DRIVING IN HIS FADED RED VAN from the San Francisco commune where he lives to his downtown office, Dennis Peron is stopped at a light when a burly man in a pickup gets out of his truck and approaches. But this isn't trouble, it's gratitude. "Thank you for all you have done," says the man, squeezing Peron's hand.

What Peron has done lately is launch California Proposition 215, an initiative on the November state ballot to allow marijuana for medical use. Not that he hasn't found other uses for it himself. An unapologetic pothead, Peron has, for 20 of his 50 years, led efforts to legalize the stuff; and in 1977 he gathered signatures for a citywide initiative calling on San Francisco officials not to enforce marijuana laws. The measure not only got on the ballot, it passed.

But it was in the 1980s, when his lover, artist Jonathan West, developed AIDS, that Peron says he realized the drug's medical value. When West smoked marijuana, his appetite improved and his pain was diminished. As a tribute to West, who died in 1990 at 29, Peron fought to legalize the drug for patients in need of it. "Any other drug that eased nausea, increased appetite and reduced pain," he says, "would be prescribed everywhere."

That's in some dispute among medical authorities. Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Lester Grinspoon calls marijuana a "wonder drug," for everything from glaucoma to migraines. But Dr. Eric Voth, chairman of Kansas City's International Drug Strategy Institute, a group that discourages drug use, says marijuana's toxicity outweighs its benefits. Prescribing it is as reckless as handing out cigarettes "for weight loss and anxiety control," he adds. Nevertheless, Proposition 215 seems likely to pass, with a recent poll showing Californians favoring it 2 to 1.

As usual, Peron, who has been arrested 15 times on marijuana charges, is leading the way. In 1991, voters supported his citywide initiative allowing marijuana to be sold for medical purposes. Emboldened, he started the Cannabis Buyers' Club in San Francisco to distribute marijuana to AIDS, cancer and other patients. With only a doctor's note, the club's 12,000 members could buy pot, then relax while listening to music or gazing at psychedelic art on the walls. (Drug counseling was also offered, since Peron opposes the use of hard drugs.) Though selling marijuana is a federal offense, city officials turned a blind eye. But closing the club became a matter of principle to police Capt. Gregory Corrales, and state officials were contacted in May. "People were calling me and saying, 'Gee, can you give me the address?' " he says.

So, on Aug. 4, California Bureau of Narcotics agents wielding machine guns burst into the five-story building, confiscating 150 pounds of marijuana and $60,000 in cash. No one was arrested, but state officials obtained a restraining order to keep the club closed. "It was a major illegal drug distribution," says California Attorney General Dan Lungren, who opposes Proposition 215. Berkeley psychiatrist Dr. Tod Mikuriya, the club's medical adviser, concedes that although the club "did a very good job of getting the drug to people who wanted it, they were sloppy about who they let in." There were also suggestions of financial irregularities, which Peron denies. His backers say the club simply grew too large—taking in $250,000 a week—for Peron's casual management style.

Back in 1964, Peron had been disappointed when a high school buddy in Floral Park, N.Y., handed him his first joint. "I didn't even get high," says Peron, the second of five sons of an accountant and a homemaker. But stationed with the Air Force in Vietnam, he was assigned to retrieve bodies of U.S. soldiers killed during the 1968 Tet offensive—a task that took three harrowing days—and found comfort in the drug. Vietnam, he says, "turned me into a pothead."

Attracted to the San Francisco hippie scene after his 1969 discharge, Peron lived in a commune known as "the marijuana supermarket," and in 1975 he opened a popular vegetarian restaurant. Active in gay causes, he settled down with West in 1983. When West died, Peron, who is HIV-negative, says, "I felt so alone. I didn't know if I wanted to live." Describing himself now as a "Catholic Buddhist," he lives a spartan life, renting a seven-bedroom house that he shares with a constantly changing group of 10 men.

Since the raid on the Buyers' Club, other backers of Proposition 215 have distanced themselves from Peron, but members hope the club will reopen. Gary Johnson, 39, who has been HIV-positive for 16 years, has lost 12 pounds because of nausea since the club closed. "I don't like drugs," he says. "I don't even drink alcohol. For me, it's a matter of survival."

CURTIS RIST
LAIRD HARRISON in San Francisco

  • Contributors:
  • Laird Harrison.