The SFPD’s War on Dennis Peron and the Cannabis Buyers Club

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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.

Gay cop Joe Bannon worked for the SFPD as an undercover agent in a sting operation against the Cannabis Buyers Club.

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.

Dallas Voice, Spet. 17, 1993, Page 16

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.]

Shield of Honor – The Joe Bannon Story

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.

Here is the full declaration of Joe Bannon. Click on image to enlarge the text.

 

Remembering John Hudson– Pioneer Cultivator of Medical Cannabis

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The legalization of cannabis in California this year is an historic event that will beget even more significant changes in medical care, agriculture, law enforcement and numerous other areas. While many people are familiar with Prop. 215, the first state legislation legalizing medical cannabis, and its chief proponent Dennis Peron, there remains less documentation on the long road that lead to today’s landmark moment.Among the many people involved in the early days of medical cannabis legalization was John Hudson who died last week in Oakland. I first met John in 1994 when I began working at Dennis Peron’s Cannabis Buyers Club (CBC), the first venue to openly sell cannabis to patients with AIDS, cancer and glaucoma. With his bushy mustache and devilish grin, John’s mouth often burst wide open to release his reverberating laughter.

The haze of cannabis smoke filled the sun filtered air inside the compact space of the Buyers Club that was invariably filled with a vibrant mixture of queers, queens and other hold outs from the counter culture. Given that I was 21 and just out of the closet, back then everything was new to me. It was tempting to see that experience as a resin soaked trip on a time machine back to the 1960s. But as a member of the direct action AIDS protest group ACT UP San Francisco, my actions were firmly rooted in the present moment.

For all the stereotypes about lazy stoners, Peron consistently surrounded himself with the type of participants whose dedication came from the conviction of their personal experience. I was a bit curious about John Hudson. After all the CBC could be as cruisy as any gay bar in the Castro and John Hudson was unmistakably heterosexual. What was this dude doing in a place like the CBC?

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I soon learned that he was a key participant in the active disruption of unjust laws and attitudes that maintained cannabis prohibition. On a more specific note, John was a master grower of the cannabis plant at a time when doing so put one at great risk. As long as I knew and worked with John Hudson, the focus was always on providing the best quality medication to the patient’s in greatest need.

While John Hudson was heterosexual, he was by no means straight. Some of details I learned over time about John Hudson was that he had some experience with comics and comedy clubs. No matter how heavy it could get from seeing people you knew and cared about progress to death, John always found a reason to laugh. I also remember him saying that his father was among those involved in the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He was a classic example of the counter culture’s rebellion against authority but always with a sense of humor that was irreverent without taking himself too seriously.

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It’s a longer history than I can convey in a blog post, but by the summer of 1996 I was no longer working at the CBC which had by that point moved to its four story headquarters on Market Street. I’d already decamped and helped open the city’s first delivery service. In the summer of 1996 as we inched closer to the election day for Prop. 215, there began a viscous reaction to the open challenge against medical cannabis prohibition.

Then state Attorney General Dan Lungren raided the CBC, confiscating it’s cannabis and closing the club. This was a double blow as the CBC was not just a place to purchase medical cannabis but also a meeting place, a community space for those marginalized by their medical or economic situations. It was in response to this attack on our community, that a number of former colleagues from the CBC banned together to defiantly open a new dispensary.

Flower Therapy opened about two months before the passage of Prop. 215. We were the first dispensary that was designed to operate as above board business in anticipation of the new legislation. In hindsight many of the steps we took, such as registering for a business license (product? dried flowers), are now common place.

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John Hudson’s focus was always to grow the best quality cannabis for patients. His vision for Flower Therapy was to drive down the price which remained exorbitant due to the extreme risk faced by underground growers. John’s idea was to have all parts of the plan remain in house to keep the prices low and return profits back into the business.

Ultimately these plans were thwarted during the brief but brilliant existence of Flower Therapy when we were raided by DEA agents of the Clinton administration on April 21, 1997. Federal authorities cited among their reasons for the raid, John’s open advocacy for growing cannabis. Being photographed by the SF Chronicle (see scans above) in front of his indoor grow was more than they could stand. The implied threat was that we might have been able to continue to operate under the radar if our boss weren’t so outspoken in his challenge to authority, but for John Hudson that was never an option. The opportunity to inform and support patients and caregivers in cultivating their own medicine was the fire that drove his engine.

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There is of course more to this story, more players and developments, that I plan to explore in further posts. After the closure of Flower Therapy, ACT UP San Francisco acted as a front group in order for John to continue distribution until that relationship became unsustainable. That’s when I lost touch with John Hudson as I focused on establishing the ACT UP SF dispensary which continued as one of the city’s longest operating dispensaries (14 years) until it was shut down by federal agents of the Obama administration.

A memorial for John will be held on Sat. January 27 from 2-4PM at the cannabis dispensary Magnolia in Oakland.