Bringing Cannabis Out Of The Shadows And Into The Light: An Interview With Cannabis Reform Leader Steve DeAngelo

Steve DeAngelo is the owner of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, CA, which offers a unique industry business model as one of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in the country.


In 7th grade he organized the takeover of his school’s gymnasium in support of an antiwar demonstration. In 1998 he played a key role in the passage of Washington DC’s famous medical cannabis initiative, which won with 69% of the vote, but was then shamelessly vetoed by the US Congress. And in 2006 he secured licensing to open Harborside Health Center in Oakland, CA, a model state-compliant medical cannabis dispensary, and the pinnacle of lifelong cannabis activist Steve DeAngelo’s vision to “distribute cannabis in a manner worthy of the amazing plant that it is.”

A widely recognized leader in the cannabis reform movement, DeAngelo has spent close to four decades dispelling myths, presenting the science, and courageously standing up to social prejudice and aggressive challenges from the federal government. Since 2011, he has battled a multi-agency crackdown on state-compliant medical cannabis providers involving the DOJ, IRS, Treasury and BATF, in which the DOJ’s use of civil forfeiture laws to force landlords to evict dispensary tenants has resulted in over 600 shut downs. (All this, despite the Obama administration’s pledge not to federally prosecute in states with legal use laws.)

Undeterred, perhaps even emboldened, by these obstacles and riding the recent wave in public opinion shift favoring the legalization of marijuana, including the July 27, 2014, New York Times editorial “Repeal Prohibition, Again,” DeAngelo’s consistent message that cannabis is a health and wellness product and not an intoxicant is finally reverberating. More states, more legislators and more middle Americans have dismissed the old reefer madness and dopehead stereotypes that previously stigmatized marijuana use, and recognize, instead, that cannabis not only provides unique, life-saving medicine to many patients, but also the same casual relaxation benefits to millions that alcohol or prescription pills provide, without any of the dangerous side effects.

For Steve DeAngelo, Harborside Health Center — with its state compliance, wellness focus, free holistic health therapies clinic for patients, laboratory-tested medicine, low-income programs, and community outreach and support — is the new model of dispensary professionalism that could help put American healthcare, as well as the economy, on a healthier track.

Carol Bedrosian: As the founder and owner of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, one of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in the country, you’ve established a unique business model in the industry. Can you tell us about that?

Steve DeAngelo: The most important thing about Harborside is that we were established to set a gold standard for the distribution of medical cannabis, to demonstrate that cannabis can be distributed in a way that brings benefits and not harm to communities. So we’ve always had a real dedication to 100% compliance with the law, to very high quality patient service, the safest and widest selection of products and, in just about every way you can imagine, we have successfully set the standard for the rest of the industry.

For example, we were the first dispensary anywhere to laboratory test our medical cannabis. In fact, before we opened I called every commercial laboratory in the Bay area and asked them to do the testing for us and they refused because they were afraid of the federal government. So it took more than a year — a couple of years — but we found some other activists, scraped together some money, got some investment together and opened our own analytical laboratory. After we launched that program we became the first entity anywhere to provide cannabis that was both safety-tested, so patients knew that it was safe, and transparent, so they knew exactly the cannabinoid profile of what was in that particular batch of cannabis. That testing program also revealed to us some disturbing issues about the biochemistry of cannabis. Does CBD mean anything to you?

Carol Bedrosian: Yes, but can you give a little explanation of that?

Steve DeAngelo: What we discovered when we examined the first 2,000 test results was that only 10 of the samples that we had tested had appreciable quantities of CBD. CBD, like THC, is one of 65 different unique chemical compounds that are found in the cannabis plant. Each one of these compounds has a slightly different, sometimes a very different effect, one from the other. So, THC, for example, is the compound that’s most responsible for what people typically describe as the high or the psychoactivity of cannabis. It does many other things but that’s how people typically distinguish it.

CBD on the other hand has no psychoactivity whatsoever. In fact it can suppress, or I would say better stated, balance psychoactivity of THC. Even though it is not psychoactive — and many people when they take CBD can’t even feel it — it’s a very, very powerful antispasmodic and a very, very powerful anti-inflammatory and very, very powerful anti-tumorigenic. What we’ve found — and there’s an abundance of evidence to support this — is that a CBD-rich type of cannabis is the best type of cannabis to give somebody, for example, who has epilepsy or who has irritable bowel syndrome, where they are dealing with a great deal of inflammation or other inflammation-related diseases, or people who are dealing with cancer tumors.

When we found out that such a small number of the samples we’d tested had appreciable quantities of CBD in them, it was very disturbing to us. So we began our program where we collected the genetic material from those ten strains of cannabis. We provided them to our most trusted growers and had them grow those strains out. And then we made a very fateful decision. What we decided to do was — even though the CBD-rich strains were something only we had at that point and only we had the ability to even determine that they were present because we had the only laboratory — we made a decision not to monopolize those strains. We recognized that no one organization, even one as large as Harborside, would be able to produce enough CBD-rich cannabis for all of the patients out there who need it.

So we sold not only finished cannabis medicine, but we sold seeds and cuttings for CBD-rich cannabis strains. And we sold tens of thousands of them. We sold them for the same price — twelve bucks apiece — as we sold every other cannabis cutting that we sell. And the result is that we now have today an abundance of CBD-rich medicines.

Carol Bedrosian: Is this where your motto of “Compassionate and responsible use” comes from?

Steve DeAngelo: Compassionate and responsible use is one of the things we talk about. I would say if we have a motto it is “Out of the shadows and into the light.”

Cannabis 300x600 2In terms of compassion, we are a non-profit community service organization. What that means is that everybody at Harborside, including me, only makes a salary and nothing but our salaries. Those salaries are set by an outside, independent, compensation expert in the low to medium ranges for the appropriate jobs. Any earnings that we have above and beyond covering our basic expenses are returned back to our patients in the form of free patient services, and returned back to the community in the form of charitable donations.

Some of the patient services include a care package program for low income patients that provides about 250 patients a week with a package of cannabis worth about $20 on the retail market. They can pay whatever they feel they can afford for it, all the way down to a penny. We have a volunteer activist program for patients who, for whatever reasons, if they’re not low income and just may be a little bit tight on money and would rather do some volunteer work, they can come in and spend an hour. We will teach them how to do activist work. They spend an hour doing activist work and we reward them with a gram of cannabis.

We also have a holistic care clinic that is completely free of charge. Nobody ever has to buy anything at Harborside in order to access the clinic that offers chiropractic, acupuncture, naturopathy, nutritional counseling, therapeutic yoga, reiki, Alexander Technique, hypnotherapy and others.

Carol Bedrosian: Are you devoted exclusively to the medical marijuana model or are you also looking towards a larger goal of legalizing marijuana overall?

Steve DeAngelo: My belief is that when we are talking about medical cannabis, this is not a new drug. This is something that has been used safely by human beings for thousands and thousands of years. There has never been a reported death from cannabis use, ever. At the same time, Americans are allowed to walk into a drugstore and buy a wide variety of substances that kill many people every year. One of them that many people don’t realize is aspirin. About 3,000 people a year die from the improper use of aspirin but nobody is suggesting that an adult American should have to go to a doctor to get a prescription for aspirin.

Since cannabis has a better safety profile, I think that it would be appropriate to do the same thing. Let’s judge all of these substances by the same scientific standard. The Harborside model is dedicated to providing access to cannabis with full compliance with current law, whatever that current law happens to be. As society changes and evolves regarding cannabis, we plan on changing and evolving with it.

Carol Bedrosian: California state law allows medical cannabis but federal law still treats cannabis as an illegal substance. You’ve been raided numerous times, have been harassed and had tremendous banking obstacles put in front of you, along with other dispensaries and growers in California. How do you make sense of that? How close are we to the federal government just legalizing the whole thing?

Steve DeAngelo: Well, just a point of clarification, Harborside has never been raided. Many other dispensaries have, but we’ve never been raided by any law enforcement agency. The government has tried to use a variety of civil tactics to try and close us down, including taxing us out of existence and seizing the property we are located in. We have prevailed in every single court case that the federal government has filed against us, thus far, and we expect to continue to prevail. We plan on being here long after the people who are trying to close us down are gone.

As to the imminence of federal change, we are now, depending on how you count it, just about at half of the states in the United States of America with some type of legal cannabis. This ranges from states like Colorado and Washington, where adult use is now the law of the land and where any adult can use cannabis for any reason, to the many medical cannabis states where patients are allowed to use cannabis if they have a recommendation from their doctor, all the way down to states like Georgia and Florida that just recently passed laws allowing the cultivation of very low THC, high CBD strains of cannabis. But those strains of cannabis are still illegal under federal law.

So, when you see the legislatures of deeply red states like Florida and Georgia passing legislation that’s in direct conflict with federal law, when you see people like Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry talking positively about cannabis reform, when you see Dr. Sanjay Gupta, possibly the most trusted person in America, doubling down on his support for medical cannabis, and when you have half, or very close to half the states with some type of cannabis reform, I think that we are getting closer and closer every day.

That being said, I have seen a really disappointing lack of awareness at the highest levels of the Democratic and Republican parties. Just in the course of the last week, I saw Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton, both centrist politicians, trot out the most tired and ridiculous lines about cannabis that you can imagine. Chris Christie had the audacity to claim that medical cannabis was a fraud because so few people had signed up for the New Jersey medical cannabis program. But it was Governor Christie who had made the program so restrictive that so few people could participate in it. And then Ms. Clinton at first tried to laugh off a question at her town hall about cannabis, and when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to get away with making jokes, she then trotted out the line that more research is still needed about medical cannabis. Well, I have sitting on my desk a book the size and thickness of a phone book that is packed with thousands of studies documenting the medical efficacy of cannabis and the safety of cannabis. It’s simply not true and Ms. Clinton knows that it’s not true that more research is needed. The research has been done; it’s here, it’s obvious.

Carol Bedrosian: Why the feet dragging?

Steve DeAngelo: It’s political maneuvering. Unfortunately, politicians like Christie and Clinton, on their attempt to stake out a centrist position have failed to understand that cannabis is no longer an issue they should run away from. It’s an issue they should embrace. The vast majority of Americans in poll after poll have expressed their support of medical cannabis. All you need to do is take a look at the results in the last general election in this country, where in the states of Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington, pro-cannabis initiatives out-polled president Obama.

You would hope that that would send a powerful message to the Democratic party. There’s a very interesting situation in Florida also, where a medical cannabis initiative is on the ballot. It’s polling at 86% support right now. Democratic candidate Charlie Crist is in a neck and neck race with current governor Rick Scott. Scott is an outspoken opponent of the initiative; Crist is an outspoken supporter of it. That initiative has the potential to bring in a sufficient number of new Democratic voters to put Christ over the top and put a Democratic governor in place in Florida on the eve on the next general election. So, I think that the main obstacle right now is the tone deafness of our national leaders at the very top. I think they need to wake up and smell the cannabis. My hope is that the election in Florida is going to demonstrate to them that they ignore cannabis voters at their own peril.

Cannabis 300x250 1Carol Bedrosian: You have been at the forefront of this issue for many decades and seen it all. How can the cannabis industry stay in the hands of independent growers and not be consumed by big business?

Steve DeAngelo: As with all businesses in America now, there is a threat of takeover and consolidation by huge corporate forces. The only way that we are going to see an industry that remains open to ordinary Americans is if the regulations that are put in place in the various states allow for that to happen; there’s a number of different ways that regulations can be written. I encourage all that are interested in participating in the industry to actively learn about the regulations in their state and do everything they can to push them in the direction of an open market.

My belief is that it’s not the role of the government to choose winners and losers in the marketplace. The role of the government is to create an even playing field for all of us to participate in. And that means that regulations should do things like have specific categories for small growers. Maybe those small growers should be given tax benefits to equalize the competitive disadvantages that they might be facing from much higher and better-capitalized companies.

The way that licenses are allocated is also important. For example, in some states, licenses for cannabis dispensaries have been allocated by a process of lottery. In those states, most often what we’ve seen is that many of the lottery winners simply don’t have the money or the resources to open the dispensaries and they end up selling them to much better financed corporations.

In other states, like Massachusetts, there has been a merit-based process that carefully evaluates the experience, the qualifications, the integrity of all the various applicants and chooses the ones that are going to serve the community best. If that process of merit selection included things like community ties and community support, then we’re more likely to see a broad based industry, but none of that is going to happen unless individual Americans wake up, rise up and engage with the regulatory process because that process is underway right now. It’s no longer a question of whether or when cannabis is going to be legalized because we are doing it right now. The question is how it’s going to be legalized, who’s going to control it, who’s going to grow it, who’s going to distribute it, who’s going to make the profit and how will we teach our children about it. And those questions are being decided right now.

Carol Bedrosian: However, business can’t go forward because the federal boom is always hanging over people’s heads. For instance, it’s completely a cash business at this point, there’s no credit card processing, and that presents a danger for people in the industry having to constantly transport large amounts of cash. The industry can’t move forward as a legitimate business being illegal on a federal level.

Steve DeAngelo: The federal government has done everything they can, ever since the passage of the first medical cannabis law in California in 1996 to put the wine back in the bottle, to put the toothpaste back in the tube and nothing that they’ve done, from arresting people, from imprisoning people, from seizing property, from levying fines, from refusing us bank accounts, from cutting off credit card access, none of that has stopped us.

Today, the legal cannabis industry is the fastest growing industry in the United States of America. In the current year we are anticipating $2.3 billion legal cannabis sales nationwide. That’s going to rise to $10.2 billion within five years at a minimum and it will probably rise much more rapidly than that. There’s no other industry in America growing that fast.

So, I think that many obstacles have been placed in our way but the truth about this plant is so powerful. The benefits that it can provide to people are so important that the people who are aware of these truths are not going to allow anything to stop us. There’s no question that this plant is going to be used by many more people around the world in the near future. It’s already happening.

I used to worry about the three or four federal death sentences that I qualify for because of the amount of cannabis I have sold. That’s not what I worry about anymore. Now, what I worry about, especially since learning about the curative properties of cannabis, is the millions of people around the world who are suffering, and in some cases dying, because they don’t have access to this medicine. And that has lit an urgency under thousands of people and we will not stop. Nothing will stop us.

Carol Bedrosian: Can you talk a little bit about hemp?

Steve DeAngelo: I could talk all day about hemp. I talk about the benefits of the cannabis plant, and certainly the benefits of medical cannabis are huge; in fact I think looking backwards twenty or thirty years from now, the rediscovery of medical cannabis is going to be looked upon as one of the most important developments since the discovery of germ theory. But that’s just the beginning of what cannabis can and has done for us.

Few Americans know about the very important role that cannabis has played in the history of our country. The sails, the ropes and the sealing of the Mayflower that brought the Pilgrims over to the United States were all made out of 100% cannabis hemp. In fact, the sails of just about every single sailing ship that came to the Unites States were made out of hemp, as were the miles of rope they needed to run their rigging, as was all of the oakum used to seal the planks of the ship and keep the water from seeping in.

Hemp was so important to the economies of the maritime imperial powers that the English required the American colonists to pay their taxes in hemp. The Crimean War was fought between the English and the French empires for control of Russian hemp fields because they needed those hemp fields in order to supply their navies. The original draft of the Constitution of the United States of America was written on hemp paper, as were most other documents of that time. If you go to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, to the Museum of American History, you’ll see all sorts of early American settlers and pioneers dressed in what the Smithsonian euphemistically calls “homespun.” Well, that homespun wasn’t cotton; that homespun was hemp.

Hemp has played a very important role in our history. Around the turn of the century, some of Henry Ford’s earliest automobiles were made using hemp plastics and hemp polymers. Original diesel engines ran on hemp seed oil. So, there’s a long history of hemp in the United States.

In fact, what we’ve learned is that you can make about 25,000 different products out of industrial hemp ranging from oils to paints to varnishes to plastics to paper to textiles. Hemp is the longest, strongest natural fiber on the planet. It has a higher cellulosic content than almost any other plant, and hemp seed oil contains more essential fatty acids than any other substance known to mankind. A very wide range of products can be made out of hemp.

Right now, there are a couple million GM cars rolling down our highways that have hemp fiberboard in the door panels. Why hemp? Well, it doesn’t give off toxic fumes when it burns like fiberglass does, and it’s lighter and stronger than fiberglass. In France, they are making homes out of hempcrete, which is a mixture of 50% of the interior of the cannabis plant and 50% limestone. Again, stronger, lighter and it has more insulative effect than concrete does.

One of the wonderful things about hemp is that instead of depleting soil, it restores soil. It has the longest taproot of any plant known and it has the unique quality of fixing the nitrogen in the soil that it’s grown in. So hemp is an excellent rotation crop to be grown after other crops that typically pull nitrogen out of the soil. Hemp’s a great crop for erosion control as well. It can be used to restore land; it was planted around Chernobyl in Russia after the nuclear explosion there to remediate the land that had been poisoned with radioactivity.

The real promise of hemp is that anything that can be produced from cotton, from petroleum or from trees can probably be produced from cannabis more cheaply, and certainly in a more environmentally friendly way, because hemp can be grown without the use of pesticides or fertilizers and it can be grown on a wide variety of marginal lands that are currently being unused or underused.

Carol Bedrosian: Yet hemp growing is illegal in the United States?

Steve DeAngelo: Until very recently, under federal law the cultivation of hemp was completely prohibited in the United States of America. With the recent passage of the American Jobs Act, states that have passed their own laws legalizing industrial hemp are now allowed to undertake state sponsored and controlled research studies to develop hemp varietals. At one time in the United States, hemp was one of our largest crops, especially in Kentucky and in Illinois. Thousands of tons were produced every year, tens of thousands of people were employed and we had a wide genetic variety of hemp strains that were adapted to different microclimates across the country.

Unfortunately when cannabis was made federally illegal in 1937, the hemp industry was suppressed and closed down and all of those genetic varietals were lost; so now before hemp can really be grown successfully on a large scale basis in the United States, it’s going to take a research program of some two to three years. Hopefully, by the time those programs start showing results we will have seen more movement at the federal level and we’ll be able to grow this very important crop on a commercial basis.

Carol Bedrosian: Can you give us a little bit of your activist background? What happened in 1998 with the law that passed to legalize medical marijuana in Washington DC, but was then vetoed by Congress?

Cannabis 300x600 2Steve DeAngelo: This was really one of the most crushing experiences of my life. It’s experiences like this that actually drive my determination to keep moving forward because what I’ve found is that the cannabis issue impacts almost everything else that I care about in my life.

What happened in 1998 is a great example. I had been active in the passage of prop 215 in California two years earlier in 1996, so I attempted to do the same thing in my home town of Washington DC, in 1998. I was the lead organizer and fundraiser for initiative 59, DC’s version of a medical cannabis law that would have established non-profit dispensaries in the nation’s capitol way back then. We won with 69% of the vote and we carried every single precinct in Washington DC, a racially divided city, where I don’t think that had ever happened before or since, but very rare, in any case.

Despite that overwhelming mandate from the voters, the US Congress stepped in, and using their control of the DC budget, prohibited implementation of that law. I was just shocked, and after I got done being shocked, I got disgusted and really angry as an American, as someone who had been raised to believe that majority rule was an inviolate principle, that it was something we have fought wars for and was a principle worth dying over.

To see our own Congress stepping in and vetoing a law passed with 69% of the people’s support, just turned my stomach and enraged me. And it made me realize that the stakes are even higher; we’re not just talking about a plant. We are not just talking about the benefits that cannabis can bring that are being denied to people. We’re talking about a real threat to essential American principles, to our democracy, to the people’s control of our government. When one government body can step in and invalidate the election results of 69% of the people, there is something profoundly wrong going on.

Carol Bedrosian: As well as the stats for marijuana arrests disproportionately affecting people of color, who are jailed for ten years, sometimes for a lifetime, for minor drug offenses. What does that accomplish for anybody?

“The laws against cannabis were never enacted because of the inherent qualities of cannabis; they were enacted because of the people who were using cannabis and the desire to control those people.”

Steve DeAngelo: If you study the origins of prohibition you find out that it’s always been this way. The laws against cannabis were never enacted because of the inherent qualities of cannabis; they were enacted because of the people who were using cannabis and the desire to control those people.

The very first law in the United States to prohibit cannabis was passed in the state of California in 1913, followed shortly thereafter by similar laws in Arizona and Texas, border states. The reason for those laws was one of the first waves of Mexican immigration that had been kicked off by the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

In Mexico at that time, many of the curanderos, the folk medicine healers, used cannabis widely. Mexican immigrants brought their healers and folk medicine with them. Unfortunately, the upper classes of Mexico had long looked upon cannabis with suspicion, largely because it was used as a medicine by Indians, by curanderos, by alternative healers. The American elite along the border picked up this stereotype from the Mexican elite. They passed these laws quickly and found that they were a very convenient way of controlling a whole bunch of new dark skinned immigrants.

Now what you see is that pattern of focusing on Mexican immigrants being applied to African Americans. Some of the first people arrested under cannabis laws were African American musicians, like Louie Armstrong, who was arrested for cannabis possession in 1931 before it was even federally illegal. When the beatniks picked up cannabis from jazz musicians and they passed it on to the hippies, cops everywhere had an excuse to search anybody who was wearing the wrong kind of clothes or had the wrong kind of haircut.

So it has always been about the people who are using cannabis, not so much the inherent qualities of it. Now that we see this huge embracing of cannabis by the mainstream of American society, I am very optimistic about change because the Americans that are using cannabis now are not going to stand for this stuff and they’ve got the power to do something about it.

Carol Bedrosian: I’ve often heard that the backlash against cannabis was originally due to the paper and timber industries not wanting to have the hemp plant replace products that the paper and wood industries supply. Is that still true?

Steve DeAngelo: It certainly was true back in the 1930s. Many of us believe that one of the main reasons cannabis was made illegal was a propaganda campaign that was orchestrated by William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was the owner of hundreds of newspapers across the United States of America and owned forestland the size of the state of Rhode Island. His entire empire at that time was being propped up with timber sales. This was during the Depression.

At the same time, an invention called the decorticator was introduced in the 1920s that did for hemp what the cotton gin did for cotton; essentially it mechanized processing and turned hemp into an economically viable crop. As a result, between the mid 20s and early 30s, the cultivation of hemp in the United States increased twentyfold. In 1929, Popular Mechanics had a cover article touting hemp as the new billion-dollar crop.

Well this terrified Hearst because his empire was very shaky at the time, his stock price was going down, and he was barely holding onto control of his company. Just the threat of hemp was enough to destroy investor confidence in his timber empire, so Hearst went on the offensive and launched this campaign of propaganda stories focused on African Americans and Mexicans who supposedly went crazy and fell into murderous rages and became ax murderers and rapists and wreaked all sorts of havoc after consuming cannabis.

Carol Bedrosian: And that’s been the boogieman ever since.

Steve DeAngelo: Yes. So, is there a smoking gun for that history? A lot of people have looked for the smoking gun and nobody’s really found a smoking gun yet. The evidence for this interpretation is admittedly circumstantial. But it’s very interesting, if you go and read the transcripts of the hearing, that none of the congressmen seemed to know the slightest thing about cannabis or really have the slightest interest in it.

In fact, one of the few witnesses that displayed any knowledge of cannabis at the hearings was Dr. William Woodward, who was sent by the American Medical Association. Dr. Woodward stood up and pleaded with Congress not to make this valuable medicine illegal. He explained that doctors in the AMA hadn’t even realized that the marijuana Congress was talking about was the same medicine that they understood as cannabis. The descriptions of what the congressmen were talking about were so far off the mark, the doctors couldn’t even recognize it. But then, as now, private interests often trump science in the U.S. Congress and they did that time with tragic consequences.

Carol Bedrosian: But the research is so clear now. How can rational people still be against it?

Steve DeAngelo: One of the reasons this travesty has persisted so long is that the authorities the American people trust the most have been deliberately lying to them. In his TV special, Sanjay Gupta indicted the federal government for a seventy-year deliberate campaign of misinformation about cannabis. The National Institute on Drug Abuse is a great example of this. NIDA is in charge of administering all research money for cannabis for the federal government. Until very recently, now that they’ve caved into some political pressure, NIDA refused to fund any studies that might be designed to show the medical benefits of cannabis as opposed to the harms. Why? They claimed that their charter limited them to investigating drug abuse, therefore they could not investigate any of the benefits of cannabis.

Meanwhile they churned out study after study after study, most of them based on ridiculously bad science, demonizing cannabis. It was really the equivalent of somebody going into a pharmacy, pulling a bottle of medicine off of the wall, reading the side effects to a patient and telling them that’s what the medicine was going to do to them, without telling what the primary effect and purpose of the medicine was. So of course Americans are confused. Of course they have a great deal of ignorance about cannabis. The people they trust the most have been lying to them for seventy years.

Carol Bedrosian: It’s astounding that alcohol, which causes billions of dollars of damage and ruined lives, is legal, while marijuana, which has none of those effects, is illegal.

Steve DeAngelo: There’s no question that a neutral and reasonable observer, looking backwards from say a hundred years from now when cannabis is recognized as a healthy, normal wellness product, they’re going to look back at the way we treated cannabis and the way we treated alcohol and just really not be able to understand what was going on in our heads because there is no logical and rational explanation for it.

What I’ve often found, though, is that when there is not a logical and rational explanation, there’s often a money explanation. And the fact of the matter is that cannabis prohibition puts a lot of money and a lot of power into the hands of a lot of people who want to hang on to it. And it’s really those people who are the main people who are blocking changing the laws right now. Carol Bedrosian: Who are they?

“What I’ve often found is that when there is not a logical and rational explanation, there’s often a money explanation. And the fact of the matter is that cannabis prohibition puts a lot of money and power into the hands of a lot of people who want to hang on to it.”

Cannabis 300x250 2Steve DeAngelo: Prosecutors, for example. We’ve seen a huge transfer in power from judges to prosecutors with the passages of minimum mandatory sentences. In most states and under all federal cannabis offences, there are certain mandatory minimums specified that judges are obligated to impose once a defendant is found guilty of a particular crime. The judge has no discretion, doesn’t matter the background of the defendant, their criminal history, anything. They must receive this sentence.

In the case of cannabis, it can range from anywhere at the federal level from five years — and you have to serve every day — to forty years in prison. So what happens is when somebody is charged with this crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence, they’re absolutely terrified to go to trial. Who wants to go to trial? If you’re found guilty and you go in front of a judge, you know that you are going to get this extremely long and extremely harsh sentence.

So the prosecutors threaten them with these mandatory sentences and they say, “This office wins 98% of its trials and that means you’re going to be found guilty and when you’re found guilty, you’re going to be looking at a ten year mandatory minimum sentence and you’re going to serve every day. The judge has to sentence you to that. It doesn’t matter if you’re his nephew or Mother Teresa. That’s how long you’re going to prison for. Now, think about your kids, think about your wife, think about what’s going to happen to you in prison when those guys get a hold of you. Is that the way you want to spend the next ten years? No? Okay. Then start giving me names. I need to know every single person that you’ve ever had anything to do with that had anything to do with cannabis. They’re your brother? I don’t care. They’re your father? I don’t care. Here, take a wire and go into the family home. Get your uncle on tape. He’ll go to jail for twenty years instead of you.”

This is what happens, and so, using these mandatory minimums, they are turning the land of the free and the home of the brave into a nation of snitches and squealers.

Carol Bedrosian: And all over something that has no business being illegal in the first place. I have one last question. Your wonderful braids — are they just a style preference or do they have some cultural or spiritual significance?

Steve DeAngelo: Generally with my style, I try to remain true to my roots and to who I am. I came out of the counter culture; I’ve been a cannabis activist most of my life. Those are my roots. I’m certainly not ashamed of them, but I also recognize that my mission is to carry cannabis into the light, to introduce its benefits to the mainstream of America. And so, when introducing yourself to people, it’s good to present in a way that confers some authority and respectability so people can be open to your message. And so, while I do wear braids, I also almost always wear a shirt and a tie and a jacket or a suit. I try to be very well dressed and very well groomed.

If I have an inspiration for the braids, it is Quanah Parker. Parker was the last warrior chief of the Comanche Indian tribe, known as the fiercest of all Indian warriors. Parker was the son of a white woman, who had been captured from a wagon train, and a war chieftain of the Comanches. He fought and he led his tribe out on the warpath longer than almost any other American tribe did, to the very bitter end. But when he saw that change was coming, he embraced it and he took off his feathers, he took off his buckskin. He put on a suit, he put on a tie. He came off the warpath, he came onto a farm. He became a businessman, he led his people to peace, but he never cut his braids.

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Carol Bedrosian is the publisher of Spirit of Change holistic magazine in New England. Visit

See also:
Musings: It’s Time For a Return to Plant Wisdom
The War on Drugs Destroys Lives—Here Are 6 Things You Can Do About It
High Ideals: The Story Of Industrial Hemp