SAN FRANCISCO — The medical-marijuana political movement in America began the night police busted into Dennis Peron’s apartment with a warrant.
They twisted Peron’s arms behind his back and placed him in handcuffs. They forced Jonathan West, Peron’s boyfriend, to the ground, and an officer held him there, Peron said, with a boot on the young man’s chest. When officers learned West had AIDS, Peron said, they put on rubber gloves.
"He was very skinny, very weak," Peron, a longtime marijuana and gay-rights activist and former pot dealer from San Francisco, recalled. "And they were very mean."
That night in 1990, Peron was arrested for possession and distribution of marijuana he said he was keeping to alleviate West’s suffering. A year later, after West died at age 29, Peron began collecting signatures to put an initiative on the San Francisco ballot recommending to state officials that marijuana be allowed for medical use.
It was the first medical-marijuana initiative campaign in the country, and it passed with overwhelming support.
"This was my revenge," Peron said recently. "They did that to Jonathan. What are they doing to other people? I wanted to get even. I hated those guys."
Two decades later, what started that night in Peron’s apartment has reordered not just the debate around marijuana but also the broader political landscape.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have started medical-marijuana programs — either through ballot initiatives or legislative action. A 15th, Maryland, allows medical use as a defense against criminal charges. Only once, in South Dakota in 2006, has medical marijuana been defeated in a statewide election.
Estimates show more than 600,000 people in the United States can now possess and use marijuana legally, according to a Denver Post survey of medical-marijuana states. Given the current growth rates in some state medical-marijuana programs and the
potential for other states to join in — Arizona and South Dakota voters will decide this year — that number could soon top 1 million state-legal marijuana users nationwide. Already, more than a quarter of the United States population lives in a state with a legalized marijuana program.
More than half of the nation’s medical-marijuana patients — an estimated 350,000 — live in California, but Colorado is the clear medical-marijuana capital of the country. With nearly 20 patients for every 1,000 residents, Colorado has twice the number of medical-marijuana patients per capita as California.
The state’s 809 dispensaries are five times per capita the estimated number in California. More than 2,000 dispensaries
nationwide sell marijuana at least somewhat openly.
And now all those patients and businesses and dollars have given new standing to marijuana politics, doing what stoner lobbyists tried to do for decades but failed: bringing the country to the precipice of the most ambitious changes in marijuana law in nearly a century.
Muscle behind initiatives
In California, where voters in November will decide whether to legalize possession of limited amounts of marijuana, it is a medical-marijuana businessman who is the campaign’s primary funder and cheerleader. The same is true in Oregon, where voters are being asked to authorize nonprofit dispensaries.
Unions, NAACP chapters and a growing number of politicians — who see new political and economic advantages to marijuana — have flocked to pot. Political donors — such as financier George Soros and insurance honcho Peter Lewis — have dumped millions into the cause. Some Democrats have begun openly discussing how marijuana campaign issues can help their party’s candidates at the polls.
"Medical marijuana normalized the issue of marijuana for many politicians and much of the public," said Kris Hermes, a spokesman for the group Americans for Safe Access.
"It presents a different face of marijuana users," said Mike Meno, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, another marijuana lobbying group. "That’s why it’s going to be more and more likely, perhaps in 2012, that you’re going to see two, three or four states with tax-and-regulate initiatives on the ballot."
A Colorado group — the Cannabis Therapy Institute, itself a product of the state’s medical-marijuana boom — has already started what is being called the Legalize 2012 Project and put up a website where supporters can make donations toward a promised statewide legalization ballot initiative.
That all of this sprang from a local campaign intended as a eulogy to West does not actually surprise Peron. An uncompromisingly big thinker, Peron said his ultimate goal was to "free America from oppressive laws" and whatever the pretext was for marijuana liberalization didn’t matter. Peron said he thinks all marijuana use is medicinal, and he sees the fight to end marijuana prohibition as a civil-rights issue.
"Potheads," he said one recent afternoon from his sun-splashed apartment in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, "they’re my people. I never had people. They’re my people. And they’re being taken advantage of, ripped off."
After his success with San Francisco’s medical-marijuana initiative, Peron worked to take the campaign statewide and began collecting signatures for what became California’s Proposition 215. He quickly found himself the object of nationwide attention.
"I gave people hope that things could change," he said. "I was coming from the heart, and I believed it."
Hope was desperately thin among marijuana activists in the mid-1990s after years of "Just say no" and "I didn’t inhale," said Allen St. Pierre, now the director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. When a handful of the nation’s most prominent drug-policy-reform activists and funders began a series of invite-only meetings in 1995, St. Pierre said, the discussion was about just getting a win, any win.
Medical marijuana, which had higher approval in polls than marijuana legalization, was seen as a new approach, he said. The group latched on to Proposition 215.
"It was a volunteer effort and going nowhere," said Ethan Nadelmann, a former Princeton professor who organized the 1995 meetings and who is now the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Soon George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager and rainmaker for progressive political causes, wrote a check to Peron’s campaign to help gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot.
By the time the campaign concluded — with a 10-percentage-point victory at the polls in November 1996 — Soros had written checks for $500,000, according to numerous published reports. Peter Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Insurance, and John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix, also cut six-figure checks. George Zimmer, of Men’s Wearhouse fame, made sizeable contributions as well.
Medical-pot successes spread
Nadelmann said each of the funders’ motivations differed. Lewis and Zimmer were keen on marijuana reform. Sperling was concerned about incarceration rates, he said. And Soros was interested in effective drug policy and dying with dignity, Nadelmann said.
"Among major donors, some, like Soros, were not interested in broader marijuana legalization," he said.
Peron said he knew some of the donors through marijuana-reform groups and said he didn’t doubt their sincerity in helping the sick find relief. But he said he also began to feel squeezed out by their involvement in the campaign.
"All these people started to give me money," Peron recalled. "And it was great, I was glad for it. But in the end, they started taking credit for it."
After the success of Proposition 215, the initiative’s funders looked to take medical marijuana nationwide and continue their winning streak, without Peron. A new organization called Americans for Medical Rights backed winning medical-marijuana campaigns in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Nevada and Colorado, often providing the large majority of funding for those campaigns.
In Colorado, for instance, Americans for Medical Rights contributed all but $250 of the $242,450 the group Coloradans for Medical Rights raised in promoting the state’s medical-marijuana ballot initiative, according to state records. Opponents of the measure, by contrast, raised $147,231, most of that from small donors. The measure passed with 54 percent of the vote in 2000.
Americans for Medical Rights’ political campaigns primarily occurred in states where marijuana-use rates were already highest. Of the 10 states with the highest average annual ranking for marijuana use since 1998, only New Hampshire and Massachusetts don’t allow medical marijuana, according to federal data. Only one state with a medical-marijuana program, New Jersey, falls in the bottom half of that category. Colorado has the fourth-highest average annual ranking. Nadelmann said the campaign didn’t deliberately target high-use states but rather looked for places with a ballot-initiative process where medical-marijuana polled well and there were activists in place who could help.
"The key was to draft something that had local buy-in," he said.
Though the advocacy groups didn’t consider it at the time, St. Pierre said, the campaigns were also sowing the seeds for the next generation of marijuana activism, one that may just render the traditional pot lobby irrelevant.
"No one at that time envisioned that there would be a medical-marijuana industry that would start," St. Pierre said.
But as the medical-marijuana businesses the campaigns enabled took root and flourished, they accumulated two things crucial in politics: money and friends.
Business owners earned money to spend on activism, which in turn protected their businesses. Dispensaries and medical-marijuana schools provided natural spots for organizational meetings. And medical-marijuana patients became an easily tapped source of campaign door- knockers and phone-bankers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than Oaksterdam, the marijuana-fueled empire that longtime cannabis activist Richard Lee has created in a handful of shops and buildings in downtown Oakland, Calif. At Oaksterdam University, students learn the tools of the medical-marijuana trade. At Coffeeshop Blue Sky, medical-marijuana patients purchase lattes at the counter up front and baggies of Green Kush marijuana at the counter in back. And at the Oaksterdam Gift Shop, the ganja-tourist can pick up a sweat shirt to commemorate the day.
Taking steps to legalization
But these days, the real activity is in a sunny storefront filled with folding tables and telephone lines. It is here where Lee is waging his campaign to pass Proposition 19, perhaps the most prominent marijuana-legalization initiative in the nation’s history — because it is one of the only ones to actually have a chance of passing.
Proposition 19 would allow people older than 21 to possess an ounce of marijuana or grow as many cannabis plants as they can in a 25-square-foot space. It would also allow cities to develop more ambitious plans for large-scale marijuana sales and cultivation.
When Lee began pitching the idea to the established marijuana lobby two years ago, he was met with a sniff. Too soon, they told him. Wait until 2012, a presidential election with a predictable higher turnout. The usual funders largely sat on their wallets.
Undaunted, Lee has spent nearly $1.5 million in direct and in-kind contributions to fund the campaign himself, according to California secretary of state’s office records.
"The war is now, here," Lee said, in explaining his urgency. "It’s happening."
"He isn’t wedded to these same institutions as we are," NORML’s St. Pierre said.
"They have enough money at this point that they can fund their own liberation."
Polls show the measure with a slim lead, and its relative success has caused the established marijuana lobby to do an about-face.
"Richard Lee was prescient in many ways in reading the 2010 election cycle in being a unique opportunity to address the failures of marijuana prohibition in the depths of this state’s fiscal crisis," said Stephen Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance, a successor of Americans for Medical Rights.
In other words, Lee, by arguing about the amount of tax money legal pot could generate for recession-strapped governments, found a new way to sell marijuana politics. What’s more, without the support of the usual marijuana groups, Lee went out and sold the idea to an entirely new set of supporters in a way that has aligned marijuana with mainstream political interests like never before.
"We’re seeing a lot of people supporting us who didn’t in the past — because of the Great Recession," Lee said. "It’s freaky almost."
Take, for instance, the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Months ago, union representative Dan Rush began talking to his bosses in California about supporting Lee’s campaign. At first, Rush said, they laughed. But gradually they warmed to his argument that legal marijuana presented an opportunity for the union.
"Jobs," Rush said in summing up the union’s interest in the initiative. "It’s taking the underground plantation economy . . . and turning it into sustainable, single-earner union jobs."
Unusual political allies
Rush has also been crucial, Lee said, in turning other unions into supporters, a list that now includes California branches of the Service Employees International Union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Communication Workers of America. Lee has reciprocated the interest by turning Oaksterdam into an entirely union shop.
"The unions have political muscle," Lee said. "So to have them as allies is one more step in ending cannabis prohibition."
Proposition 19 has drawn support from other political quarters. (The measure’s primary opponents have been law enforcement groups, social- values organizations and the alcohol industry.) A smattering of religious leaders, former law enforcement officials and doctors have endorsed the initiative.
So, too, has the California chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In a commentary posted on The Huffington Post, California NAACP president Alice Huffman wrote that ending marijuana prohibition is a civil-rights issue.
"This is a war that disproportionately affects young men and women and the latest tool for imposing Jim Crow justice on poor African-Americans," she wrote.
Lee said the campaign is counting on the energy of nontraditional voters to help at the polls.
The campaign has largely eschewed traditional rallies in favor of rigorous online outreach and small, grassroots events. But, during a late-summer visit, it was clear the campaign still had work to do to generate enthusiasm about the initiative.
In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, home to likely the highest concentration of glass stores and smoke shops in the country, shopkeepers said they had heard little discussion about the initiative and seen no campaigning.
"They must be confident it’s going to pass," one reasoned.
Sitting outside the P-Kok clothing store, 23-year-old Caroline Lepman said she had mixed feelings about the initiative. She supports legalization, she said. But, in a way, that’s what already exists.
"California seems to be doing a pretty good job with its current legislation," she said.
On a summer day at the Berkeley Farmers Market — as friendly a turf for marijuana politics as exists in America — voters seemed mostly indifferent. Many walked by the Proposition 19 table without so much as a glance, giving it the same amount of attention they did to tables promoting rainwater recycling, urban gardening and a campaign to end "corporate personhood." The distraction of a nearby bongo drum-guitar-recorder trio playing "Twist and Shout" also hindered the modest voter-outreach efforts.
Most voters seemed aware of the initiative and generally supportive.
But one woman — she gave her name only as Deborah, for self-evident reasons — said she worried the initiative would cut into a crucial side business for her, that is, growing dope. Legalization could lower marijuana prices, she said, making it less profitable for small-time growers like herself.
"Everyone I know either grows or smokes, and we like it the way it is," she said. "We don’t want anybody to take it from us. . . . And I wouldn’t feel any safer at night. It wouldn’t do anything for me. I hate to be selfish, but I have to speak for the grower."
In a state that has more marijuana users than any other state in the country, this is, surprisingly, a common argument. And it’s one that typically elicits a patient smile and a sigh from Lee. Nowhere is this concern more prevalent than in the woods of northern California, where generations have made a decent living as pot farmers, and folks are now worried that legalization could bring about the loss of not just income but their lifestyle as well.
Future still uncertain
Speaking before a roomful of marijuana growers this summer in Ukiah, Calif., Lee attempted to make his typical pitch.
It would keep thousands of small-time offenders out of jail. It would save the state money and bring in new revenue.
But then he turned blunt.
"I didn’t get into this to keep the price high," he said. "I’m sorry. In my view, getting the price down is a way to reduce the violence."
The expressions on the growers’ faces sagged. Lee kept smiling.
Whether Lee’s coalition will hold together until Election Day is, like many things on the frontier of marijuana politics, uncertain. At a recent cannabis convention in San Francisco, some in the crowd heckled Lee, and a Sacramento dispensary just formed a political committee to oppose the initiative.
But regardless of the outcome, Lee sees his campaign — feuds and all — as a positive step forward.
"Whenever I get down that there is infighting," he said, "I think about how it’s a good thing we’re big enough to have infighting."
Meanwhile, across the bay in San Francisco, Dennis Peron is less optimistic. The man who started medical-marijuana politics has now seen two generations of activists stand on his shoulders and promise more. The weight — and wait — is getting to him.
Talk of regulating marijuana, he bemoaned, is another form of criminalizing it. Taxing it, he fumed, is just a bribe to government to keep from getting busted.
What happens to the movement, he asks, if this thing loses?
"People are going to lose hope who just found it," he said. "The nation is going to think California abandoned them."
John Ingold: 303-954-1068 or firstname.lastname@example.org