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Cannabis Club Leader Resigns in an Effort to Keep Shop Open

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A day after a Superior Court judge ordered him to immediately cease operations, Dennis Peron said he has stepped down as head of the state’s largest cannabis club in a bid to keep it open.

The resignation came shortly after San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey said Thursday that he will evict the staff and patrons and close the club Monday or Tuesday, in compliance with San Francisco Superior Court Judge David A. Garcia’s order.

“I realized that either my department was going to do it or the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement would,” Hennessey said. “I was afraid that if the state came into our county, things would be much more tense, things could escalate out of control.”

Peron said he had promised Hennessey that the club’s patrons will not resist deputies who come to padlock the doors. But by turning over the club to new owners and giving it a new name, he contended, he could comply with the judge’s ruling.

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Peron had begun the day defiantly, opening the club’s doors to a throng of anxious clients at 11 a.m. and vowing to stay open despite the court order.

“We have done nothing wrong,” Peron told reporters the morning after Garcia ruled that he was illegally selling drugs from his four-story Market Street club. “We will not be moved. We are going to be like Martin Luther King and like Gandhi. We will go absolutely limp if they try to drag us away.”

But by late afternoon, Peron said, it had become clear to him that the club’s only hope for survival lay in a drastic reorganization.

“It is a sad day for me,” Peron said after announcing that he will no longer direct the 9,000 member Cannabis Cultivators Club.

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“I have folded the club. I am giving up my lease. The landlord has negotiated with a new group of people, and they will reopen here as the Cannabis Healing Center after Hennessey closes it down.” The group, Peron said, would include current staff members and clients who he said would operate the club as a cooperative.

Peron said he plans to work full time on his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He has been running that campaign from his office at the club and said he will negotiate with the new owners to rent space from them.

Asked whether the resignation and reorganization is merely a legal maneuver, Peron replied: “This whole thing has been technicalities upon technicalities.”

Hennessey said Thursday that his obligation ends once the club is shut down and the keys are turned over to the landlord. “What the landlord does then is up to him. You only get one shutdown per order,” he said.

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Within minutes of the Cannabis Cultivators Club’s 11 a.m. opening Thursday, the sales counter was doing its usual brisk business, serving dozens of customers various grades of pot. The sweet smell of marijuana began wafting through the third-floor lounge as clients smoked joints or puffed pipes at the small tables scattered across the brightly painted room.

John Lassiter, 24, said he rushed to the club fearing that “it might be the last chance to say goodbye to everybody.” Lassiter, who said he is HIV-positive, started coming to the club in December, shortly after moving here from Washington. He said that daily use of marijuana keeps his appetite healthy and helps him keep his weight stable.

“This place also offers intangibles that would never be admissible in a court of law,” he said. “It is a place for really ill people, people with terminal diseases, to escape their loneliness. They come here for a few hours to visit people.”

Club operators across the state weighed the implications of Garcia’s order Thursday. The broad consensus: another serious setback for a movement that has had little to rejoice about since 56% of California voters approved Proposition 215 in 1996. The law says that patients suffering from serious illnesses who obtain a doctor’s recommendation may grow and use marijuana for medicinal purposes.

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The number of marijuana clubs and their operators facing civil and criminal legal charges is such that some in the medical marijuana movement are convinced it is only a matter of time before all the clubs are forced to close.

“The state government does not want to implement this law,” said Jeff Jones, director of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, whose club is one of four named in a federal civil suit against Northern California clubs. “They are squelching the will of the people.”

Peter Baez, director of the Santa Clara cannabis club that many looked to as a model of a well-run club, is facing eight felony counts in the alleged sale of marijuana to someone who had no doctor’s recommendation. Baez says that he will close his club by the end of the month. Other clubs or their operators are also in trouble. District attorneys in Orange, Ventura and San Diego counties have moved to close clubs or charge operators with criminal violations of drug laws.

“Last October, there were 28 clubs and start-ups,” said Scott Imler, director of the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center. “Now, 14 of them are still open and only three of those--the club in Arcata, the Women’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz and us, are not either indicted or served with orders by federal, state or local officials.”

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Some blame politics for their troubles--President Clinton, club operators say, needs to appear to be tough on drugs, and state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren is campaigning for governor. But others blame mistakes made by the medical marijuana movement’s leaders and club operators.

“The problem is Dennis Peron,” said Imler, a longtime critic of Peron within the movement. “He became the Daddy Warbucks and the Godfather, at least of the Northern California medical marijuana movement. He was exciting and charismatic and he has been a disaster.”

Peron is fighting criminal and civil suits brought against him by Lungren. The federal government has also filed a civil suit against Peron, his club and three others in Northern California.

“I am a full-time defendant who sometimes sells marijuana,” Peron gloomily said Thursday, as he sat surrounded by “Peron for Governor” banners in his office at the club, hours before announcing his resignation.

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Although Peron and his club have been Lungren’s primary targets in the war on cannabis clubs, the attorney general’s office insists that a December appellate court ruling that Proposition 215 did not legalize the clubs means that they all must close. But Lungren has moved only against Peron’s club. Other club operators said Thursday that if Lungren wants to close their operations, he will have to sue them.

“The state will have to take every dispensary into court to take us all out,” Jones said in Oakland. “We have had some major setbacks, but we are not going to quit because they say we are operating illegally. We’ve done everything in our ability to meet the law. We’ve incorporated; we pay local, state and federal taxes.”

In fact, Jones said, he expects a huge surge of business if Peron’s club is closed. “It will be pandemonium. It is going to be a circus over here for a few weeks,” he said. “Our phones already are ringing off the hook.”

Whatever relief Jones may be able to offer Peron’s clients may be short-lived. This month, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer is expected to rule on the federal Justice Department’s request to close the four Northern California clubs, including the Oakland club and Peron’s operation.

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The Justice Department says that no matter what law California voters passed, marijuana remains an illegal drug under federal law, and its sale--by clubs or individuals--is illegal.

Undercover drug agents allegedly purchased marijuana in each of the clubs the federal government has named in its civil suit, apparently by presenting bogus doctor recommendations that the clubs failed to detect.

Imler said he was not surprised that agents were able to slip by the intake procedures of the Northern California clubs.

“There are problems with how these clubs are run,” he said.

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Authors of Proposition 215 envisioned the clubs as a stopgap measure pending action by the state legislature to regulate the pharmaceutical dispensing of medical marijuana, Imler said. Instead, the Legislature has done nothing and clubs--some operated by less-than-rigorous staffs--have sprung up across the state.

“The Legislature has left patients and their families in the lurch,” he said. “We’re praying for the day when we can close our club. But the only way is if the government provides for prescriptive access. Then these clubs will be a moot point.”


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