Witness to History: Me and Dennis Peron, Getting Raided, and Proposition 215

This is a story about how I was with Dennis Peron at a pivotal moment in the 1996 campaign for proposition 215 in California, even though Dennis was actually in Vancouver. He had been invited up to participate with me in a protest and commemoration of an anti-pot police brutality incident that had happened twenty-five years earlier.

Dennis is a gay-rights and marijuana activist whose endeavours go back to the early 1970s in San Francisco. He was mentioned and portrayed (smoking pot in his long hippy hair of that time) in the 1970s-era biopic ‘Milk’, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the assassinated San Francisco city councillor/gay activist who was murdered along with then-mayor George Moscone.

Dennis was perhaps the most prominent medical marijuana advocate in California in the 1990s leading up the the passage of Proposition 215. AIDS had ravaged the gay community in San Francisco throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and Dennis had opened the first medical marijuana/compassion club in all North America in 1975. San Francisco was America’s most liberal city, and Dennis’ Cannabis Buyers’ Club thrived. He got Proposition P on the San Francisco ballot in 1991 to make pot possession the lowest possible police priority; it passed, a United States first.

By 1996, enough signatures had been gathered to put a medical marijuana law on the November ballot, thanks to the work of a few key sponsors and most of California’s now-legendary activists from that era of twenty years ago, including Jack Herer, Steve Kubby, Ed Rosenthal, Chris Conrad, William Panzer, Bill Gehringer, and many others.

I had gotten to know Dennis through articles in High Times and our coverage in the early issues of my emerging magazine Cannabis Canada – not yet at that point re-titled to Cannabis Culture – about his medical marijuana advocacy. When it came to actually seeing a medical marijuana compassion club in action, Dennis’s three-story building in San Francisco’s Castro district was really all I had ever heard of in those early days. It was pretty well the epicenter of all medical marijuana activity and advocacy.

Dennis was the leader of medical marijuana as far as I understood, and his compassion club was the model being presented to Californians facing a vote that November. Dennis’ prominence was the accumulation of twenty-five years of advocacy of gay rights and marijuana rights in the Bay area, and he had even taken a police bullet in one of his many pro-pot and gay-rights demonstrations.

In Vancouver, I had been raided by police on January 4th of 1996, a devastating raid that saw our retail store and our large wholesale department wiped out of its inventory; about $450,000 worth of inventory in seeds, bongs, pipes, parts, books, and grow equipment was seized. The loss was staggering. In the time since my article “How to open your own hemp store” appeared in the summer of 1995 (Cannabis Canada #3), thirty-five shops had opened up within six months in Canada using our template, and our wholesale guarantee to these new stores was “If you don’t sell it, we’ll take it back for a full refund, we’re that confident you will sell anything you buy from us.”

So by the time of the January 1996 raid, we were supplying approximately thirty shops, doing tremendous volume. The raid was precipitated by a December 5th, 1995 Wall Street Journal front page piece, replete with my portrait done in the classic pen-and-ink style, titled “Pot seed merchant, Winked at by Police, Prospers in Canada“. The article was written by Quentin Hardy, who, over the eighteen years since that story, has kept in touch and we are certainly friends. Quentin has gone on to feature me and the cannabis industry in Forbes and other financial periodicals.

I had only started my retail hemp revolution on April 11th, 1994, almost penniless, returned to Canada from eighteen months in the jungles of Asia (a fascinating story for another time) and upon arrival in Vancouver (a place I had never been to before). I commenced selling banned High Times and Grow Yer Own Stone books door-to-door to raise money for this idea I had about a retail hemp movement renaissance. There was a pent-up demand for anything cannabis in Vancouver, as all books and magazines about marijuana – including High Times, all the Ed Rosenthal grow books, etc. – still remained illegal across Canada.

With a $500 rent deposit and $4,000 in inventory, I opened a small retail store on July 2nd, 1994 in a location that was formerly The Enver Hoxna (Communist Albanian) Bookshop at 324 West Hastings St., which had been closed due to it being fire-bombed. It still looked firebombed when I took it over, but my new store Hemp BC became a huge success. We smoked mad amounts of pot at all hours in the store, and we sold bongs, pipes, grow guides, High Times, and seeds from the Netherlands. We told anyone who would listen, “Hey, you should do this in your Canadian community too!” and provided detailed instructions on how they could indeed do that. We started the 4/20-day celebration, which is now a worldwide phenomena, on April 20th, 1995 (read that story here) and saw a quick proliferation of stores like Hemp BC all across Canada.

The government censorship and bans were fundamentally challenged and defeated, but not without great struggle and huge losses to me over the next few years (1996-1998). And of course, that continues for me to this day, as I am in prison for seeds twenty years after I started to sell them as a critical component of the hemp retail revolution!

Media began to notice this nationwide phenomenon, and we started getting local Vancouver coverage, then national Canadian coverage, and then, because we would ship seeds anywhere, American media coverage too. Even National Enquirer wrote (sensationally, of course) about me and seeds. But once Quentin Hardy was finished writing up his story about me, he sat me down and said very sombrely, “Marc, the Wall Street Journal is the most influential newspaper in Washington, DC, along with the New York Times. I mean, it’s very, very influential. Once this piece appears, there will be blowback. The president and his people read the Wall Street Journal. Are you willing to go through that? Because we can stop the story now, but once I send it in, what’s done is done.”

When Quentin looked me in the eye and basically said the President of the United states would know who I was, I knew the answer was, “Oh yes, absolutely.” And so my fate was determined, the die was cast, and there would be no going back.

Four weeks later, over fifty police raided our little store, our wholesale offices, sealed off the block, brought in four big trucks to haul off everything, and as far as I know, didn’t even charge me with any crime or broken law. So I scrambled to reopen and recover the next day, which we did (in fact, the following month we opened a new business called The Little Grow Shop to sell seeds and grow equipment), and we were resolved to come back bigger, stronger, and more defiant than ever.

Six months later, we decided we would take over a major intersection of Vancouver all day long to protest police brutality and their attack on the cannabis community twenty-five years earlier in what is now Vancouver’s most famous and despicable act of police violence, The Gastown Police Riot.

What is known today as the “Grasstown Police Riot” took place on August 7th, 1971. A pot rally was being held at that intersection, which today is known as Gassy Jack Square (a nexus of Water, Cordova, Alexander and Carroll streets), to protest the police policy of the day, which had numerous narcs circulating Gastown busting weed dealers. The rally was urged on by the then-counterculture publication The Georgia Straight (which is still going strong today, albeit in a far more mainstream sensibility than back in 1971). A ten-foot-long mock joint was brandished, and a few hundred people gathered by mid-afternoon. Perhaps several hundred more had gathered by 5:00pm. At no point was it anything other than a peaceful celebration, as many media people were there to vouch for.

Tom Campbell, then the mayor of Vancouver, hated hippies and pot heads and everything counterculture, and had ordered police to break up the pot rally by any means necessary. What happened was one of the two grimmest acts of violence in Vancouver history; over a hundred mounted police horsemen entered the square without provocation and, without warning, attacked the assembled gatherers. Over the next ninety minutes, over a hundred people were injured by police – many very seriously, as police wailed on any and all people trapped in the area (no escape routes were available) with truncheons.

Dozens were hospitalized, including members of the press, local landlords, innocent passersby, many of the pot rally gathers. No police were injured. Media denounced this unprovoked police bloodlust. The incident was investigated, but, as was usual in that era, whitewashed by the establishment. The upshot, though, is that in reaction afterward, Vancouver police became among the most tolerant police forces in Canada, and that is by and large true today (except in VPD’s attitude towards me, which still runs toward the vindictive, I have to say).

Though I was not a resident of Vancouver in 1971 (in fact, I was only thirteen years old, just starting my comic book business “Marc’s Comic Room” in London, Ontario), I had read about that remarkably bloody day as covered in the great Harold Hedd Comix by Rand Holmes. The first issue illustrated the Grasstown Police Riot, in comic strip form, excerpted from issues of The Georgia Straight that summer. So I knew the history, and in fact, when we decided to occupy Gassy Jack Square on August 7th, 1996, we met and interviewed Rand Holmes – who, I am pleased to say, was invigorated to see a new generation of activists “bring back the old spirit of those times”.

Organizing of our commemorative rally was done chiefly by activist David Malmo-Levine (in fact, David wrote the seminal history of the Grasstown Police Riot in Cannabis Canada #5), and I brought up some guests to help us with speeches throughout the day, which is how I invited Dennis Peron to take a few days off from his busy compassion club in San Francisco to participate with us.

We did not inform the police or public or the neighbourhood about our rally. We simply showed up en masse on August 7th at 11:00am, barricaded off all traffic from entering the area, hoisted banners, brought out speakers, a generator for electricity, and commenced informing the neighbourhood what was happening. Media immediately covered the event – in some cases, live on TV and radio. Hundreds of people showed up to fill the square within thirty minutes, and stayed until evening. Police descended on the area by the dozens, but instead of a confrontation, rerouted traffic, formed a perimeter and held it, allowing people but not vehicles to come and go. Finding out we would stay until nightfall, the police said, “alright, 8:00pm then,” and we agreed to fold-up at that point.

Dennis had arrived in Vancouver on the Saturday before our Wednesday occupation. Though he was a featured speaker for our guerrilla take-over of Gassy Jack Square, he never made it.

On Sunday, August 4th, around 4:00pm, a breathless employee from our store Hemp BC came rushing up to me and Dennis, and said, “Dennis, Dennis! San Francisco Police and DEA are raiding your compassion club, they arrested some people, they’ve taken all the weed and kicked everyone out of the building; we just got a call from someone there, they don’t know what to do… it’s chaos, they said your club is closed by order of the police!”

My employee gave Dennis a number to call. Dennis was stunned. I knew the feeling, and I would come to know it more in the years ahead; getting raided is a very disorienting feeling. We walked back to the hotel that we had put Dennis up at, only a block from Gassy Jack Square (what was, in 1996, The Lamplighter Hotel at Water & Abbott). He called the number he was given, and the person said the police had left, but the building was sealed.

Dennis asked me what he should do. I said, “Tell everyone to get back in the building and hook a phone up to a public address system, and you will talk to all the members and workers and any media over this phone in about one hour, and you tell them that you and they will not be cowed. You will be returning immediately but your compassion club is never, ever going to surrender, and will be open and restocking as of tomorrow! That’s what you have to tell them!”

Dutifully, Dennis’ lieutenants from the club re-entered the building, started cleaning up, photographed and videotaped the damage, let the media in, and set up a public address system for Dennis to speak through. Hundreds of compassion club members had been outside the building protesting the raid. It was sensational news all across California and the United States, extensively covered live by San Francisco TV, and hundreds of people in San Francisco protested the raid in support of the club.

When Dennis called, he gave an electrifying speech to all his members through an amplified PA system. He promised that the club would rebound, that no amount of police intimidation would stop medical marijuana in San Francisco, and assured the hundreds of people packed into the Buyers’ Club building that “the people of San Francisco and California will rally to our side and vote in Proposition 215, and in November, medical marijuana would be a fact of life in California!”

I recognized history being made right as I stood beside Dennis as he spoke into that phone. Sure enough, polls coming out in California in the weeks after the raid on Dennis’ club saw a shift from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ on Proposition 215, and the police action against Dennis’s club was largely credited with galvanizing the public into supporting – and ultimately voting in favour of – Proposition 215 three months later.

After the raid on the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club, serious money from George Zimmer (Men’s Warehouse) and Peter Lewis (Progressive Insurance) came in to bolster the 215 campaign with serious funding. I have always been convinced that without the raid on Dennis club, and the wave of sympathy that resulted, we may not have medical marijuana anywhere in the United States today.

But Dennis’ club was forced to stay closed until the election three months later by order of the then-California Attorney-General Dan Lundgren, who, like 1971 Vancouver Mayor Tom Campbell, hated the marijuana people – and especially hated Dennis Peron. Dennis’ Club was subject to several injunctions to close, then open, then close again. But other clubs and dispensaries emerged by the dozens around the pioneering Cannabis Buyers’ Club.

And now, seventeen years later, twenty states have some form of medical marijuana with Florida set to join them this November; Canada has legal medical marijuana; Colorado and Washington have legal marijuana, with Alaska set to join them in August; and many more states will legalize in the next four years. I believe that all was kickstarted in a major way because of one raid on one San Francisco compassion club, and I was thrilled to know Dennis in that pivotal moment in history.

Marc Emery
Marc Emery

Marc Emery is a Canadian cannabis activist, entrepreneur, and politician. Known to his fans as the Prince of Pot, Emery has been a notable advocate of international cannabis policy reform for decades. Marc is the founding publisher of Cannabis Culture and Pot TV.