How the SFPD Shut Down Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club

“While I was growing up I thought, Dennis, you’re gay, Liberace is your role model, you’re Italian, you’ve got a fucked up family, you’re white trash, but at least you’ve got marijuana. It’s your friend. It’s your advisor. It’s your buddy who will never leave you. It saved my life. Damn sure.”

–Dennis Peron interviewed by Chris Simunek in 2015 via Paradise Burning. (Link to full interview.)

In a previous post, I reported on how the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) used gay officer Joe Bannon to conduct surveillance upon the sick and dying patients obtaining medical cannabis at Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club. The CBC was the first establishment in the USA to openly sell cannabis to medical patients as an act of civil disobedience against ongoing prohibition. Bannon, along with other SFPD officers, infiltrated the CBC by posing as disabled patients seeking relief from medical complications.

Bannon’s need to portray himself as ultra masculine and tough on crime served to curry favor with the department’s top brass. He betrayed the LGBT community by targeting an establishment that catered to gay men overcoming complications from AIDS. The SFPD’s macho attitude, as typified in the Dirty Harry movie series, promoted a culture that justified recklessness and a disregard for the communities it was purported to serve.

Retired SFPD Captain Gregory Corrales

There is no better example of this lawless “Wild West” attitude than Capt. Greg Corrales who was among the department’s first Latino officers when he joined the predominantly Irish American force in 1969, according to a 2014 SF Examiner profile. Corrales retuned from military service in Vietnam with a new job that saw him transferred to the department’s notorious tactical squad (a precursor to SWAT) that focused on anti-war demonstrations and people burning the American flag.

Corrales swiftly moved to the undercover narcotics unit which would eventually bring him into contact with another Vietnam veteran named Dennis Peron who had returned stateside with two pounds of cannabis in an Air Force bag. Joining the Bay Area’s burgeoning counter-culture, Peron came out as gay and became a cannabis dealer with a conscious.

In the mid 1970s his restaurant and bar The Island, based in the Castro neighborhood, was frequented by progressive politicians including Harvey Milk. Those in the know could purchase cannabis in the flat above the restaurant. It was at this time that Corrales and Peron’s fateful connection emerged.

The dramatic events are detailed in activist and author Fred Gardner’s October 1996 article, originally scheduled to run in The New Yorker just before the election for Proposition 215, the first successful statewide medical marijuana initiative. According to Garner’s editor, he was offered a $3,000 “kill fee” following pressure on Tina Brown, the magazine’s chief editor, by psychiatrist Mitch Rosenthal, a special Consultant to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, her “guru on drug issues.”

Gardner writes that it was during a raid on Peron’s Castro Street apartment that he was shot in the thigh by Officer Paul Mackavekias. The second officer to enter Peron’s home was Mackavekias’ partner Greg Corrales. The criminal trial lasted four months.

“All Mackavekias’s testimony was thrown out after he blurted, in the presence of witnesses, that he wished he’d killed Peron so there’d be ‘one less faggot in San Francisco.’ Dennis received a lighter sentence as a result of this outburst, and wound up doing seven months in San Bruno.”

Mackavekias was later to serve two years in prison after the FBI nabbed him in a bribery sting for taking $25,000 in exchange for issuing false taxi cab licenses.

Over the next twenty years Peron would lay the groundwork for the history changing medical cannabis movement. In 1991 he had successfully sponsored Proposition P, which was passed by 80% of San Francisco voters, that urged the police department and District Attorney to make cannabis arrests and prosecution the lowest priority. Of course it took over two decades before the police department finally adhered to the will of voters. Shortly after Prop. P’s victory, Peron opened the CBC.

Meanwhile, Corrales made a name for himself in the SFPD. His captain’s report, released each week to media outlets, routinely described arrests involving cannabis as “The Weed with Roots in Hell.” Nicknamed “The Archenemy of Evil,” Corrales fashioned himself as some sort of comic book hero. According to former police chief Greg Suhr, “He wore a shoulder holster with a 6-inch, chrome .44 magnum outside his shirt — and that was in uniform,” Suhr said. “He used to wear a Superman shirt under his stuff all the time.”

At the Cannabis Buyer’s Club of San Francisco, Dennis Peron, the director, lights up some marijuana for Hazel Rodgers, who like other customers seeks relief from a painful medical condition. NY Times Feb. 25, 1996 page 9

By 1996, Peron and the CBC had put medical cannabis on the national stage as California voters were preparing to vote on Prop. 215. Corrales was by then the commanding officer of the SFPD’s narcotics division where one of his subordinates was Joe Bannon who was spearheading the nearly two year long undercover investigation and infiltration of the CBC which reached extensive proportions.

This is when the narrative explodes into a saga worthy of David Simon’s The Wire. The SFPD had pressured then District Attorney Arlo Smith to prosecute Peron and the CBC, but he declined. Bannon was working simultaneously for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). At some point contact was made with the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement (BNE) who may have been responsible for video surveillance that was conducted against the CBC’s third location at 1444 Market Street. At the time, it was common knowledge that law enforcement had set up shop in the Bank of America building across the street from the CBC.

According to Gardner’s article,

“They forged letters of diagnosis on fabricated doctors’ letterheads and even set up phone lines so that a club registration worker calling to confirm a patient’s letter would reach an agent at BNE headquarters pretending to be a doctor’s receptionist. And the imaginary doctor was named ‘Nokamura.'”

The surveillance and harassment reached a tipping point on August 4th when federal, state and city law enforcement burst into the club seizing cannabis, cash and pointing guns at the heads of medical patients present inside the building.

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 pages 1, 11. CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 page 11, CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

ACT UP SF flyer by David Pasquarelli.

There was wide spread condemnation directed towards state Attorney General Dan Lungren, who oversaw the BNE and helped orchestrate the raid of the CBC, as well as residential homes of some of the club’s employee. However recently elected Mayor Willie Brown was reticent to criticize then Police Chief Fred Lau. Corrales and others officers attempted to minimize SFPD involvement in the raid, only citing Bannon as a chief participant.

The controversy surrounding the CBC bust backfired against Lungren and helped ensure Prop. 215’s passage two months later. Lungren was pilloried in the public and press, becoming the source of biting satire (as covered in a previous post) in a week long installment in the popularly syndicated comic strip Doonesbury. In a guest opinion for the SF Chronicle, Lungren demanded the strip be run side-by-side with a disclaimer and stated that pulling the cartoon from publication would “mark a courageous and stirring turn of events in the evolving history of drug abuse in America.

Corrales retired from the force in 2014. Bannon eventually moved to L.A. where he markets his mix of martial arts and militarism to Hollywood productions. Peron died earlier this year having lived long enough to see cannabis legalized in California. As the level of government surveillance continues unabated, regardless of a Democratic or Republican administration, and municipal police forces become increasingly weaponized, the lessons of the fight against cannabis prohibition illustrate the cost of freedom.

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