Steve DeAngelo: The Angel Of Cannabis
We met with the most important figure of the cannabis reform movement; this is the man who pushed the boundaries of law to permit the use of medicinal cannabis in the U.S. He is the founder and CEO of Harborside Health Center, a medical cannabis dispensary with branches in Oakland and San Jose. When he entered the room at the ArcView conference held in Los Angeles, it was with his TV crew and entourage. This man is highly charismatic, knowledgeable, and dedicated to seeking justice for those who have been severely punished for their cannabis use. He recently published a new book, The Cannabis Manifesto, in which he shares his passion.
What are some of the benefits of cannabis use?
It’s an incredible plant. It can provide food, fuel, fibre, medicine, and a spiritual connection—all from one plant. Anything that we make out of petroleum, cotton, and timber, can instead be made out of cannabis. Thousands of different consumer products can be made out of cannabis; that is the industrial hemp side of it. On the medicinal side, cannabis is probably the single most important source of medicine on planet earth. It’s effective for a wide range of illnesses and grave illnesses like cancer Alzheimer, epilepsy, and chronic conditions like anxiety, depression, and insomnia. It’s also effective for what I call “overlooked wellness benefits”: things like extending your sense of patience, waking up your creativity, making you more playful, enhancing the sounds of music or the taste of food or the touch of your lover, opening you to a fuller spiritual experience, or putting you more closely in touch with nature. All of these things are very important to human experience, and cannabis enhances them. It’s really a remarkable substance because it can heal you when you are out of balance and, when you are in balance, it can enhance what's going on in your life.
It has been proven that cannabis can enhance creativity. What role does cannabis play in the art that surrounds us today?
You can go back to the earliest document in human history and find an artist using cannabis, because it’s such a great springboard for creativity. Through the ages, poets, musicians, storytellers, actors, painters, and designers have always enjoyed cannabis. Take a look at one of the most important artistic movements in American history: Jazz. The jazz movement was closely associated with cannabis. If you take a look at rock music, same story; if you take a look at hip hop, same story. So you start taking a look at some of the most artistic creative trends and you see that there is a close association, and it’s not only in the modern era. There is a very interesting era around the turn of the last century until the mid 20s in Greece when there was a whole hash-smoking scene. People would hang out in cafes and play a kind of music call “rebetiko.” Rebetiko was very much like cannabis music—similar to the way that reggae or jazz is cannabis music. Even Shakespeare is reported to have been a cannabis consumer.
Why do you think the authorities are fighting the plant so hard?
You could go back in history for thousands of years and find that the powerful elite—whether they are the economic elite, religious elite, or cultural elite—have always feared cannabis. It’s never been about the plant itself or what the plant does; it’s been about the kind of people who use it. Who uses cannabis? Artists, seekers, poets, writers, people who question what's going on, people who have new perspectives, people who have new ideas, people who were poor! Cannabis can give you a lot very easily. You can plant it almost anywhere and it will give you a house, will give you clothing, will give you food. So, it’s always been a plant that was favoured by marginalized people, people who didn’t have that much money, people who had new and different kinds of idea, seekers of different types. It’s that association with these kinds of people that has always made cannabis the enemy of power, the enemy of the elite.
What is the worldwide opinion of cannabis?
The cannabis reform movement is global; it’s happening everywhere around the world. I have received tweets from people who were on a small little island in the middle of the Pacific, in China, in Japan, from Iceland, from every part of the world that you can imagine. The reform movement is a global phenomenon. In a large part of Europe, personal possession of cannabis is not quite legal, but it’s not terribly harshly punished either. When you get to the Middle East, you see some of the harshest punishment in the world including the death penalty. Other parts of Asia, like Malaysia, also use the death penalty, and China, too. The United States has “on the books” a death penalty for cannabis. I qualify for the death penalty, many, many times over, because if you grow or sell more than sixty thousand cannabis plants, you’re eligible for the death penalty under federal law. I sell about two thousand cannabis plants everyday, and I have for the last nine years; they will have to execute me many times over to get even.
What inspires you?
Mostly, it is what I call the smartest generation, your generation, the generation of people that grew up with computers. Your generation has this unparalleled ability to seek out new information, to synthesize that information into new concepts, and then to share that information with each other and act on this new concept to get things done. One of the main reasons that the cannabis reform is moving as rapidly at it is now, is because the smartest generation is getting involved in the movement. That is really what inspired me. Knowing that behind us is a generation probably a lot more capable than we are of taking on the world’s problems.
What does a day in the life of Steve DeAngelo look like?
It looks like a lot of different things. You might see me going up to Sacramento to the Californian legislator and meeting with lawmakers, talking about new regulations, discussing how to improve old legislation. You might see me going to a sales meeting at Harborside and talking to my manager and hearing reports from them on what's going on in the business and me giving them a certain amount of guidance. You might see me in meetings with the parents of children who are severely ill and talking to them about ways we can get more help for their children. I might be in an airplane going to a conference, like the ArcView conference or a marijuana conference. I wear a lot of different hats. I’m an activist; I’m a business owner; I’m a public figure; I have been on TV shows...
You are the face and the force that made this industry possible. What has been your most fulfilling achievement?
Well, we haven’t gotten there yet. I like to say that my job won’t be done until the last cannabis prisoner is set free and that really is the way I feel about this. There have been so many incredibly fulfilling moments. One of the most recent was when we won a court ruling against the federal government that allows Harborside to remain open. The federal prosecutors were certain that they would be able to close us down and almost everybody else thought that was going to happen, too. We prevailed against them and won; that was a really fabulous moment. The passage of the first legal adult use law in Colorado and Washington State was also an incredible moment. I have been working my whole life to see laws like that pass. The recent passage of statewide regulation by California was also amazing. To go back to my earlier comment, I think what’s most fulfilling is knowing that my words are heard and appreciated by young people. As long as my message still resonates with people who are coming along behind me, then I feel like I have value in the world and meaning in my purpose.
You are a really stylish man. Would you say that a great style has helped you?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., and my father worked in the federal government. I had the opportunity to be around a lot of political functions and politicians, and I will always read the Washington Post. One of the things that I learned in my political education is that certain politicians have distinctive looks; they have an image that makes them very memorable. We had a very colourful congresswoman from New York. Her name was Bella Abzug, and Bella Abzug would always wear these fabulous hats. She was immediately recognizable at every event. If you couldn’t see Bella, you would see her hat and know that it was Bella. So, Bella was one inspiration. Another inspiration for my look is a guy name Quanah Parker. He was a Native American, son of an Indian chief and a white woman. The natives had captured the woman, but she decided that she wanted to stay with them. So, she stayed with them and had children with this Indian Chief. One of those children was Quanah Parker. He was the very last chief of the Comanche Native American tribe, which was the last Indian tribe to stop fighting. He fought very fiercely but when the time came to recognize that it was time to end the war, he came off the warpath, took off his feather, took off his robe and put on a suit and tie. He put on a hat but he never cut his braids. He always had his braids. This image of a really dignified Native American man in a hat, suit, tie, and braids is something that I have always carried around with me.
Who do you admire?
One of the people I admire most is a man whose name is Jack Herer. He is not with us anymore, but he wrote a book called The Emperor Wears No Clothes. It was the first book to reveal to my generation the truth about cannabis: that it was a medicine and an industrial raw material. Jack was also a really passionate activist. I had the opportunity to travel around the country with him and help spread the word about the book. I was pretty inspired by Jack’s example while writing The Cannabis Manifesto. A guy named Tom Forcade, the founder of High Times magazine and a member of the Yippie organization that I was a part of, also inspired me. The remarkable thing about Tom is that in addition to being the publisher of the magazine, he was also a political activist. What is not commonly known is that he was also one of the biggest cannabis smugglers that the Unites State had ever seen—all while putting out a magazine with this big centrefold with cannabis on it. He was bringing ships into the New York harbour with twenty and thirty tonnes of cannabis from Colombia; that is how he financed High Times. He was a bold, courageous, and completely uncompromising social entrepreneur. He was the first to make me understand how powerful social entrepreneurship could be.
In your opinion, are there any other types of drugs that should be legalized?
What the whole struggle for cannabis taught us is that there are many substances that people use, and the rules for using them change from culture to culture. In some Native American tribes, the peyote cactus and psilocybin mushrooms are considered to be sacramental. In early American culture, the same substances were considered to be poison or agents of the devil. Now that we live in a modern era, we are no longer bound by ignorance and superstition; we actually have information at our disposal. We need to take a second look at the way society has classified a whole range of substances. Do we have alcohol classified properly? Do we have tobacco classified properly? Do we have Psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, and these kinds of substances classified properly? That is a whole conversation that we need to start having in a more intelligent way.
The Cannabis Manifesto can be bought online on Amazon. We will follow up on the evolution of this industry at dtkmen.com.