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The history of the first pharmacy in San Francisco (and the US)

America’s first cannabis dispensary was established here in SF in 1994, when Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron started the marijuana movement.

It is the dawn of a new era for San Francisco pharmacies, as our cannabis stores become retail boutiques selling recreational cannabis to anyone 21 and older. Megabucks have been invested in venture capital, expensive storefronts have been transformed into trendy marijuana bazaars and fortunes will be made overnight.

These newly minted millionaires may not realize how much gratitude they owe to the… San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, founded in 1994. The first public marijuana dispensary in the US, the club was an outlaw collective whose activist founders lived under the constant threat of law enforcement raids, knew full well they would face jail time, and caught bullets from police shootings.

“I still have the lead in me”, co-founder of the club Dennis Peron tells SF Evergreen. Peron refers to a raid where the shooting officer later admitted – in the courthouse, during Peron’s trial – that he wished he had killed Peron so that there would be “one less faggot in San Francisco”.

This is the environment in which the medical marijuana movement was born. The move would eventually help pass California’s 1996 milestone support 215, the first legalization of medical marijuana for a US state. But even after that law was passed, dispensaries (then known as “marijuana collectives”) remained illegal in San Francisco for nearly 10 years afterward, and the FBI was eager to loot and arrest them.

This fact was all too well known to the founders of the SF Cannabis Buyers Club – Peron, his Prop campaign advisor. 215 John Entwistle, California NORML state director Dale Geiringer, and a few other patients and advocates – most notably a local cult hero named brownie mary, who was arrested in 1992 for possession of nearly three pounds of brownie baking pan.

Boy, did they bust the wrong lady. “Brownie Mary” Rathbun’s grandmotherly personality and ruthless charitable giving made her impossible for law enforcement to go rogue and catapulted her to media darling status. Rathbun, known for handing out brownies to patients in the SF General Hospital AIDS Ward, became the face of the medical marijuana movement, appearing regularly on then-popular daytime programs such as Maury Povich and Sally Jessy Raphael.

It was 1993. Drug trafficking generally required a ‘beeper’, California governors were reliably Republican, and the term ‘full AIDS’ was still a tragic part of our everyday language.

The SF Cannabis Buyers Club was similar to what was depicted in the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, but modeled after the local AIDS Drugs Buyers Club who formed in the Castro to distribute early-stage experimental therapies such as AZT and DDI. Marijuana was not intended to “cure” a person’s HIV, but instead to take away the nausea and pain that the harsh side effects of the early drugs caused.

Peron was already a local celebrity drug dealer whose home in the hippie commune of Castro was a casual pot shop known as the Big Top Pot supermarket. He genuinely enjoyed his very public feuds with law enforcement, and he was arrested many, many times.

“Every time I remember, the number goes up,” he jokes SF Evergreen.

Peron and Brownie Mary were still working on the lyrics of what Prop. 215, but they were overwhelmed with house calls to languishing patients.

“We had to get these people off the black market, and waiting until next year to gamble on legislation just wouldn’t be fast enough,” Peron wrote in a statement. Memoirs of Dennis Peron: How a Gay, Hippie Outlaw Legalized Marijuana in Response to the AIDS Crisis. “We knew we were going to go to jail for this, so we thought we’d better do it right.”

Their first public sale of marijuana was a fully staged TV appearance in Peron’s basement. The signage actually referred to the place as “Brownie Mary’s Cannabis Cafe.” They sold weed for just one night as a TV news publicity stunt designed to get the gang arrested.

The gang was not arrested. Instead, TV stations broadcasting the segment were besieged with thousands of HIV-positive callers flooding their phone lines, begging for the whereabouts of this “secret Castro location.”

Peron and the company felt they had no choice but to open a legitimate public location, which was initially nothing more than a one-bedroom apartment on Ford and Sanchez streets. The budtender operated out of a closet while buyers hung out in the kitchen and living room. And yes, they originally called the person a “budtender.”

The club would move to a legitimate commercial storefront next to a Church and Market bar then called The Transfer. In 1995 – on the day that Prop. 215 was filed – the club moved to 1444 Market Street, with membership growing to nearly 8,000 people.

Prop. 215 had promising prospects as the 1996 elections approached, with billionaire donors including: George Soros and founder of Men’s Wearhouse Bill Zimmer fund the campaign. (You may remember Zimmer’s “I guarantee you” TV commercials.) But the measure’s chances were jeopardized when the then Attorney General Dan Lungren raided the club and arrested everyone several months before Election Day.

Lungren’s raid has the Prop. 215 campaign not deterred. California voters approved the medical marijuana measure by a margin of 56-44, a historic victory that created the first legal framework in the US

That framework was not the same medical cannabis system we have today. There were initially no official “medical marijuana ID cards,” just letters from doctors. And Lungren continued his campaign of raiding dispensaries, hoping to raise his profile so he could run for governor in 1998 (which he did, losing to Gray Davis).

Pharmacies and collectives were still against the law, although many cities like San Francisco chose not to sue them. Pot stores only became legal after the California legislature passed the aptly named Senate Act 420 in 2003, and not in San Francisco until the Board of Supervisors passed their own zoning permitting pharmacies in 2004.

There are now a total of 44 dispensaries and marijuana delivery services in San Francisco, and their future looks incredibly bright as we enter the recreational marijuana era. But we might never have had dispensaries, or even any form of legal marijuana, had it not been for the efforts, struggles, and imprisonment of the founders of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.

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