“Someday, my people will be free.”
By Jesse B. Gill
The times they are A-changin‘, medical cannabis godfather Dennis Peron assures
In the world of medical cannabis activism, Dennis Peron’s name looms large. For decades, he’s been a tireless force for patient’s rights, never wavering in his quest to see marijuana decriminalized.
He’s been arrested 22 times, he’s been subjected to police raids and he’s been shot, all in the name of his cause. Today, this activist moves a little more gingerly and speaks a little softer. He’s 66 and he says he suffered a stroke two years ago.
“I’m a little older and a little slower and not quite as clever as I used to be,” he tells the Weekly, shortly before the “Medical Marijuana Icons” seminar and honorary dinner held in Riverside this past weekend.
A lot has changed since 1996, when Peron co-authored Proposition 215, now a law regulating the use, possession, sale and distribution of medical marijuana in California.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the federal criminalization of medical pot.
The federal stance was brought into sharp focus Jan. 7, when Aaron Sandusky, owner of an Inland Empire-based dispensary chain, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute.
Sandusky’s attorney maintained that his client operated within the provisions of Prop. 215. That didn’t matter to the U.S. District Court judge, who only observed federal law . . . rendering Prop. 215 null and void in that courtroom.
Peron says Sandusky’s conviction is the feds’ vindictive reaction to Prop. 215.
“They use intimidation, fear and the power of the state to stop us,” he says. “I’ve never seen such a show of force.”
For California’s (and later, the entire country’s) medical cannabis patient community to really see real change and freedom, Peron says the country’s policymakers have to change the way federal law enforcement views cannabis users. So far, that change hasn’t come.
“It will change,” he said. “I hope it happens in my lifetime.”
While Sandusky’s conviction means the federal outlook on medical cannabis use hasn’t made much headway, things are changing in other parts of the country. At the start of the new year Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Peron doesn’t believe in recreational use—rather, he believes all use stems from a medical need, regardless of what the user hopes to accomplish.
“Even for people who say they use (marijuana) recreationally, they are treating issues in their own minds,” he says.
And while the new laws in Washington and Colorado may suggest a change in attitude, Peron says they don’t help in efforts to legalize medical cannabis as it acknowledges the federal definition of the plant as a recreational drug.
Peron likened the stigma and persecution faced by medical cannabis patients to the unbelievable hardships faced by America’s black and LGBT communities (Peron is openly gay).
“This is a civil rights issue,” he says. “It’s always been a civil rights issue. This country has a history of fighting [for] civil rights.”
And just like other civil rights struggles, there have been casualties in the fight to legalize medical cannabis. Sandusky, Peron says, is one such casualties.
“People are not happy with what (prosecutors) did to Aaron,” he says. “They think it’s a grave injustice.”
But the fight isn’t over, he says. It’s going to take a little longer for things to change. And while the patient community waits and hopes and works for change, people like Aaron “will be sacrificed,” Peron adds.
But also like other civil rights fights, Peron says the country is making progress toward change, mainly in terms of its attitude. He says if he wrote Prop. 215 today, it would pass with 80 percent of the vote.
Peron speaks of America in glowing terms. He says he loves this country, despite its resistance to social change. He loves the idea of a mix of people, races and cultures. He likes to speak of a day when everyone would be free to use cannabis as they see fit and that freedom would lead to a “reign of peace.”
“Someday, my people will be free,” he says. “I may not be alive to see it. But someday, it might happen in my name.”