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Pot Candidate: High Hopes, High Visibility

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s one way the nation’s best-known marijuana distributor campaigns to be the Republican candidate for governor: He goes to court.

Actually, he is taken to court. As a defendant. For distributing marijuana to the ailing. And one of the people who keeps dragging him there is none other than his most powerful opponent in the California gubernatorial race.

Dennis Peron--a chain-smoking, pot-toking, commune-living, gay, vegetarian, Buddhist Vietnam veteran--is trying to make life miserable these days for Dan Lungren, state attorney general, presumptive Republican nominee for governor and none of the above.

Yes, Peron is a blip on the California political radar, an unlikely Republican--an unlikely candidate--running with $10,000 (in small checks) and a vision. Yes, his court appearances are far more reliably scheduled than his campaign appearances.

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But unlike the dozen or so other political hopefuls setting their sights on the governor’s mansion from the very fringes of the political landscape, Dennis Peron is a major minor candidate.

He can’t afford to buy commercials--but he makes it to the top of the news anyway, talking about pot when pot is hot. And for the past month--perhaps for the rest of the primary season--marijuana is in the spotlight, thanks to the ongoing battle over Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana when it was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1996 and which Lungren opposed.

Pressure on Lungren Expected

Peron “will certainly have Lungren defending his position all over the state on medical marijuana,” says San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan, a medicinal pot proponent. “I don’t envy him that.”

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“Is Dennis any relation to Evita, I wonder?” quips Republican analyst Tony Quinn. “He has about as much chance of getting elected.”

Peron, of course, begs to differ. Sitting in his second-story office at the Cannabis Cultivator’s Co-op, the smell of Big Bud and True menthols in the air, Peron is eloquent and optimistic--if occasionally soft on the details, like where he’s speaking on a given day.

What I really speak about most of the time is hope, empowerment and compassion. So many people have just given up on America. They don’t want to be on juries. They don’t vote. These are the people I want to bring back. I know the economic picture is so rosy, but so many people slip through the cracks. I look outside my office and see people sleeping in the doorways. How can we allow this to happen? How?

An equally perplexing, though less weighty, question is how a man with Peron’s past and predilections finds himself in the political company of men and women like Newt Gingrich, Orrin Hatch, Anita Bryant, Strom Thurmond.

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What could possibly be the Republican credentials of a man who came back from Vietnam with two pounds of pot secreted in his luggage? A man who has been imprisoned twice on marijuana charges? Who founded the co-op in memory of his young lover--Jonathan West, who died from AIDS in 1990 and left Peron with a hole in his heart?

I’m not tax-and-spend. I believe government has a role in your life, but it’s not going to solve all your problems. Every time [Democrats] start talking about a new program, I cringe. Welfare keeps people down. I want to eliminate the sales tax and the business tax.

It’s 11:15 on a recent Tuesday morning, hours before Peron and his fellow defendants--a.k.a. “the Compassionate 10"--are due in Department 8 of the Phillip Burton Federal Building, where Judge Charles Breyer is set to hear oral arguments in the U.S. government’s case against six Northern California cannabis clubs.

A crew from “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” fresh from an interview with Peron, wanders around the club shooting footage of buying, puffing, chatting members. Supporters from the Orange County Cannabis Co-op arrive to throw their support behind Peron during a day filled with rallies and legal wrangling.

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“I admire everything you’re doing, and I’m glad to get a chance to meet you,” says Jack Shachter, co-director of the Orange County club.

“Hey, Dennis, good luck, dude,” pipes up Steve Morris of Los Angeles, as Peron distributes “California’s Choice, Dennis Peron Governor” placards and the group heads to a pro-pot march from the Castro district to the federal courthouse.

The protesters stroll down the busy street. Burnelle Silk, 49 and resplendent in black cape with big green marijuana leaf, hops up onto a garbage can, shouting, “Dennis Peron for governor!”

“I am the spokesmodel for medical marijuana,” Silk smiles. “I’m a disabled Vietnam vet, and I’d be standing on the pyramids naked shooting people without my medicine.”

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Dapper in donated gray tweed, Peron waves his campaign sign and joins the march. The smell of pot wafts in the air. A KCBS radio reporter descends on the candidate, who takes a breath and starts his spiel: We’ll spread a new era of hope in America. It’s more than marijuana. It’s about who we are and where we’re going. It’s about democracy now.

Picture of Bush on Wall

Noon, back at the club, the candidate is seated behind his desk. A framed picture of George Bush picked up for pennies at a garage sale smiles from a nearby wall. Robo wanders in with a big white plastic bag. The men put their heads together and do business, a neat deal for $2,400 worth of weed.

“It’s called Big Bud,” Robo says. “It’s a mellower kind.”

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Peron shrugs and smiles: “The show must go on.”

By 2 o’clock, the candidate is back at the courthouse for the tail end of a pre-hearing rally. Scores of supporters in tie-dye and wheelchairs pack the small plaza as the speeches drone on.

An impassioned Peron defends marijuana for patients with AIDS, with glaucoma, suffering from cancer, from depression, from life. “I have come to the conclusion,” he intones, “that all use of marijuana is medicinal. If you believe in recreational marijuana, you believe in recreational Prozac.”

And he’s off: It’s about who we are as a people. It’s about where we’re going as a country. We’re not just defending medical marijuana. We’re defending democracy. I’m glad to be here today. I’m proud to be your leader, and I’m going to be your governor!

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A police officer has one question for the candidate: “What’s your stand on gun control?” A young hair-wrap artist, new to the city, clutches a voter registration card and shares a joint with the candidate. Thirty minutes later Peron is in court.

Peron is due in court again today, this time on civil charges stemming from an injunction Lungren obtained in August 1996 to shut down Peron’s club. He also faces criminal charges that he worries could put him behind bars for up to a dozen years.

“We don’t take him seriously,” says Lungren campaign spokeswoman Sara Brown. “I don’t know if anybody takes seriously a candidate who’s under criminal indictment.”

Field Full of Minor Candidates

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One does not need to be under criminal indictment not to be taken seriously in this race. Even avid newspaper readers would be hard pressed to say how many candidates are running (19) or name anyone without money who’s angling for the office.

Few know that Steve Kubby is running under the Libertarian banner because he wants “the government to just leave my family and me alone, respect my private property and stop treating me like a child.”

Dan Hamburg, who represents the Green Party, may have it just a little better. A former Democrat, he once was a congressman from Ukiah. Today, he is “pushing things like a living wage for Californians,” he says.

Pia Jensen, a city councilwoman in the Northern California town of Cotati and a Democratic candidate for governor, finds the anonymity of being an unknown candidate “extremely frustrating.”

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“The most frustrating piece is to sit back and calculate how much free advertising the other candidates get,” she says. “When you’re in the spotlight like they are, not only do they get attention, they get money funneled to them.”

Peron is perhaps the luckiest of the bunch, with cause and candidacy in timely conjunction. Although there’s no way to know how many votes he will garner, he is definitely getting attention.

One supporter notes in a donation letter to the cannabis candidate: “In theory, [running for governor] is only a gag to get free publicity.” But “if Lungren slips on some sort of banana peel, God forbid, just before the primaries. . . ,” the Walnut Creek resident writes, then anything goes.

Oh, and the $100 check enclosed? It’s not for the campaign, the donor writes, but for Peron personally. “Would you please buy something for yourself and enjoy.”

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