Fifteen Years After 215

by Fred Gardner, November 16, 2011

Occasionally the iron heel comes down on people who are widely respected and/or have the resources and will to fight back effectively.  “The feds have overreached,” says Steve DeAngelo, who runs Harborside Health Center in Oakland and has been presented by the IRS with a $2.4 million bill for back taxes. He was referring to the DEA raid on Northstone Organics Oct. 13; the threatening letters to growers, dispensaries, and their landlords sent by California’s U.S. Attorneys Oct. 7; the denial of gun permits to registered medical cannabis users ordered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in September; and other “get tough” measures directed against the industry by various federal agencies.

Overreach by law enforcement was a big factor in the passage of Prop 215 back in November, 1996.  The No-on-215 forces, led by Attorney General Dan Lungren, figured they could get their campaign message across cost-effectively by raiding the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club a few months before the election. They wanted to turn the vote into a referendum on Dennis Peron’s right to operate.

On Sunday morning August 4, approximately 100 agents from the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement raided 1444 Market Street. Simultaneously, five smaller BNE squads raided the homes of Buyers Club staff members in and around the city. The raiders wore black uniforms with BNE shoulder patches. They seized 150 pounds of marijuana, $60,000 in cash, 400 growing plants, plus thousands of letters of diagnosis that citizens had brought from their doctors and left on file at the club.

Mayor Willie Brown said the high-profile bust had been carried out unbeknownst to him, and he accused Lungren of “Gestapo tactics.” (The club’s front door had been battered in and the raiders hung black drapes over the windows to conceal what they were doing from civilian observers on Market Street.)  The San Francisco Medical Society protested the confiscation of medical records as a violation of doctor-patient confidentiality.

Dennis considered defying the court order to remain closed. Members kept streaming by in the days after the bust, and expressed their dismay and anxiety as they stood outside the closed front door. Many went across the bay and joined the newly formed Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative. Several Castro District churches began dispensing cannabis. New clubs were launched in the Mission (Flower Power) and at Dennis’s old location at Church and Market (CHAMP —Cannabis Helping Alleviate Medical Problems).

Some of Dennis’s so-called allies in the Yes-on-215 campaign did not want to see him reopen. They argued that ongoing publicity around his operation would jeopardize their chances of success at the polls on November 5. Bill Zimmerman, the Santa Monica p.r. man appointed by Ethan Nadelmann to replace Dennis, went so far as to urge the Northern California ACLU chapter not to file an amicus brief on Dennis’s behalf.  “Every time I debate Brad Gates,” said Zimmerman, referring to the Orange County Sheriff, a No-on-215 leader, “he always begins by saying, ‘This bill was written by a dope dealer from San Francisco,’ and emphasizes the looseness with which the Cannabis Buyers Club was run.”  Zimmerman said he had developed an effective counter: “If Prop 215 were law, we wouldn’t need such clubs.”

It was against his instincts to stay closed but Dennis was exhausted and outnumbered. I dropped in on him at the club one evening in mid-September, shortly after a Superior Court judge in San Francisco had turned down a motion to get the injunction lifted. The place was quiet but not empty. Bob Dole came on TV —the News Hour was replaying his speech at Villanova University on “the drug issue”—and seven or eight club staffers gathered around to watch. “The simple fact is that drug abuse, especially among young people, leads to more criminal activity,” said Dole. “Because you get arrested for smoking marijuana!” said Peron. “Are they going to build prisons from sea to shining sea? 20 million Americans smoke marijuana!”

Bill Clinton came on next, telling a police officers’ convention that he was second to none in his support for the war on drugs.  He cited his appointment of 4-Star General Barry McCaffrey as drug czar — “He kept drugs from South America out of this country,” Clinton claimed, absurdly. Clinton also took credit for a bill that specifies the death penalty for “drug kingpins.”  “Am I a drug kingpin?” asked Dennis.  Clinton went on: “We proposed the largest anti-drug effort in history, and I hope Congress will give us the extra $700 million we asked for...”

Peron was disgusted. “It’s not even about marijuana anymore. It’s about America —where we’re going and who we are, just like the politicians say.”  He had been doodling out campaign ads, but it was all just an exercise because Zimmerman didn’t want his input. “Imagine being called ‘a liability’ to your own movement,” he sighed. I asked why he had come up so short on the original signature drive. “I underestimated the climate of fear,” he said. “People think twice before they sign a petition that involves drugs. It’s like the McCarthy period —people worry if their name will go down on some list, if they’ll lose their job. Where are the liberals who will stand up and say, ‘This has gone too far!’?”

Doonesbury to the Rescue

On September 8, Peron’s lieutenant John Entwistle got a call from a friend who said he’d been at a party with Trudeau (a longtime advocate of reforming the marijuana laws) and that the cartoonist had expressed serious interest when the conversation turned to Proposition 215 and the bust of the Cannabis Buyers Club. Entwistle then spoke to Trudeau on the phone and sent him a packet of news stories describing the bust and the general situation.  On Monday, Sept. 30 the Chronicle, the LA Times, and many other papers in California began running a Doonesbury strip in which Zonker’s friend Cornell says, “I can’t get hold of any pot for our AIDS patients. Our regular sources have been spooked ever since the Cannabis Buyers’ Club in San Francisco got raided...”

Attorney General Lungren feared the impact these strips would have on the Prop 215 campaign. He urged publishers that carried Doonesbury to spike the entire set. “Alternatively,” he suggested in a letter that was widely run as an op-ed piece, “your organization should consider running a disclaimer side-by-side with the strips which states the known facts related to the Cannabis Buyers Club.” According to Lungren, the BNE investigation had established that the club “sold marijuana to teenagers. Sold marijuana to adults without doctors’ notes. Sold marijuana to people with fake doctors’ notes using phony doctors names and in some cases written on scrap paper. Allowed many small children inside the club where they were exposed for lengthy periods of time to second-hand marijuana smoke. Sold marijuana to people whose stated ailments included vaginal yeast infections, insomnia, sore backs and colitis —hardly terminal diseases. Sold marijuana in amounts as large as two pounds, greatly exceeding the club’s ‘rules.’”

Lungren called a press conference for Tuesday, Oct. 1, to reveal some of the evidence his investigators had assembled against Peron and the SF Cannabis Club. Somehow he lost his cool during the question-and-answer session. “Skin flushed and voiced raised, Attorney General Dan Lungren went head-to-head with a comic strip Tuesday...” is how Robert Salladay began his Oakland Tribune story.  Don Asmussen in the SF Examiner lampooned “Lungren’s War on Comics.” The New York Times devoted two full columns to the brouhaha, including a quote from Peron: “Crybaby Lungren... I think he’s just gone off the deep end. Waaa!”

Polls show that a gradual decline in support for Prop 215 ended  Oct. 1.  Lungren had Peron arrested Oct. 5 on criminal charges that included conspiracy to distribute marijuana —one more effort to make the vote a referendum on the proprietor of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.  Trudeau returned to the subject of medical marijuana on Sunday, Oct. 20, followed by a week of strips in which Lacy, the refined Congresswoman, is chatting with an equally classy old friend who reveals that she smoked marijuana (Lacy checks her hearing aid) for relief of nausea brought on by chemotherapy; that she used to get it at the Cannabis Buyers Club; that she was reduced to trying to score in Dolores Park; and that she hopes the passage of Proposition 215 will enable her to grow it.  Lacy wonders if her friend will have room amongst the orchids in her conservatory.

Cut to the Present

There are aspects of the current situation that are reminiscent of ’96. Just as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wasn’t advised of the BNE raid on the SFCBC,  Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman had no foreknowledge of the DEA raid on Northstone Organics, and California Attorney General Kamala was surprised by the Oct. 7 threats made by the U.S. Attorneys.  (Eric Holder’s #2, James Cole, may have hastily organized the Oct. 7 press conference to deflect attention from his boss’s oversight of the “Fast and Furious” operation, in which ATF agents provided hundreds of automatic weapons to Mexican gangsters, hoping they could track them and find los jefes.  But the ATF lost track of the guns, and some wound up being used to shoot and kill U.S. Border Patrol agents.)

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