Steve DeAngelo Interview – Part 1
One of the best things about being a cannabis tour company in San Francisco, (besides knowing the folks who grow the best weed in the world and sharing amazing experiences with tourists visiting California cannabis country) is that we get to rub elbows with some truly legendary people from time to time. While attending a medical cannabis conference in Oakland, I got to meet Steve DeAngelo, who was the keynote speaker at the event. He was kind enough to agree to an interview for Mendocino Experience Cannabis Tours’ blog.
Referred to by many as the father of the legal cannabis industry, Steve DeAngelo is an O.G. of the cannabis legalization movement in America. He was an editor and publisher of Jack Herer’s famous book, The Emperor Wears no Clothes, author of The Cannabis Manifesto, and has consistently fought for our law and society recognizing that cannabis is, and always has been, a medicine, and for freeing those caught up in America’s unjust and draconian war on drugs. It was an honor to catch up with Steve, and discuss his place in cannabis history, medicine, justice, and why cannabis isn’t actually a recreational substance.
You were one of the co-founders of Oakland’s famous Harborside dispensary, which was one of the original medical cannabis dispensaries in California, and has always been focussed on health. You’ve been quoted that you don’t believe in recreational cannabis. Could you elaborate on that, and what role you see cannabis playing in wellness going forward?
I think that to think about cannabis as a recreational substance really undervalues the role that it plays in our lives and in our bodies. Just think about the largest neurotransmitter system in the human body produces and manages cannabinoids, whether they’re from the plant or whether they’re cannabinoids that our body naturally produces endogenously, and that neurotransmitter system, the endocannabinoid system which is present everywhere in our body is what’s responsible for maintaining our natural balance. It’s critically important to human health. So, just off the bat, if you’re talking about a substance that interacts with the most powerful neurotransmitter system in the human body, to look at that as just a recreational substance kind of misses an awful lot of the picture, but beyond that, when I think about cannabis I think about wellness. I don’t think about medicine. I don’t think about recreation. For me wellness includes curing yourself of cancer, or epilepsy, or multiple sclerosis, or any of the really grave diseases that we know cannabis is effective for. It also means things like chronic pain, and insomnia, and depression, and anxiety – the chronic conditions that eat away at us that we also know cannabis is so effective for. This whole other range of effects of cannabis that usually get written off as just getting high – extending your patience, waking up your sense of play, bringing you in closer contact with nature, teaching you how to resolve conflicts in a more peaceful way, learning how to forgive others and forgive yourself – these are really special qualities, even feeling joy and ecstasy and laughter, these are desirable parts of the human experience. They’re not “getting high”. They’re not intoxication. They’re the most precious parts of our lives. Learning how to be in a more successful intimate relationship with someone – learning how to appreciate the natural environment that we’re all a part of, these are all parts of human wellness, in my opinion. So I think that’s really the right way to look at the plant. That you would compare cannabis to watching a movie or playing a basketball game is just really undervaluing the role that the plant plays.
Harborside was a pioneer in testing cannabis for not only cannabinoid levels, but also for contaminants like pesticide & fungal residues and heavy metals, setting the standards that California’s rigorous testing regime follows today. Why did you feel it was important for Harborside to set those standards early on?
It was really important for us because we were a medical cannabis dispensary, and we knew that many of our patients had compromised immune systems. I was aware that medical cannabis patients had died – died – after consuming contaminated cannabis. In particular, there was one fungus I was concerned about called aspergillus. Which is a fairly common fungus. When I say “fairly common”, we found it in less than 1% of samples, but that’s still fairly common, and aspergillus, I knew, had already been implicated in the deaths of two medical cannabis patients who had compromised immune systems. So, the last thing that I wanted to have happen was that somebody who came to us for medicine to get better ended up getting hurt by it, or even getting killed by it. So, before I opened Harborside, I called every single testing lab in the Bay Area, and tried to get them to test our weed, and none of them would do it because of the fear of the federal government. So, ultimately, we had to open our own testing laboratory – Steep Hill Laboratory – which was the first cannabis analytics company.
Tell us about The Last Prisoner Project. What is its focus, what has it achieved so far, and what challenges does it face?
The Last Prisoner Project is a non-profit that I founded in 2019, shortly after leaving my management role at harborside, and other cannabis companies. Its purpose is to make sure that, as we build the legal cannabis industry, that every single person who’s in prison on cannabis charges is released. We’ve been active on a number of different levels. So, we work on prisoner releases, and that includes both what we call “categorical clemency”. So, in some cases we’ve been able to go to the Governors of certain states that have reformed their cannabis laws, and persuaded them to release dozens, or, in some cases, even hundreds of prisoners.
We work on really egregious cases. We played a very important role in the release of Michael Thompson, who had been the longest serving non-violent prisoner in the Michigan prison system. He did 27 years for the sale of four pounds of cannabis in the 1990’s, and Richard DeLisi who was formerly the longest serving non-violent prisoner in the United States. Richie did 30 years on a 90 year conspiracy sentence for non-violent cannabis charges. He had a little bit more weed than Michael did, but he never hurt anybody. So, we’ve been successful there.
During the height of Covid, we managed to help a lot of prisoners get released on compassionate release programs. Many of them have been able to stay free since then.
We also work to make sure that, as legislation is passed in the future, that prisoners are considered. Our goal is to make the release of all cannabis prisoners just an automatic part of legalization. You would think that, well, if we as a society have decided that the thing that was illegal shouldn’t be illegal anymore, that we would stop punishing the people for the thing that we decided shouldn’t be illegal any more, but that’s not what’s happening. In fact, we’ve legalized cannabis, and cannabis prisoners continue to sit in prison for doing something that other people are building inter-generational wealth for doing. Can you imagine being in that cell on weed charges, and turning on the TV, and you see the news that a dispensary has just opened in your hometown? I’ve talked to those prisoners that that happens to.
We’ve also been very successful at getting support from the cannabis consumers and the cannabis industry, and that’s allowed us to, even when we haven’t been able to release prisoners, to support them. So, we’ve distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year, over 600 thousand dollars, just in grants to prisoners and their families to make sure they have enough money in their commissaries, that their kids have tuition, that they can get to school. If somebody needs care, they can get some medical care. We work to help prisoners once they’ve been released to get employment, to get housing. In Michael Thompson’s case we were part of a campaign to raise funds to buy Michael a house. It took about 36 hours to raise almost $300,000 online. Michael Thomson went out of that horrible prison cell, and into a beautiful new house.
How can people get involved?
Lastprisonerproject.org – we make it really easy. At the very simplest level, just follow us on social media, and like us, and introduce other people to what we’re doing, and help spread awareness. Generally, whatever it is that you’re good at doing. Whatever you like doing, there’s a way that you can plug in to help us do what we do. Take action. There’s a whole list of ways that you can plug in.
Please get involved with the Last Prisoner Project, and help strike out for freedom.
Check back in 2 weeks for part 2 of our interview. In part 2 of our interview with Steve, we’ll talk about his upcoming venture into cannabis tourism in Jamaica, how it really goes beyond tourism, and how the worldwide cannabis tribe will build the world we’ve all dreamed of.