The History of the First Dispensary in San Francisco (and the U.S.)

America’s first cannabis dispensary was founded right here in S.F. in 1994, when Brownie Mary and Dennis Peron fired up the marijuana movement.

It’s the dawn of a new era for San Francisco dispensaries, as our pot shops become retail boutiques selling recreational cannabis to anyone age 21 and over. Venture-capital megabucks have been invested, high-rent storefronts have been transformed into trendy marijuana bazaars, and fortunes will be made overnight.

These newly minted millionaires might not realize know the debt of gratitude they owe to the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, founded in 1994. The first public marijuana dispensary in the U.S., the club was an outlaw collective whose activist founders lived under the constant threat of law enforcement raids, knew full well they would do jail time, and took bullets from police shootings.   

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

This is the environment in which the medical marijuana movement was born. The movement would eventually help pass California’s landmark 1996 Prop. 215, the first legalization of medical marijuana for any U.S. state. But even after that law passed, dispensaries (then known as “marijuana collectives”) still remained illegal in San Francisco for almost 10 years afterward, and the feds were eager to raid and bust them.

This fact was all too familiar to the S.F. Cannabis Buyers Club founders — Peron, his Prop. 215 campaign advisor 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’d been arrested in 1992 for possessing nearly three pounds of brownie-baking pot.

Boy, did they bust the wrong lady. “Brownie Mary” Rathbun’s grandmotherly persona and relentless acts of charity made her impossible for law enforcement to villainize and catapulted her to media-darling status. Rathbun, known for handing out brownies to patients at the S.F. General Hospital AIDS Ward, became the face of the medical marijuana movement with regular appearance on then-popular daytime TV shows like Maury Povich and Sally Jessy Raphael.

The year was 1993. Drug-dealing generally required a “beeper,” California governors were reliably Republican, and the term “full-blown AIDS” was still a tragic part of our everyday vernacular.

The S.F. 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 that formed in the Castro to distribute early-stage experimental therapies like AZT and DDI. Marijuana was not intended to “cure” anyone’s HIV, but instead to take the edge off the nausea and pain those early drugs’ harsh side effects caused.

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

“The number goes up every time I remember,” he jokes to SF Evergreen.

Peron and Brownie Mary were still working on the text of what would become Prop. 215, but they were overwhelmed with making house calls to patients who were wasting away.

“We had to get these people out of the black market, and waiting till next year to gamble on legislation was just not going to be fast enough,” Peron writes in Memoirs of Dennis Peron: How a Gay, Hippy Outlaw Legalized Marijuana in Response to the AIDS Crisis. “We knew we were going to jail for this, so we figured we better do it right.”

Their first public marijuana sales were a completely staged, made-for-TV performance in Peron’s basement. The signage actually called the place “Brownie Mary’s Cannabis Cafe.” They sold pot for only one night as a TV news publicity stunt that was intended to get the gang arrested.

The gang did not get arrested. Instead, TV stations that broadcast 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 company felt they had no choice but to open a legitimate public location, which at first was nothing more than a one-bedroom apartment at Ford and Sanchez streets. The budtender operated from a closet while buyers hung out in the kitchen and living room. And yes, they did originally call the person a “budtender.”

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

Prop. 215 had a promising outlook as the 1996 election approached, with billionaire donors like George Soros and Men’s Wearhouse founder Bill Zimmer funding the campaign. (You may recall Zimmer’s “I guarantee it” TV commercials.) But the measure’s chances were jeopardized when then-Attorney General Dan Lungren raided the club and arrested everyone just months before Election Day.

Lungren’s raid did not deter the Prop. 215 campaign. California voters approved the medical-marijuana measure by a 56-44 margin, a historic victory that created the first legal framework in the U.S.

That framework was not the same medical cannabis system we have today. There were no official “medical marijuana ID cards” at first, only letters from physicians. And Lungren continued his campaign of dispensary raids, in hopes of raising his profile so he could run for governor in 1998 (which he did, losing to Gray Davis).

Dispensaries and collectives were still against the law, though many cities like San Francisco chose to not prosecute them. Pot shops did not become legal until the California legislature passed the appropriately named Senate Bill 420 in 2003, and not in San Francisco until the Board of Supervisors passed their own zoning ordinance allowing dispensaries 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 not have ever had dispensaries, or even any form of legal marijuana, if not for the efforts, struggles, and jail time served by the founders of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club.