'Speakeasy' campaigners push case for marijuana

Cannabis for medical use: Aids and cancer sufferers find solace in smoke-filled rooms
It is two minutes to one in the afternoon and "last orders" is called at the Island Bar. A handful of punters stir lazily from the armchairs and sofas that line the walls to make a last purchase. Only Mexican varieties are sold on this floor; for the more expensive Californian labels there is another bar upstairs. We are not talking booze here, but the green leaf - marijuana.

This is the Cannabis Buyers' Club on Market Street in San Francisco. An anonymous-looking four-storey office building from the outside, within it is a modern version of a Prohibition era speakeasy. The air is heavy with marijuana smoke and the rhythms of Annie Lennox. This lunchtime the trade is hectic at both bars, which, as well as cannabis by the 2.5-gram bag, also sell pot-laced pastries, water pipes and other drug-taking paraphernalia.

"What we are doing is totally, absolutely illegal," confesses the club's director and founder, Dennis Peron, an impish grin breaking out from under his white hair. But this is by no means a frivolous venture, pursued just for the fun of breaking the law. On the contrary, Mr Peron wants to change the law. This is a club reserved for customers with serious, mostly chronic diseases, in particular Aids and cancer, and it is at the forefront of a growing nationwide campaign to legalise cannabis for medical use. No one gets the necessary membership without a written diagnosis from their doctor.

Nor is this an ordinary day at the club, one of about 26 now operating across America. When one o'clock comes, Mr Peron leads 100 of his members on a march down Market Street to United Nations Plaza to publicise the latest phase of his campaign: a drive to collect enough signatures to put a popular petition to California's voters next November, asking them to let doctors prescribe marijuana to the gravely ill. The police have shown up in strength, but, this being San Francisco and an oasis of liberal politics in America, they actually help the marchers. Passing cars honk with approval.

It was after the death of his former lover from Aids that Mr Peron founded the club in 1991, the first of its kind. He has seen its membership explode to more than 7,000 today. As much as a dispensing chemist for the cannabis, it is also a place for social contact and mutual support. "I'm so proud and so happy these people aren't alone any more," says Mr Peron.

Curtis, for example, who is 34 and has had HIV for nine years, comes to the club about twice a week, in part to linger for a couple of hours and meet friends. More importantly, he is certain marijuana has helped his body cope with the virus. He says that it helps him sleep, restores his appetite and suppresses the nausea that is brought on by the anti- Aids drug, AZT. A fresh joint in his hand, he explains: "If I didn't take pot, it would just be an endless cycle of getting up in the morning and not being able to eat anything and then not taking the AZT because it makes me feel so bad." Several others at the bar offer similar testimonies. "If it wasn't for the club, I would be dead by now," says Peter Dekon, who has a brain tumour. "I'm certain of it."

On the legal front Mr Peron's experience has been more frustrating. The federal government continues to resist revising its designation of cannabis as a category one drug, too dangerous even for doctors to prescribe on however a limited basis. Cocaine and morphine, by contrast, are category two drugs. The California Assembly finally this year did pass a law offering a limited legalisation of the drug for medical use, only to see it instantly vetoed by Governor Pete Wilson.

Even so, the notion of allowing marijuana use for therapeutic purposes only is increasingly being debated nationwide. Federal officials insist that there is no scientific evidence proving the benefits of marijuana as a treatment. But last summer the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article advocating limited legalisation co-authored by Lester Grinspoon, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard. "The ostensible indifference of physicians should no longer be used as a justification for keeping this medicine in the shadows," the article argued.

Back at the club, Dennis Peron remains convinced that he will one day be vindicated. With the California petition, he may be making an important start. In a non-binding vote four years ago, Californians voted 80 per cent in favour of limited legalisation. If he can get the necessary 600,000 signatures to qualify for a place on the ballot, his latest initiative could become law. "This is just now beginning to achieve a critical mass," he says, passing a joint around.