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

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“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.

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?

Click to enlarge article

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.

Click to enlarge article

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.

Click to enlarge article

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.

When Medical Marijuana Was No Laughing Matter

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As it looks likely that next year California voters will legalize recreational use of marijuana, ACT UP Archives will start looking back to the historic changes brought about by Proposition 215- the first statewide initiative to permit the cultivation and consumption of marijuana for medical use. The medical marijuana movement developed as part of San Francisco’s queer community response to the AIDS crisis, particularly the work of alternative treatment activists, where patients and caregivers started a grassroots movement that is transforming our social and political landscape.

ACT UP SF flyer by David Pasquarelli.

ACT UP SF flyer by David Pasquarelli.

In 1996 California’s Attorney General was the right-wing Republican Dan Lungren- a former Congressman and prominent proponent of the war on drugs. Lungren’s public opposition to needle-exchange programs had made already made him a protest target for ACT UP San Francisco. By the summer of 1996, Prop. 215 was gaining strong support among voters. Lungren, in collusion with the DEA and SF Police Department (SFPD), hatched a plan to shut down the city’s Cannabis Buyers’ Club (CBC) which had been serving AIDS and cancer patients for several years. For over two years, these repressive forces operated a surveillance campaign which included sending in undercover agents, including a gay cop from the SFPD, to pose as ailing patients in need of medical relief.

CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

Early on Sunday morning, August 4th, armed agents stormed the club seizing not only marijuana products but also confiscating client’s confidential medical records. For weeks afterwards, patient concerns that they could face prosecution added to the stress and worry for which they were trying to seek relief by patronizing the CBC. As public outcry rose, city officials scrambled to find ways to address the needs of medical marijuana patients.

As the November election neared, the battle of Dan Lungren against San Francisco’s pot smoking ill and disabled took a turn that could have only been conjured by the consumption of some potent strain of sensimillia bud. That October legendary cartoon strip Doonesbury added the controversy to its daily panels which for decades had been a featured nationally in newspapers.

SF Chronicle Oct. 3, 1996. Cartoon by Tom Meyer

Lungren cried fowl in a three-page letter to the SF Chronicle requesting that the comic strip either be dropped from circulation or add a disclaimer that the cartoon is based upon “inaccurate information.” Illustrating that he was void of a sense of humor, Lungren alleged that Doonesbury did not contribute to a “serious debate” and worried Prop. 215 would contribute to increased drug use among children. The text of Lungren’s statement can be viewed at the end of this post.

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By late October Doonesbury set its satirical sights firmly on the cancer and AIDS patients who were affected by Lungren’s raid of the CBC. Elderly socialite Millie is sitting down with gal pal Lacey to talk about how she’s is dealing with her cancer chemotherapy. Millie’s joined another exclusive club, the San Francisco CBC, where “some of the nicest people are forced to break the law.”

SFC102296

SFC102396

What makes Gary Trudeau’s comic strip so effective is that the humor is based upon reality. One of the reasons the CBC broke the law was to help patients avoid taking to the city’s streets and parks to obtain their medicine where they were forced to pay inflated prices to purchase marijuana that could contain mold or chemicals, particularly dangerous to patients with compromised immune systems. Even the privileged socialite Millie was forced to travel from Pacific Heights to the Mission’s Dolores Park where she has to pay “street prices.”

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In the final panel, Trudeau zeros his attack directly towards the Attorney General. Seems that Lacey has know Lungren’s family for years, not surprising given that Lungren’s daddy was the personal physician to Nixon. Millie replies, “Then you should know he has a heart like a peach pit!” Always a true friend, Lacey offers to talk to “Danny’s” mother.

SFC102696

Throughout the coming year, ACT UP Archives will continue highlighting the historic development of marijuana legalization and the courageous work made of a coalition of patients and activists that was at its heart. Among the topics we will explore include the surveillance that was conducted on the CBC and its patients, how a gay police officer was involved in the Club’s closure and how the city tried to respond to the crisis created by the club’s closure.

SF Chronicle article “State Raids Marijuana Buyers’ Club” Aug. 8, 1996.

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 pages 1, 11

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

SF Chronicle Aug. 8, 1996 page 11

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The full text of Lungren’s criticism of Doonesbury comic strip. CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

SF Chronicle Oct. 2, 1996