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Steve DeAngelo, the ‘Father of Legal Cannabis,’ on What’s Next for the Movement

Steve DeAngelo has been doing this for a long time.

The man affectionately known as the “father of the legal cannabis industry,” a distinction given by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, began advocating for legalization all the way back in the 1970s. Little did he know then that the following decade Ronald Reagan would hamstring the movement by demonizing the plant and using it as a pretext to lock up hundreds of thousands of people of color. The tide began to turn in the late 1990s, after medical cannabis was legalized in California. That’s where, in 2006, DeAngelo founded Harborside, a pioneering dispensary, and, a year later, Steep Hill Lab, the nation’s first commercial cannabis testing lab. His latest venture is the Last Prisoner Project, a group committed to releasing every last person incarcerated for cannabis. “We know there’s 40,000 cannabis prisoners in the United States,” he says. “We don’t even know how many of us are locked up all around the world.”

Legalizing cannabis is indeed a global issue for DeAngelo. The week before we spoke he was in Mexico, which is currently in the process of legalizing, and he was quick to point out the significance of some Middle Eastern nations beginning to allow CBD. DeAngelo sees the spirit of the global community of cannabis users as integral to building what he’s often referred to as a “different kind of industry,” one that is centered not around fattening the pockets of privileged white-owned corporations, but around inclusivity and justice. “Around the world today, there are hundreds of millions of people who love this plant,” he says. “We come from every country, we speak every language, we are every race, every economic level, every educational level, and wherever we are we’ve learned the same lessons from this plant and we’ve developed a common value system. There’s tremendous latent power in that community. If we can recognize each other, if we can learn how to talk to each other, and if we can learn how to move as one, we can force these corporations to do our bidding.”

Building a truly equitable industry is going to take more than passing a joint around, though. States are now legalizing cannabis at an unprecedented pace, but there’s still plenty of hard work to be done to ensure the plant is not only legalized, but legalized in a way that provides a seat at the table for those from communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. Rolling Stone recently caught up with DeAngelo over Zoom to discuss the fraught past, exciting present, and still uncertain future of the effort to end prohibition.

Every cannabis-related ballot measure up for a vote last November passed, and this New York, New Mexico, and Virginia have all legalized for recreational use this year. What has it been like for you to see how quickly things have been moving recently, especially over these past six months or so, considering how many decades you’ve been working to end prohibition?
It’s been a very heartening time for the cannabis reform movement; this progress is also being mirrored around the world. I just got back from a two-week trip to Mexico, which is in the process of legalizing cannabis. Because of the way their legal system works, it’s a bit more of a gradual process than it’s been in most American states, but that process is underway and it’s going to create the largest legal cannabis market in the world. In the past couple of months we’ve also seen progress in a number of Islamic countries which have been very slow to come to cannabis reform. We’ve seen Lebanon, we’ve seen Morocco, and most recently we’ve seen Pakistan open up to CBD and to industrial hemp. Then this huge distribution deal was announced where an Australian company is going to be distributing CBD medicines to about 20 different countries, including places like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where there was no cannabis medicine of any type available.

If the Biden administration was a little bit more clear and consistent in its cannabis policy, I think this head of steam would be bigger and more powerful. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has been talking out of both sides of the mouth and not really doing much of anything when it comes to real action. They came to to power with promises of enacting significant cannabis reform. As far as we can tell, the administration has done absolutely zero.

On top of that, there was this really disturbing incident where dozens of young White House staffers were asked to fill out these questionnaires confessing to past cannabis use. They were promised that if they were honest about their past cannabis use, it wouldn’t be held against them. Well, they were, and unfortunately it was. Five of them were removed from their jobs entirely. The rest of them were told that they could keep their jobs but they would never be allowed to come to the White House to work. These are young people who all they wanted to do is serve the Biden administration and work in the White House. I think it was a very discouraging signal sent out to the cannabis industry. If the administration can’t even tolerate people who have different views about cannabis, that’s not a very hopeful sign that they’re going to get behind real reform.

The message to the cannabis freedom movement is to double our efforts. We have to hold the feet of this administration to the fire. The organization that I founded a little bit over a year ago, the Last Prisoner Project, is calling on the Biden administration to grant immediate clemency to every single federal cannabis prisoner. Given that cannabis is now legal either for medical or all purposes in the vast majority of American states, it’s no longer just for people to continue to be held in the federal system. If the Biden administration really cares about cannabis reform and cares about the overwhelmingly disproportionate impact on communities of color, they’ll do something about it instead of just saying things.

Biden firing those staffers who admitted to previous cannabis use was pretty shocking even considering his stance on legalization. Kamala Harris during the campaign talked openly about smoking it when she was in college.
I mean, she’s not just admitting to it, but she’s admitting to it proudly on national TV: Oh, yeah. You know, I was smoking back in college and listening to Snoop. So it’s OK for the vice president, but not OK for the young staffers? I’m pretty tough. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of ugliness in these years of probation. For some reason, this one really cut deep for me. I just really, really feel terribly offended that they that they took that kind of step against those young people. It’s like what, we’re dirty? The cannabis is going to rub off on the furniture? What are you worried about?

The only real way the Biden administration is going to feel pressure to move on this is if lawmakers put legalization legislation on his desk. We saw the MORE Act pass in the House last fall and [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer and other have talked about getting a new bill on the floor soon. What have you made of all of this momentum in Congress?
We now have overwhelming support for cannabis reform in the House of Representatives. It’s taken us a lot of time and a lot of work in order to gain that support. When I first entered this movement, you couldn’t find a politician, or even a candidate, who would sit down and seriously talk to you. I mean, they would turn around and run away from us when we tried to talk to them. So that’s a great deal of progress. Where we’re getting hung up now is in the Senate. Part of that is just the general problem with the Senate. We have a profoundly undemocratic situation where you have states like Wyoming that have two senators and a million people or so, and states like California that have 40 million people and the same two senators. It is not a representative institution. It, in fact, is a check and a block to effective democracy in our country right now. If there was proportional representation in the U.S. Senate, cannabis would be legal already. Hopefully somebody with some vision and political will is going to attack that problem and fix it, because it touches a lot more than just cannabis. Once we have a more democratic Senate — democratic with a small D — I think this problem takes care of itself.

What we’ve seen is that it’s taken a long time for politicians to catch up with the American people, and to understand that their careers are better served by embracing cannabis reform than by opposing it. It’s taken us a while to get there, but we’re there, now, for the most part. You see like in New Mexico, where Governor Grisham endorsed the most progressive and far-reaching of a few different versions of cannabis reform measures that were in front of her, and then extended the legislative session by two days in order to make sure that it got passed. You have, at the state level all the way up to the House of Representatives, politicians who understand that the American people want this change and they’re prepared to make it. It’s only when you get up into places like the White House and the Senate where you’re continuing to see this resistance. We know that cannabis prohibition is going to end, the only question is how many more people, disproportionately black and brown people, are going to suffer until that change happens.

We saw with the MORE Act and now a lot of the legislation that’s being passed at the state level that lawmakers are really trying to bake restorative justice into legalization. Do you feel like enough is being done here? Do you have any concerns about the way some of this legislation is taking shape?
I’m very happy to see the efforts. I think they need to be made. But as somebody who spent most of my life fighting the government, I don’t look to the government for solutions. When the government does try to solve problems, they use very blunt instruments to do it, and frequently they either don’t work very well or have unintended consequences. I think all of that is true with the equity provisions we’ve seen. Nonetheless, they’re important. As imperfect as they are, you don’t make anything better without starting to do it.

I think that it’s critically important that the public demand that the new legal cannabis industry be not just a new industry, but be a new kind of industry. That includes offering real opportunities for ownership to people who for the most part have been denied ownership in the American experiment and in American society. It’s up to the industry to solve this problem, not to the government. Every single cannabis company that is headed up by a white person, that has a white board of directors, that has white investors — there’s an opportunity now to reach out and to mentor and assist both individual entrepreneurs and companies that come out of the communities that have been impacted by this war on cannabis. It’s not something anybody needs to wait for, and every single cannabis company started by privileged people should be engaged in some kind of effort to help make this industry more inclusive and more diverse. We can’t wait for the government to do that or we’ll be waiting forever.

“As somebody who spent most of my life fighting the government, I don’t look to the government for solutions.”

I think the cannabis plant is a teacher plant. I think that it teaches us really important lessons. One of the most important lessons cannabis teaches us is radical inclusivity, that everybody needs to have a place at the table. When you see a circle of cannabis people wherever we are in the world, and we’re passing a joint or a pipe around and somebody strange comes up to the edge of that circle, we don’t huddle together and not let that person in. We open the circle up and we pass them the joint. That’s who we are, and that’s the kind of industry we should build.

The industry providing opportunities for ownership to people from some of these marginalized communities is a nice idea, but just as the government can’t be trusted, neither can the white people running some of these influential cannabis companies. If the government isn’t the answer, how do we ensure the industry doesn’t wind up getting built around a bunch of white-owned corporations trying to make as much money as possible for themselves?
Well, ultimately, it’s the cannabis tribe. It’s the cannabis consumers who are really going to decide what kind of industry we have. We have that power by voting with our dollars, and everybody who consumes cannabis should know where their cannabis is coming from. Before you give your dollars to a dispensary, before you give your dollars to a company, understand how do they operate. How do they treat their employees? How are they growing their cannabis? Are they sustainable? Are they spreading the wealth around? Are their employees diverse? Is their board diverse?

Ultimately, you’re right. We can’t trust corporations and we can’t trust the people who have always held privilege and held power in this country. It’s something the cannabis community needs to demand. It’s a multifaceted thing. We absolutely need the equity provisions in the laws. We also need people within the industry like myself calling on the industry to do the right thing. We need an engaged consumer base who is going to reward companies that do the right thing and punish companies who fail to do the right thing. We need the media to be focusing on this story and explaining to the public why it’s important and the things they can do.

We’re attempting to do something that’s never really been done before, which is to create an industry from scratch that really learns from the lessons of all the industries that have gone before it. It’s this remarkable opportunity because most industries grow organically, they grow in back rooms, and by the time they emerge into the marketplace everything’s said and done. But with cannabis, we pass a law and then it starts, and so the public has this opportunity to weigh in on multiple steps of the process and demand that this industry be different. I think that we’ve made a start at doing that as a community and as an industry, but we’re clearly nowhere close to where to where we need to be. Ultimately, it’s the community. It’s the consumer. It’s the people who need to hold every organization to the fire, whether it’s an industry, whether it’s a business, whether it’s a government, whether it’s an elected official. By being an informed and united cannabis consumer base, we have tremendous power.

There was some news recently about Snoop Dogg partnering up with Charles Koch to form a new cannabis coalition. We’ve also seen people like [former Republican House Speaker] John Boehner, who was once vehemently opposed to legalization, trying to get their foot in the door. How do you feel about these big conservative figures, who in various ways have done a lot of harm to marginalized communities, getting into the industry? 
As with so much of what’s going on today, I have a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s important for us to allow room for our opponents to become our allies. We can’t say that just because someone has been an opponent of cannabis reform that we will ostracize them. I think we always have to leave room for opponents or even enemies to become allies and friends. I also think that’s one of the things the cannabis plant teaches us — forgiveness and gentleness and redemption.

So that’s one strain of my feelings. The other is real resentment. You see people like Boehner who have never lifted a finger to really help the cannabis community making millions and millions of dollars simply by signing their name to a few papers and maybe showing up for a few meetings and interviews. You compare it to what’s happened to all of the people who have been arrested on cannabis charges and locked up, the 40,000 people who are still imprisoned on cannabis charges today, and it makes you angry. It makes you resentful. I’m fine with carrying both of those emotions.

I do think that when I look at it from a policy point of view, in some ways the adoption of cannabis by the political elite and large corporations is the culmination of my life’s work. It’s so much better that these corporations should be working with hemp instead of petroleum, or cannabis medicines instead of pharmaceuticals. Those are all really good things. When I see Levi’s using 30 percent hemp content in their jeans, and I know how much water and how much pesticide use that saves, that’s really, really good thing.

“In some ways the adoption of cannabis by the political elite and large corporations is the culmination of my life’s work.”

What my hope has always been is that as the use of cannabis spreads and the stigma dials down, cannabis is going to cannaba-lize the corporations as much or more than the corporations are going to corporatize cannabis. I believe in this plant and I believe that as more and more people consume this plant, what we believe is important in society and the way that we behave and the way that we conduct our business is going to change. I’m all for spreading cannabis as widely as we can, as quickly as we can, all the way around the world. Corporate cannabis can’t be the only kind of cannabis we have. I think it’s important that we have social associations. I think it’s important we have nonprofit associations. But I think that corporate cannabis is necessary to completing the mission that we’ve set for ourselves of taking this planet around the world and using it to heal our bodies and our societies and our planet.

There’s a ton of momentum behind legalization now, but obviously it hasn’t always been this way. Can you characterize what the fight was like in the early days? What were the biggest hurdles to clear?
I’ve been a cannabis reform activist since 1974, which was when I put on my first demonstration. In the first 10 years or so of my career, we thought cannabis was going to be legalized pretty quickly. We saw about 14 states decriminalize in 1978. President Carter endorsed nationwide decriminalization of cannabis, and we thought this was something that was going to happen. I was preparing to move on to mushrooms in 1980s. But the opposite happened. The Reagan administration came in and reinvigorated the War on Drugs, linked it up to this very systematic racism. Then the Clinton administration came along and basically poured gasoline on that fire.

During all of those years through the 1980s and through 1990s, it was basically impossible to get a politician or even a candidate to meet with you. The best that you could do was getting their staff to meet with you if you set it up as a constituent meeting. As soon as you started talking about cannabis, they would just laugh at you. They would not take you seriously at all and the best you would get out of them was a few jokes. No politicians from any of the major parties were willing to take a position in favor of cannabis reform, so for many years the only candidates we could work with were candidates from the Green Party, or from the Libertarian Party, or from the Peace and Freedom Party, or from one of the other smaller parties. We appreciated that support very much, but there’s a big difference now. It really started to change in 1996 when we realized that the way to get politicians to endorse cannabis reform is to show them that we can win elections. We did that with Prop 215 in California in 1996. Then following that many, many other state initiatives were passed. It was only really with Illinois a couple of years ago where you first saw elected representatives of the people pass cannabis reform measures rather than the people acting directly at the ballot box.

So this has really been a phenomena that we’ve seen picking up a lot of steam in the course of the past couple of years, and the reason is very clear: We keep on winning elections and we lose very few of them. Every single public opinion poll demonstrates over and over again that the winning position is in favor of cannabis reform. Politicians are now catching up with the American people and it almost seems like they’re competing with each other to stake out ever more progressive positions on cannabis reform. So it’s a great time. It’s wonderful to see all of that progress. But we can never forget that the the politicians also have agendas of their own, and even when they’re supportive of cannabis reform, they may be supportive of a different type of cannabis reform than we would like to see. Part of what we’re learning is that how cannabis is legalized is as important as when it is legalized, and so paying attention to this new crop of politicians who say that they’re pro-cannabis reform is really important. We need to make sure that their actions actually match their words and that we hold them to account in the next election cycle.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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