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California and the West

Activist's Tactics Anger Many in Medical Marijuana Movement

Treatment: Dennis Peron's provocative style fuels legal battles that threaten sick people's right to get the drug, other pot providers say.


SAN FRANCISCO — 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.

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