signatures, and, if turned in, would give unfriendly state officials an excuse to invalidate a large percentage of signatures, if not the whole effort.

Word had it that Dennis Peron had a court date to obtain a judgement on the controversial petitions. This didn’t carry much weight with those who didn’t see how a positive decision could be binding throughout the state. Nevertheless, late in December, the unbold petitions were declared valid in a court with statewide authority, as Dennis had predicted. Since the forms were in substantial compliance and there had been no intent to deceive, they would be accepted.

With this news, willingness to devote time and energy was restored. Unfortunately, a lot of time had been lost, and emotions had been so overworked and confidence so diminished that optimism was almost as scarce as alcohol at a medical marijuana meeting.

Bringing in the pros

Ultimately, as Dale Gieringer of California NORML had argued fervently from the beginning, the initiative would require more than passionate organizers and volunteer signature gatherers. There were stark differences in opinion regarding tactics, and communication with headquarters at the club was sometimes haphazard. Yet in spite of personal frustration, disagreement, disappointment, and decreased chances for success as time passed, key people continued to work “for the patients.” In a last ditch effort, they scrambled to gather enough letters and endorsements to convince potential donors that the project was worth $500,000 in backing.

By this time it was the end of February. The signature campaign was literally moving into its fourth quarter with less than 20% of the required signatures turned in to headquarters. Confidence was low, but Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris of the Family Council on Drug Awareness took over the CCU reins to rally the beleaguered activists to a newly organized wave of action. A lot of petitions were needed fast, mostly paid, some unpaid. The funds provided by Californians for Medical Rights (CMR) renewed hope and a new type of pressure; if we didn’t make it this time, how likely were we to get financial backing again?

CMR contracted with Voter Revolt to recruit and pay signature gatherers, and some CCU activists worked with them to speed up the process. Some volunteers continued to collect signatures without pay, others recouped money they had spent on the cause, and some ended job searches to temporarily earn a living (however briefly) doing something they cared about. It was a rare treat.

California Cliffhanger

What a cliffhanger. Those who expressed optimism during the last couple of weeks before deadline, expressed it cautiously. Dennis Peron proudly pointed to stacks of petitions that had been pouring into the club. He smiled broadly and exuded confidence as he leaned back in his chair and said “we’re going to make it.” But moments later, while discussing the hard details, the words “if we make it,” and “even if we don’t make it,” betrayed his doubts.

The flow of petitions into the club turned into a deluge: 20,000, 30,000, then an estimated 140,000 in the last week.

People cared enough about the patients to work for medical marijuana in spite of conjecture by some that any success might make achieving broader changes even more difficult. It was not a ploy, as cynical opponents claimed, it was heartfelt.

A Marin man, a patient who collected signatures during his last days, provided a poignant rebuttal to the exploitation theories advanced by marijuana demonizers who lack a real argument. He carefully dated and signed off the signatures he had collected, turning them in because he was feeling particularly weak. Within a few days he had died. Who can question his motives?

Chris Conrad, who managed the signature campaign from March on said “Ultimately people stood together to make sure we came through for the patients. There was self-sacrifice.”

Asked about hurt feelings and frustrations, Dale Gieringer said “Everybody feels good. Success breeds good feelings. The initiative is pretty much passing over to a new stage.”


Others I contacted are so overwhelmed with old messages and work backlogs that they are virtually incommunicado. Dennis Peron has retired from his position as head of the Buyers’ Club to work full-time for the initiative. From now on, California watchers are likely to hear more about Californians for Medical Rights, the organization handling the election campaign, and less about CCU, which launched the signature drive.

Chris Conrad pointed out that if progressive causes are to succeed, we must all be able to let go and allow others to apply their talent and energy at the appropriate times, so a project can shed its skin and grow. “The little initiative had become a grown up initiative that wanted to leave home,” Chris said, wishing it well and returning to his writing.

For more information…

For more information, contact author Rose Ann Fuhrman at [email protected].

You can contact the Californians for Compassionate Use at the Brownie Mary Building, 1444 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102. Phone (415) 621-3986, or fax (415) 621-0604. Email
[email protected], web href=””>

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