An unrelenting advocate for marijuana’s decriminalization, Dennis Peron was pushing a wheelchair for a woman with multiple sclerosis on a dirt road at his Lake County pot farm sometime about 1998 when the sound of a helicopter had them look to the sky.
The Chinook hovered close and Peron locked eyes with the armed law enforcement officers sitting in the open doors, the wind of the thrumming tandem rotors blowing through Peron’s 150 marijuana plants, some as tall as a house, recalled his husband, John Entwistle.
That’s what Peron wanted: A high-profile pot farm that would attract attention from law enforcement, a test case for California’s medical marijuana law he helped to write.
“He looks up, ‘Go away, beat it!’ laughing at them and waving them off,” said Entwistle. “He was like the man in Tiananmen Square standing up to the tanks.”
The helicopter paused before flying away, he said.
Peron, who had late-stage lung cancer, died Saturday at a San Francisco hospital. He was 71.
Peron’s brazen activism and civil disobedience over decades is widely credited with setting in motion the state-by-state march toward decriminalizing cannabis use that began in 1996 with California’s landmark Compassionate Use Act and continues today. Twenty-nine states have passed laws allowing its use, though the federal government still lists marijuana as a controlled substance without any health benefits, akin to heroin.
Peron was the one person in Sonoma County that communities across Northern California called when they wanted to push local government to signal their support for marijuana’s medicinal use. Peron’s Russian River vacation home in the Villa Grande community near Monte Rio was a site of many parties and strategic planning sessions, said longtime Cazadero resident Carol Miller, 71, who is currently living in Hawaii.
“Dennis, he was wonderful, he was quite a character,” Miller said. “One could always count on Dennis to speak. If it was the kind of situation you were trying to draw participants to, his presence was valuable.”
Marijuana was central to the livelihoods and culture of Cazadero residents and other communities west of Highway 101, said Miller. Law enforcement raids were frequent, with teams of federal and state officers dropping down in helicopters to rip out backyard marijuana gardens. Miller said her family’s six-plant garden, grown to help her treat medical issues, was eradicated on at least three occasions during raids.
“Like all of the folks in West County, we experienced the terrorism of CAMP,” said Miller, referring to the now-defunct Campaign Against Marijuana Planting law enforcement eradication program.
In the early 1990s, Miller and other members of the Sonoma Civil Rights Action Project sought Peron’s advice when they decided to push the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance allowing for medical marijuana’s production and use. He gave them advice, money and his penchant for public speaking.
In 1993, Peron spoke before Sonoma County supervisors at a standing-room-only board meeting urging action. On Oct. 12 that year, they passed a resolution calling for federal and state lawmakers to “support returning cannabis/marijuana medical preparations to the list of available medicines.”
Born in the Bronx in 1946 and raised on Long Island, Peron arrived in San Francisco with about 2 pounds of pot in his duffel bag after serving in and being jaded by the Vietnam War. He joined a commune in the Haight-Ashbury district and sold marijuana.