As yet another Presidential administration continues to demonize the legalization of cannabis, which now extends beyond medicinal use, it’s important that we look back to the history of the persecution of patients, caregivers and those who provided medical cannabis. Whether it’s Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, the law and order goons of federal authorities persist in creating a climate of fear around cannabis distribution.
In a previous ACT UP Archives post, I examined the closure of the Cannabis Buyers Club (CBC) in 1996 by then California Attorney General Daniel Lungren who sought to influence the upcoming ballot initiative Proposition 215, which ultimately passed as the first state wide medical cannabis legislation. The closure of the club, which was located at 1444 Market Street, proved not only detrimental to patients’ and caregivers’ access to medical cannabis but also the ability for the community to gather and socialize at the four-story building that was more than a so-called pot shop. The CBC provided a space for the ill and marginalized to share, connect and heal.
The raid on the CBC was led by agents of the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement assisted by the Drug Enforcement Agency. What is less well known is how integral role played by officers of the San Francisco Police Department in building a case against the CBC. While the chief architect was Captain Greg Corrales (his role in the sting operation will be examined in a future post), this post will shed light upon the close to two years which the SFPD waged a campaign of surveillance against the CBC that was spearheaded by openly gay SFPD officer Joe Bannon.
Well known in the Castro as the “gay cop” in the 1990s, Joe Bannon embodied all the characteristics of toxic masculinity. With his muscular physique, crew cut and mustache, Bannon was literally playing the part of the good cop. Though he eagerly used his position as an out-of-the-closet cop to illustrate the liberal policies of the city’s police department, Bannon was in fact targeting the most vulnerable within his community: gay men with disabling AIDS diagnoses.
Through documents later released during legal proceedings, we can trace the level of involvement the SFPD played in targeting the CBC and stifling patients’ access to medication. Using a membership card obtained from a “confidential source,” Bannon purchased medical cannabis several times over a two month period at the end of 1994 when the CBC was located at 194 Church Street. Additionally four other narcotics officers made purchases while posing as patients. These documents also reveal that the CBC was under video surveillance, recording the patients and caregivers who entered and exited the club.
Even more disturbing is the fact that two SFPD officers posed at medical patients to CBC founder Dennis Peron as they filled out applications to obtain membership. It is important to remember that in 1991 Peron had successfully sponsored Proposition P which was passed by 80% of San Francisco voters. Prop. P resolved that “the Board of Supervisors urges the Mayor to urge the Police Commission and the District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco to make lowest priority the arrest or prosecution of those involved in the possession or cultivation of hemp for medicinal purpose.”
Bannon continued his surveillance on the club into the following year. When the CBC moved to a larger location on Market Street in October of 1995, Bannon’s undercover operation expanded as he began questioning how many people worked at the club and how much they were paid. He additionally reviewed local and national newspapers for stories documenting the club’s operation. At the end of his declaration, Bannon characterizes the CBC as “a center for local criminal activity.”
While it’s true that cannabis purchased at the CBC was sometimes resold on the street, that was not the fault of Peron or his employees. Given that the plant continues to be classified by the federal government as Schedule 1 narcotic (having no known medicinal value), its continued prohibition is what creates a lucrative street market. It was unconscionable for the SFPD and other law enforcement to penalize sick and terminally ill patients for that activity.
In preparing this post, I decided to do some investigative work of my own into what Joe Bannon has been up to the last two decades. Following his dismissal from the SFPD due to his participation in the CBC raid, Bannon progressed in his work with the DEA serving as a Covert and Special Operative. From there he had numerous jobs within federal law enforcement including working with the Attorney General and the Dept. of Justice in Los Angeles.
Never one to shy away from bragging about his special ops activities, Bannon once provided protection detail for Pope John Paul II. “I provided close-quarter protection for the Popemobile when he gave a service at Mission Dolores in San Francisco in 1987,” Bannon said. “I helped him down the stairs of the Popemobile and he smiled at me and touched me on the shoulder. Everyone wanted to rub my shoulder after that to get, like, a blessing out of me.” We are left to wonder what the Pope would have made of Bannon targeting AIDS and cancer patients.
Currently Bannon resides in Southern California where he runs the Bannon Institute of Combat Neuroscience whose tag line is “The Best Defense Against Evil, Violent Men Are Good Men Who Are Better Skilled At Violence.” According to his website, Bannon’s work is a mix of martial arts training and consulting for film and television work.
In case readers might think I am being too harsh in my critique of Bannon, have a look at this trailer for the uncompleted film Shield of Honor – The Joe Bannon Story. The 2 minute clip features sourced television footage of the CBC as Bannon defiantly relates that he was in fact trying to “enlighten President Clinton and the rest of the staff what was going on here [at the CBC.]”
Teaser trailer for the feature length documentary Shield of Honor.
Posted by Mana Storm on Friday, March 6, 2009
Now that adult cannabis sales are legal in eight states in the U.S., it is only a matter of time before federal prohibition is ultimately rescinded. When that historic day comes, it will be up to Bannon, and his law and order cronies, to reckon with their own personal history in cannabis prohibition and the immense harm it has caused.