The dawn of the movement to legalize weed in the United States is explored in a new documentary film series, which made its world premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Cannabis Buyers Club, the story of pot dealer, cannabis reform leader and queer rights activist Dennis Peron, debuted at the world-renowned film festival on Monday, with a repeat showing planned for tonight.
“Cannabis Buyers Club chronicles the most important unknown LGBTQ+ rights struggle of the 20th century,” reads a synopsis of the film shared by the Tribeca Film Festival. “When a new disease ravages his community and the government doesn’t care, renegade pot dealer Dennis Peron leads a movement to help, heal, and fight back. Peron, a gay Vietnam vet, builds a pot empire in the middle of the war on drugs and fights politicians and police to save his friends. The definitive story of marijuana legalization in America.”
The four-part documentary series was directed by Kip Andersen and Chris O’Connell, who also served as the film’s producer. In the opening episode, the film follows Peron’s introduction to cannabis as a reluctant soldier in Vietnam. Eschewing alcohol as a “war drug,” the pacifist instead turned to pot when it was time for his unit to take R & R.
From Vietnam To The Castro
Not long before his tour in Vietnam ended, Peron traveled to Thailand, where he bought five or six pounds of some of the best cannabis in the world. Then, assigned to the base mail room after returning to his unit, he began sending weed back to the United States hidden in cassette tape cases. After returning to America and taking up residence in San Francisco, Peron’s foray into the underground pot industry continued in earnest.
His involvement in the community and political activism put Peron at the front of the effort to legalize weed in San Francisco, where he counted gay activist and later county supervisor Harvey Milk among his many allies. Selling pot from storefronts in the Castro, Peron’s will to champion cannabis policy reform was galvanized by the AIDS epidemic, which took the lives of his partner and countless others and left his friends and neighbors wasting away. Cannabis stimulated patients’ appetites and helped keep from losing weight, prolonging their lives.
In the early 1990s, Peron founded the Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco, giving patients and their caregivers a safe place to obtain the medicine they needed. In 1996, he co-authored Proposition 215, the landmark ballot measure that legalized the medical use of cannabis in California.
“In order to unpack the stories of Cannabis Buyers Club, you have to know the mood of San Francisco at that time, as well as the events that led to Dennis becoming this controversial guy,” Andersen and O’Connell write in their directors’ statement. “These events could only have happened in San Francisco, which stars in this film alongside Dennis and other colorful characters: Brownie Mary, Tony Sera, Joe Banon, Greg Corrales. It was the perfect political storm where the AIDS crisis crashed into the drug war and a liberal city fought against a conservative state and won. Precedents were set in justice, the repercussions of which are still felt today, with new states legalizing marijuana every year.”
Peron suffered a stroke in 2010, making it difficult for him to speak. His health declining, Peron shared his life story with the filmmakers behind Cannabis Buyers Club in the last interviews before his death in 2018.
“A few months into making this film, Dennis, the controversial protagonist and hero died,” wrote O’Connell and Andersen. “We were with him in his bedroom days before, cameras rolling hearing the story from him. We remember that last interview. He told us how he used to walk right into Dianne Feinstein’s office when she was mayor of San Francisco. He could do that, well, because he kind of ran that city then.”
Cannabis Buyers Club Screening At Tribeca Film Festival
In addition to the June 16 screening of Cannabis Buyers Club, the Tribeca Film Festival is hosting virtual access to the documentary for viewing at home, which began on June 15. The festival started on June 8 and closes on Sunday, June 19.
“This 2022 feature film program leaves us proud and humbled by the boundless ingenuity and passion of our indefatigable filmmaking community,” festival director and vice president of programming Cara Cusumano said in a press release when this year’s selections were revealed in April. “Whether a comedic breath of fresh air or a trenchant expose of the most urgent contemporary issues, this year’s official selections again remind us of the vitality and urgency of independent film in a world that needs it more than ever.”