State narcotics agents Friday arrested Dennis Peron, founder of the state's largest club for distributing medical marijuana, on charges including conspiracy and the possession of marijuana for sale.
Peron, a Vietnam veteran who has championed the legalizing of marijuana for 20 years, was booked into an Alameda County jail, but a Superior Court judge ordered him released on his own recognizance until his arraignment.
Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren told a Los Angeles news conference that an Alameda County grand jury Tuesday indicted six people alleged to be involved with San Francisco's Cannabis Buyers' Club. Only Peron had been arrested by Friday evening. The indictments, alleging conspiracy, possession of marijuana for sale, and sale or transportation of marijuana, were unsealed Friday.
Campaign spokesmen for Proposition 215, the initiative that would legalize marijuana for medical purposes, denounced the timing of the arrest, saying it was intended to help defeat the initiative in next month's election.
"Dan Lungren has tried to pull an 'October surprise' to try to defeat Proposition 215 by confusing and scaring voters," said Dave Fratello, a spokesman for the Yes on 215 campaign.
San Francisco Dist. Atty.Terence Hallinan echoed the charge, but Lungren denied that he was playing politics.
The arrest was the result of a two-year investigation of the club, Lungren said. The Cannabis Buyers' Club was founded by Peron in 1994 to distribute marijuana to people suffering from AIDS, cancer and other diseases.
The club claimed a membership list of 12,000 patients when it was raided by state narcotics officers in August.
Lungren said the club was illegally distributing marijuana and that undercover agents witnessed sales to teenagers, people with forged prescriptions and people who had no serious illnesses.
"The charges contained in the indictment are very clear: conspiracy, possession of marijuana for sale, and the large-scale sale and transportation of marijuana," Lungren said. "These are felonies."
He said that indictments were handed down in Alameda County because "while the most visible part was on Market Street in San Francisco, it is alleged in the indictment that this was in fact a drug distribution network which impacted the Bay Area in general."
Peron was arrested Friday morning in his home in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood.
Lungren's raid of the club was lampooned in the popular cartoon strip "Doonesbury" this month. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau drew his eternal hippie, Zonker Harris, expressing disbelief that the attorney general would raid the club, putting it all down to politics.
Lungren, in turn, fired off a letter to newspapers and the syndicate that distributes "Doonesbury," asking that the strip be canceled and complaining that Trudeau was contributing to a "permissive attitude" toward drug use.
Hallinan expressed outrage at Peron's arrest. "To keep pushing this thing at this point, when the issue of medical marijuana is coming to a vote in two weeks . . . it can only be for political purposes," Hallinan said. "It is a cheap political trick."
The city's politically powerful gay community has long supported the medical distribution of marijuana because many AIDS patients say that smoking the plant controls their nausea and helps them gain weight. There are five other clubs in the Bay Area, and other clubs distribute marijuana in Southern California.
City officials acknowledge that there were problems with the way that Peron and people he hired ran San Francisco's club.
Curtius reported from San Francisco, Yates from Los Angeles.