Inside the once-bustling campaign headquarters for California's medical marijuana initiative hangs a portrait of an angel with delicate wings, a sly smile and a cannabis leaf tattooed on its chest.
For those involved with Proposition 215, it takes only a glance to guess the portrait's subject. It's Dennis Peron, San Francisco's silver-haired pot guru, an angel to some, a devil to others, but unquestionably a critical force--perhaps THE force--behind California's historic Nov. 5 vote to legalize marijuana for medical use.
Although indicted in a felony drug case, the 50-year-old Peron was jubilant on election day as the ballot measure headed for victory.
Admirers lined up several deep inside the campaign's Market Street office to shake his hand, offer him hugs. The lights of television cameras illuminated his face, and when Peron, between interviews, needed a moment of quiet in the packed room, the din abruptly fell to a hush.
"If there has to be a hero in all of this, it's him," said A. Das of Boulder, Colo. "Dennis Peron has put his life on the line for this."
Das strode forward to shake Peron's hand, then began handing out hemp cookies. Peron sat casually on his desk, smoking the stub of a joint, telling one person after another, "Thank you, brother. Thank you, brother."
It's almost impossible to imagine Peron in a dark suit and tie, peddling computers. But the choice was one he wrestled with in the early 1970s, fresh from Vietnam. The idea soon wore off. So, too, did his childhood desire to become a psychiatrist.
The horrors of the war, Peron says, convinced him he needed to live in poverty and work for peace. He chose San Francisco and decided to make ends meet by dealing pot.
"I decided I'd be a hippie faggot," he says, offering, with a laugh, the words he says would later be used against him by police during drug busts.
Peron acknowledges his deep roots in marijuana culture and admits he's been dealing for more than 25 years. In an autobiography published this year, Peron said bluntly: "Marijuana made me the person I am."
Evidence of that is scattered in his past. In the early 1970s, he helped run the Big Top supermarket, a one-stop drug emporium that led to jail time. Then came the Island Restaurant, "a two-way feed, with the pot supermarket upstairs supplying customers for the food downstairs."
Meanwhile, Peron was building his "family" and living in communes. He became politically active in the pro-marijuana movement and in gay rights and other civil rights causes.
Peron recalls those days as "the best of my life." But then came San Francisco's AIDS epidemic, Ronald Reagan's presidency and the subsequent "war on drugs."
Friends told him he'd never be able to deal marijuana with Reagan in office. Peron considered their advice and kept right on dealing.
It was during the early 1980s, Peron says, that he began to see how marijuana eased the suffering of AIDS patients and gave them dignity in death. The observation became more personal when his lover, Jonathan West, succumbed to AIDS in 1990.
"At that point, I didn't know what I was living for. I was the loneliest guy in America," Peron recalls. "In my pain, I decided to leave Jonathan a legacy of love. I made it my moral pursuit to let everyone know about Jonathan's life, his death, and his use of marijuana and how it gave him dignity in his final days."
A year later, Peron "almost single-handedly" collected enough signatures to put Proposition P on the San Francisco ballot. The measure, advocating the use of pot as medicine within city limits, passed by a 4-to-1 margin, and Peron set his sights on a larger audience.
"Oh, man, you can't believe how deep this has gone, how deep these guys are going to go to defeat [Proposition] 215," Peron said days before the Nov. 5 election.
His Cannabis Buyers' Club, which ostensibly provided marijuana to people with AIDS, cancer and other diseases, was raided by state agents in August. Sixty pounds of pot and $750,000 were seized. The club was shut down.
Later, Peron was indicted in neighboring Alameda County on drug charges, accused of running the club as a front to deal marijuana. Undercover agents caught him on videotape, allegedly handing over $900 worth of pot, seemingly more than would be needed to help with a medical problem.
Peron pleaded "morally not guilty," charging state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren staged the raid as a political tactic against the medical marijuana initiative.
More personally, as the Proposition 215 campaign wore on, Peron found himself distanced from key allies. The fear shared by some at Yes on 215 was that the darker side of Peron's image--a defiant pothead facing indictment--might damage the initiative's chances.
But Peron never stepped aside.
He granted countless interviews, appeared on local television news almost nightly in support of the initiative. He worked the phones. And he kept referring to Lungren as a dirty trickster, the second coming of Nixon. He called detractors within the campaign bullheaded, driven by jealousy.
"If I had resigned, what would it have been? [They'd say], 'Mr. Peron ran away.' See, I don't run away. You're talking to the wrong guy."
Soon after the election, Peron is hard at work. As director of a group called Californians for Compassionate Use, he's drafting "contracts" he hopes will let sick people legally secure marijuana through a doctor.
He's making plans to reopen the Cannabis Buyers' Club under a new name: the Cannabis Cultivators' Co-op, a legal nod to restrictions of the new state law.
"Everything I was doing all along was the right thing to do," he says.
A glance back at the powerful opponents who tried to derail Proposition 215 makes victory all the sweeter, he says.
"Look at them, they had [U.S. Sen.] Dianne Feinstein, [Clinton drug czar] Gen. [Barry] McCaffrey, every sheriff in the state, Dan Lungren, all on their side. They had the endorsement of three presidents, and then they tried to make me their poster boy.
"If they succeeded in making it a referendum on me, then I won," he says. "And it feels like vindication."
"But this was never about me," he adds, quickly. "All of this, all along, was about love and compassion."