The LGBTQ Community’s Role in the Legalization of Medicinal Marijuana

Present day medical cannabis patients owe a debt of gratitude to the trailblazing LGBTQ activists from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Dennis Peron was one of these trailblazers. Dennis was a well-known cannabis provider who was a leading figure in San Francisco’s gay community. He was also a cannabis activist who recognized its medicinal value for various ailments.

The Father of Medical Marijuana

According to Dr. Dale Gieringer who is the director of NORML and co-author of Proposition 215, the legalization of medical cannabis would not have happened as soon as it did without Peron’s relentless activism.

This is why many have called Dennis Peron the Father of Medical Marijuana in the United States.

Born in the Bronx, Dennis grew up in Long Island and moved to the Castro District in San Francisco after having served in the Air Force. He was drafted in 1966 and served during the Vietnam War. 

The Summer of Love


Prior to shipping off to Vietnam, Dennis had a brief stop over in San Francisco during the “Summer of Love” in 1967. Peron noticed that the hippy culture was very accepting of the gay community there. So, he decided he would return to San Francisco after serving his time in the Air Force. 

During his tour in Vietnam, Dennis’ unit was dispatched to the border to spy on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Viet Cong became aware of their plan and pinned Dennis’ unit down with daily aerial bombardments. His assignment during this time was to stack the body bags of fallen soldiers. 

Amid all the death and destruction is where Peron tried cannabis for the first time. It’s also where he came out as a gay man. After witnessing the horrors of war first hand, Peron returned to the states with the goal of helping to make the world a kinder and more peaceful place.

Dennis also returned with two pounds of Thai cannabis he stashed away in his duffel bag. It is said those two pounds of marijuana helped launch a career that would see Peron become one the biggest cannabis providers in California.1

The Big Top Cannabis Supermarket

Upon returning to the States, Peron moved into a three-story Victorian house in the Castro District. Dennis shared this house with over 20 people and would sell cannabis out of the third floor.

Known as “The Big Top” cannabis supermarket, customers could select from locally grown cannabis as well as landrace strains like Acapulco Gold and Thai.

Peron believed he was providing a much needed service and would openly defy laws which prohibited the sale of cannabis in California. Dennis was not afraid of getting arrested. He was arrested many times over the years. His biggest fear was being robbed. 

Dennis’ fear seemed to materialize when plain clothed police officers raided his home. Peron thought he was being robbed so he picked up a five-gallon jug of water to throw at what he thought were robbers. Before he could throw the jug down the staircase, officers got a shot off that hit him in the leg. 

Despite multiple arrests and police raids Dennis remained focused on making cannabis accessible to those who needed it. 

The Island Restaurant

In 1974, Dennis opened the Island Restaurant in the Castro District which served vegetarian food downstairs and cannabis upstairs. The restaurant became the site of many spirited discussions about gay rights and the legalization of cannabis.2 

Many rising stars in the business and political community were known to frequent the Island Restaurant. One of these rising stars was Harvey Milk, a business owner and gay rights activist.

The First Openly Gay Man Elected to Public Office in California

In 1977, Dennis helped Harvey Milk win election to the San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. By doing so, Harvey became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

Harvey Milk was known for opposing government interference in private sexual matters and also for favoring the legalization of cannabis.

During his time in office, Milk sponsored a bill which banned discrimination in public housing, accommodations, and employment based on sexual orientation. The bill passed by a vote of 11-1.

The First Bill in the Nation to Decriminalize Marijuana


In 1978, Milk also helped pass proposition W, which encouraged local law enforcement and the district attorney to stop arresting and prosecuting people for growing, distributing, and possessing marijuana. This is viewed as the first bill passed in the nation decriminalizing marijuana.3

Unfortunately, Harvey Milk was shot and killed in 1978 by former Board Supervisor, Dan White, who was the only person to vote against Harvey’s bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

How Compassionate Use Led to Change in Legislation

Dennis Peron was already a staunch cannabis activist prior to the AIDS epidemic. However, seeing firsthand how helpful it could be in providing relief to those suffering from AIDS made him even more resolute in pushing for its legalization.

Cannabis’ anti-nausea and appetite stimulation effects provided AIDS patients with much-needed relief from some of the side effects of certain medications and treatment options. 

At the time, patients dealing with nausea or loss of appetite were being given Marinol, a prescription drug containing THC. Unfortunately, many would end up vomiting their medicine. This is where Dennis knew that a few puffs of medical cannabis could provide patients with the relief they needed.  

The Shift from Cannabis Legalization To Medicinal Use


For Peron, it became personal when his long-time partner, Jonathan West, battled AIDS. Jonathan lost a lot of weight and had developed lesions on his face caused by Karposi’s Sarcoma. 

At the time, Dennis was focused on caring for his partner and was not selling cannabis. They kept a few ounces of cannabis in their apartment that Jonathan used for medicinal purposes.

On January 27, 1990, 10 narcotics police officers showed up at Dennis and Jonathan’s apartment with a search warrant. It is alleged that the officers forced Jonathan to lie facedown on the ground while they said “You know what AIDS stands for? … asshole in deep shit.”1 

The police arrested Peron for possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

During the trial, Jonathan West testified that the cannabis was his and that it was being used for medicinal purposes. The judge ended up dropping the charges and reprimanding the arresting officers.  

A Night In Jail Led to the First Public Cannabis Dispensary

That night, Dennis and Jonathan were held in separate cells. As Dennis sat there, he worried about how Jonathan was feeling without having access to cannabis.

He imagined how great it would be to have a place where Jonathan could go and be among friends who wouldn’t make him feel uncomfortable about the lesions on face. A place where he wouldn’t be made to feel like a criminal for medicating with cannabis.

That night in jail is where the idea of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers club was born. This is also around the time that Dennis made the shift from focusing on the legalization of cannabis to making it accessible for medicinal purposes. 

The First Medical Marijuana Initiative

Jonathan West passed away two weeks after testifying at Peron’s trial. In honor of Jonathan, Peron channeled his energy into writing Proposition P, for Peron, which became the first medical-marijuana initiative.

In 1991, Peron authored and helped pass Proposition P – a ballot initiative that would allow the California state government to restore the use of medical cannabis in the city of San Francisco. Prop P passed with 80% of the vote.

In 1993, Dennis opened the Church Street Compassion Center in the Castro District.  

The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club

In 1995, Dennis co-founded the first public cannabis dispensary, the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club. The club provided meals for a dollar as well as liquid nutritional supplements for those who couldn’t hold down solid food. More importantly, the Cannabis Buyers club offered a way for AIDS patients to gather for support and to get the medicine they needed. 

The Compassionate Use Act

In 1996, Dennis Peron co-authored California Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, which would allow for the statewide use of medical cannabis.

One month before the 1996 election, with Prop 215 on the ballot, California’s Attorney General ordered police to shut down Peron’s business and arrest him. After Prop 215 passed, Peron was allowed to re-open his club.

Although Dennis Peron supported the decriminalization of cannabis use, he did oppose the idea of recreational cannabis legalization – saying that all cannabis use was medicinal.

Dennis Peron passed away of lung cancer in 2018 at the age of 72.

Dennis Peron and Harvey Milk are just two examples of the important role the LGBTQ community has played in the legalization of medical cannabis. 

So, the next time you medicate with your favorite strain of cannabis, keep in mind the hard work and sacrifice that Dennis Peron, Harvey Milk, and many unsung heroes from the LGBTQ community have made to make it possible. 

To learn more about the history of cannabis and its potential health benefits, visit the Cannabis Education resources on – and make sure to keep up with our latest blog posts.

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