Nibbling Christmas cookies in his Cannabis Cultivators Club, marijuana guru Dennis Peron says he can't understand why he has become a pariah in the medical marijuana movement he helped to found.
"It was my behavior that started this," the white-haired Peron says indignantly. "Now they are telling me, 'You've got to go away.' "
Those wishing Peron would go away--or at least adopt a lower profile--are founders of some of the nearly 20 clubs now selling medical marijuana to patients in more than half a dozen California counties. They say that Peron's provocative style and the kind of club he runs have fueled the legal battle that is endangering them all.
"We've had to pay a high price all along for the circus-like atmosphere in San Francisco," said Scott Imler, director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood. "Dennis goes marching off on his way of folly, making [bad] law every step of the way, and everybody else has to just lump it. It's incredibly frustrating to all of us."
A state appellate court ruling earlier this month is the immediate trigger for the anger toward Peron. The court ruled that Proposition 215--the medical marijuana initiative approved by voters in November 1996--did not make cannabis clubs legal.
State Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren's office says the ruling means that Peron must shut his doors by Jan. 12, when the decision goes into effect.
What frightens other club operators is that Lungren is insisting that the ruling applies to the rest of the state's clubs.
"We read this decision as saying that cannabis clubs are no longer legal in the state," said Lungren spokesman Matt Ross. "We will advise district attorneys and law enforcement officials of each county of that."
But other club operators say their lawyers tell them that the ruling applies only to Peron's club, which is unique.
The appellate ruling grew out of an injunction Lungren obtained to shut down Peron's club in August 1996. A Superior Court judge lifted the injunction after Proposition 215 passed, ruling that the new law allowed clubs to serve as "primary caregivers" and sell medical marijuana on a nonprofit basis.
When the injunction was lifted, Peron reopened his club, and it now serves about 8,000 clients near San Francisco's Civic Center in a five-story, 30,000-square-foot building decorated in what has been described as "high crash pad." The club opened in 1994.
Thousands of colorful origami birds dangle from mobiles on each floor. The music of choice is hard rock. The blinking lights of two Christmas trees seem timid compared to the bold green colors of jungle murals that cover the walls.
Dozens of people can be found toking up most days, and the air is always thick with the unmistakable smell of marijuana. The club sells about 50 pounds of marijuana a week, some from its basement cultivation project, most from growers in Northern California whom Peron contracts with to grow various grades of marijuana.
On Dec. 12, the appellate court found that only individuals who are consistently responsible for a patient are primary caregivers, rejecting Peron's argument that his club qualifies as the primary caregiver for medical marijuana users who so designate it.
Club operators point out that although Peron has butted heads with Lungren and drug officers, their much smaller facilities are operating quietly in communities as conservative as San Jose and Thousand Oaks. Medical marijuana distributors in those cities say they cooperate with local police and elected officials and run operations that feel more like clinics than clubs.
"We're literally a doctor's office with a pharmacy," said Peter Baez, executive director of the Santa Clara County Medical Cannabis Center in San Jose.
San Jose passed an ordinance several months ago regulating the operation of the cannabis center. A San Jose police officer inspects the facility regularly.
Unlike Peron's club, the San Jose facility allows no smoking on its premises, Baez said.
"Patients register with our secretary, she pulls their file and walks them to the back office," he said.
"They choose from a board what we have available and we attach an Rx label to the bag." All records are made available for police inspection.
"We've turned over three attempted forgeries of prescriptions to the district attorney for prosecution," Baez said. One source of friction between the center and local authorities, Baez said, is a city requirement that the marijuana the club sells be grown at the center, to avoid clashing with federal laws prohibiting the transport of marijuana.
The center's landlord has forbidden such cultivation, he said, and the center is too small to grow enough plants anyway. So Baez continues to buy street marijuana, sometimes from Peron, to supply his 225 patients.
Baez says that he too worries that Peron's operation is causing trouble for everyone.
"It does hurt the effort," Baez said. "Every time a news crew does a story on us, they always have clips of San Francisco, showing a bunch of weird-looking people smoking dope. My stomach cringes."
Peron makes no apologies. A Vietnam veteran, Peron for years was the dope dealer of choice for San Francisco's gay community.
He lost a lover to AIDS and said he came up with the idea of a cannabis club six years ago, while serving a sentence for felony possession of marijuana he said he bought to ease his dying lover's pain.
"Jonathan was covered with sores and was a pariah before he died," Peron said. "I dreamed of building a place where people like Jonathan would feel welcomed, would feel accepted."
In liberal San Francisco, hit hard by the AIDS epidemic, Peron's club was embraced by city officials when it opened.
Both AIDS patients and cancer patients say that marijuana eases nausea caused by their drug regimens and helps them keep their appetites. Others say the drug can prevent epileptic seizures, ease headaches and control spasms.
Peron, who insists that "all marijuana use is medical" and says that smoking it helps him control alcoholism, has vowed to appeal the 1st District Court's ruling to the state Supreme Court.
He says that state drug officials will have to drag him and the club's patrons out if the Supreme Court rules against the cannabis club.
"There is a deeper issue here, of who we are and where we are going," Peron said. "Do we have a say in America or not?"
Peron is not alone in his frustration at the way state and federal officials have reacted to passage of Proposition 215, the first state initiative in the nation legalizing marijuana.
On the federal level, the Drug Enforcement Administration has threatened doctors who might prescribe the drug. On the state level, Lungren keeps a running count of prosecutions brought for possession or sale of marijuana where the defense has cited Proposition 215.
Local government officials complain that although the state is quick to say what is not allowed under Proposition 215, they have gotten no guidance on how to legally implement the law.
In San Mateo County, Supervisor Mike Nevin, a retired San Francisco police officer, has proposed that the county get into the business of supplying medical marijuana.
"It is clear that we need some state direction in getting marijuana to the sick and the dying," Nevin said. "We need to be sensitive and figure out a way to carry out Proposition 215. I understand what the appellate court is saying about cannabis clubs," he said.
"But that decision still leaves us with the dilemma of how to carry out the spirit of 215, with how to deal with the problem of cultivation and distribution."
Nevin's solution? San Mateo should hand over the marijuana it confiscates from street dealers to county pharmacists and let them supply to anyone with a doctor's recommendation. It is a proposal that sparked some interest from Lungren before the appellate court ruling came down.
"The program that I am suggesting would take the whole profit motive out of this," Nevin said. "It would limit distribution to the very, very sick. It takes away the whole underground, seedy aspect."
Nevin met once with Lungren to discuss his proposal, which has won informal backing from his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, who formed a committee to study it.
He said he has promised Lungren that the county would couple the plan with an aggressive anti-drug education effort in the county's schools.
"My police experience gave me a practical aspect to life," Nevin said. "You've got a law on the books that says that marijuana is legal for medicinal purposes. But there is no leadership."
Lungren vigorously opposed Proposition 215 during the campaign and has repeatedly said that voters didn't know what they were voting for. Since the election, the attorney general has taken the position that it is up to each county to decide on implementation of the initiative, said Ross, the Lungren spokesman.
Across the state, the county-by-county response to Proposition 215 has varied wildly.
In Orange County, one volunteer at the county's only cannabis club is in jail, facing felony charges for possession and sale of marijuana. The club operates on an ad hoc basis, meeting patients in restaurants or at their homes to avoid local authorities.
In Thousands Oaks, city officials recently agreed to let a club operate out of a shopping mall.
"There's just a lot of confusion out there," Baez said. "It is a nerve-racking situation."
"Where there is a little more need and a little more tolerance, the providers have felt comfortable coming out and being public with what they are doing," said Dave Fratello, spokesman for Americans for Medical Rights, a group campaigning for passage of state laws legalizing medical marijuana.
Fratello said his group anticipates four election battles in 1998--in Maine, Alaska, the District of Columbia and Colorado--in the push to legalize medical marijuana.
Ultimately, he said, the goal is to change federal laws to reclassify marijuana as a legal drug. It is in that nationwide effort, Fratello says, that Peron's in-your-face style hurts.
"Many people consider him to be the prophet of the movement," he said.
"Dennis is a revolutionary, and more power to him. But most clubs run screaming from that image. Most are nonsmoking facilities. That's because in most cases, we're talking about an emergency service for real patients in need and there is no time for a revolution."