The AIDS Activists Who Launched The Medical Cannabis Industry

When did the Medical Cannabis Movement Start?

Present day cannabis activists and the entire cannabis industry owe a debt of gratitude to the trailblazing AIDS and LGBT activists from the 1970s-90s. Many risked their freedom to push forward cannabis reform laws. In this article I will chronicle the accomplishments of just a few of the many AIDS/LGTB activists who were responsible for the passage of medical cannabis legislation. Their efforts were fueled, in part, to ease the suffering of those with AIDS before life-saving medications were available.

Dennis Peron

Dennis Peron reached folk hero status and was viewed as the leader of the AIDS community responsible for passing medical cannabis legislation in California. According to California NORML director Dale Gieringer and co-author of Proposition 215, without Peron’s relentless activism, it would not have happened as soon as it did. It was thanks to Dennis and his close circle of AIDS activists who organized the collection of signatures for petitions and donated money. He knew hundreds of people who frequented his cannabis businesses who turned out for him when it came time to join his rallies and to collect signatures.

Born in New York in 1945, Dennis moved to the Castro District in San Francisco after serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.  He then joined the Youth International Party whose members were known as Yippies and organized smoke-ins. He was openly gay, a well-known cannabis distributor and AIDS activist. He helped his friend, gay activist Harvey Milk, win election to the San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977. Milk was tragically murdered in 1978 by former Board Supervisor Dan White.

Peron owned and ran the Big Top cannabis supermarket, one of San Francisco’s most well-known cannabis distributors, out of his home in the Castro District in the 1970s. He openly defied the felony laws which prohibited the sale of cannabis. He was arrested many times over the years.

Despite arrests and raids on his business, he managed to keep it going for three years. Peron was already a cannabis activist before the AIDS epidemic. However, seeing firsthand how effective cannabis was in helping AIDS patients made him even more resolute in pushing for legalization. For Peron, it was personal when his partner, Jonathan West, died of AIDS in 1990. Luckily for Peron, he was spared jail time because of his partner’s AIDS diagnosis.

In 1978, he was responsible for organizing San Francisco Proposition W. The ballot initiative would stop the district attorney from arresting people for possessing, transferring and growing cannabis. Despite winning with a 56% majority, it was never implemented.

In 1991, Peron helped pass Proposition P in San Francisco. It was a ballot initiative that would allow California state government to restore the use of medical cannabis in San Francisco, winning with 80% of the vote. In 1993, he opened the Church Street Compassion Center. In 1995, he co-founded the first public cannabis dispensary, San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.

In 1996, Peron co-authored California Proposition 215 which would allow the statewide use of medical cannabis. One month before the 1996 election, with Proposition 215 on the ballot, the California Attorney General Dan Lungren ordered police to shut down Peron’s business and arrest him. After it passed, Peron was allowed to re-open his club.

Peron supported decriminalization of all cannabis use. He opposed its use for children and also opposed California Proposition 19 for recreational cannabis legalization in 2010. He did not believe that recreational use existed, and believed all cannabis use is medicinal.  He opposed California Proposition 64 in 2016 for the recreational legalization of cannabis for adults 21 and older.

Dennis Peron died of lung cancer in 2018.

Dr. Marcus Conant

Dr. Marcus Conant is a dermatologist and was one of the first physicians to diagnose and treat AIDS in 1981. He was also an advocate of medical cannabis usage to treat AIDS patients. He filed a lawsuit and won when the federal government threatened to arrest physicians for recommending medical cannabis.

Paul Scott

Paul Scott, president of LA Black Pride, was a nurse for many years who worked in the AIDS wards in the 1980s. In those first days of the epidemic, the medical staff didn’t want to touch AIDS patients who were kept in isolation. He was so traumatized by his experience that he left nursing and returned to college.

He was introduced to the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club when he began working in the Bay area. As a black man, he knew that he might get arrested for frequenting the dispensary, but he overcame that fear, bought his cannabis and quickly left each time.

When the Club was closed down, he and all the other customers had to find a new dispensary. He found his way to the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative which was started in 1995. The owner, Jeff Jones, another cannabis pioneer, asked Scott to become the Chairman of the Board. There was the fear that this Club would also be closed and its members arrested. However, Oakland city council member Nate Miley was able to stop the federal government from closing it down. Scott believed it was due to the fact that the Club served an underprivileged black population represented by a black city council.

The Oakland Club was shut down by the federal government, leaving Scott with nowhere to buy medical cannabis now that he was diagnosed with HIV. He moved south to Inglewood in southwestern LA county. It had the same racial demographics and politics as Oakland and was run by a black city council. He was sure he could be successful there by establishing a club similar to the one in Oakland. He was right. Not only was he not shut down, but he ran the Inglewood Club for over 12 years with no license or permit.

Richard Eastman

Friend of Scott’s and former board member of the Inglewood Cooperative, Richard Eastman co-founded the Los Angeles Cannabis Buyers’ Club.

In 2019, he was honored by the Los Angeles City Council for his many years of advocacy for cannabis-related medical treatments. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1994, he wasn’t expected to survive. He was treated by the late Dr. Charles Farthing who co-developed the first protease inhibitors, some of which used cannabis infusion. His other accomplishments included:

  • Helped organized the first San Francisco march to keep medical cannabis clubs open
  • In 1999, was invited to participate in the California Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s task force meetings on medical cannabis
  • Worked with another medical cannabis activist, the late Scott Imler, to draft Proposition 215
  • In 1996, he and Imler opened the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center in West Hollywood. It was Southern California’s first patient-based cooperative cultivation project and non-profit dispensary. The DEA shut it down in a raid in 2001.

Brownie Mary

Here is the link to a previous article I wrote about Mary Rathburn, aka Brownie Mary.

Were it not for the involvement of these brave activists, the cannabis reform laws that are being enacted today might very likely not have come to fruition.

Sources:, How AIDS Activists Started The Cannabis Industry, Jim Devine, June 8, 2020, The AIDS Activists Behind Marijuana Legalization, Bret Kavanaugh, Nov. 7, 2019, Dennis Peron, Dennis Peron, Richard Eastman, An Advocate For Weed in West Hollywood, Says He’s Running For President, Sept. 6, 2019