It wasn’t the kind of weather you’d expect in early March in San Francisco. Heavy fog from the morning lifted to make way for a surprising spring afternoon. The tone had been set: the day of Dennis Peron’s memorial would be beautiful.
The Castro District restaurant Flore had blocked off Noe Street to accommodate the tent at the center of the day’s events. I was greeted at the blockade by Lynette Shaw, friend of Dennis Peron’s who last year reopened her dispensary, Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana—the first under California’s Prop 215—after years of fighting the government. She proudly sported her Compassionate Use Act t-shirt from the 90s in honor of the man who helped draft it. Throughout the day, I spotted more of those shirts, many of them faded and with holes from years of wear—all of them worn proudly.
A blend of terpenes and Jefferson Airplane filled the air as volunteers finished setting up. Bright orange and pink fabrics transformed three of the tent’s four sides into gallery walls: Dennis with Harvey Milk in 1975, Dennis in the San Bruno jail in 1979, Dennis running for Governor of California in 1998. Cannabis plants ready for adoption flanked the stage, and a slideshow silently displayed Dennis photos onscreen as guest mingled. To the left of the stage was an altar dedicated to Dennis: lilies, carnations, a campaign sign, a Buddha, some of the biggest nugs I’d ever seen. At the center of the altar was a representation of the “Castro Castle,” Dennis’ home. The four-story beacon of counterculture had welcomed visitors for years; now it was back to being a home for many in the community.
“I’m seeing lots of old faces, a lot of survivors,” said Clint Werner, author of Marijuana Gateway to Healthand friend of Dennis’. “A lot of people have no idea what a nightmare [the AIDS crisis] was. Everyone was losing friends,” he explains. So little was understood about AIDS in those early days that a diagnosis often meant a death sentence. But Dennis saw that cannabis helped friends with the disease navigate the pain while relieving their nausea, enabling them to eat and take their medication. “Cannabis has a whole family of healing compounds and we missed out on that for so many years,” Clint notes. “There’s been a lot of progress that’s changed the zeitgeist. Being here is wonderful, everything is so different now.”
The event was becoming as much a reunion as was a memorial. “All of these faces from the past…it’s like a homecoming,” cannabis activist Sonjia Miles, aka The Holy Hemptress, tells me. “Dennis’ spirit, Brownie Mary’s spirit, Harvey [Milk]’s spirit: they’re all here.”
“I’m just so glad we’re having the memorial,” says Elvy Musikka, one of the last remaining patients receiving medical cannabis from the government’s Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program. “It’s a good day for all of us to be here.”
People are eager to speak about Dennis, to talk about his mentorship and generosity, yet even those who’d never met him understood his impact. “I appreciate that he stood toe-to-toe with authorities for what he believed in,” remarked Aanya Gamble Hill, co-founder of cannabis delivery service A+ Collective. Ryan Miller, co-founder of Operation Educating Veterans About Cannabis, expressed feeling “thankful to have elders like him to light the way.”
The program inside the tent began with drumming and chanting.
We all come from a higher power. Let us pray together.
We all love you, Dennis. We all thank you, Dennis.
Loved ones of Dennis—many of them pioneers of the modern cannabis movement—took turns at the microphone onstage to speak of their brother, savior and friend. “Dennis was a freedom fighter, but he was also a doctor, a shaman,” imparted the city’s District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy. “Thank you, Dennis, for taking all of the stress of that era,” added civil rights attorney Tony Serra. Politician and activist Tom Ammiano said of his dear friend, “I know that Dennis was annoying. That was the secret to his success.” And Cleve Jones, co-founder of the SF AIDS Foundation and the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt noted, “Dennis was the one person who created the concept of medical marijuana for people who were sick and dying. The fact that we have it legalized in this state is his legacy. Long live Dennis Peron.”
The evening draws to an end and I leave the tent for some air. Dennis’ younger brother Jeffrey Peron is nearby, surrounded by friends. I wait a few minutes before introducing myself and asking him what he thought about the day. “This is what my brother would have wanted,” Jeffrey says with a smile, a sentiment he repeats from the speech he’d given onstage a few minutes before. When speaking of Dennis’ legacy, he points out the work that still needs to be done. “There are too many visions of ‘reefer madness’ in this country. We need to end this,” he insists. “We do need to improve the image of the cannabis user. We need more family farms, not less. We need to lobby—we’re not doing that.”
Dennis passed away less than a month after California’s cannabis sales opened up to adults over the age of 21. The initiatives he co-authored broke down barriers to cannabis access first in San Francisco; now more than half the country has some form of legalization in place. But the memorial wasn’t about an industry. It was about a community coming together to celebrate a man whose life was guided by compassion and love.
Long Live Dennis Peron.