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How to Break the Government's Cruel Blockade on Cannabis Research

Oakland's Harborside Health Center is conducting a groundbreaking survey, using its own patient pool to catalog the research potential of cannabis.
 
 
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Steve DeAngelo, co-founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif.

 
 
 
 

An assistant with facial piercings and rainbow-streaked hair presses her thumb to the digital fingerprint scanner outside of Steve DeAngelo’s office, and the door opens. A pint-sized dog named Goliath bounces toward the visitors. DeAngelo is the co-founder of Harborside Health Center (HHC), and his business is the distribution of medical cannabis to more than 100,000 patients from this Oakland, Calif. medical marijuana facility.

We sit around a white particleboard table. DeAngelo brushes two characteristic braids behind his shoulders and straightens a fedora on his head before retelling the history of cannabis prohibition—from its Depression Era beginnings to the onset of the U.S. War on Drugs and federal crackdowns. He recites the details with emotion, from memory. His intonation makes it clear to any listener that, for him, this subject runs deep; four decades deep that is, as the middle-aged DeAngelo has been an activist and advocate in the cannabis reform movement since his early teens.

The story of cannabis prohibition culminates in many ways in the work DeAngelo is doing—along with other dispensary owners in states like California where medical cannabis is legal—to resist federal crackdown on the distribution of the herb.

For DeAngelo the battle is immediate and immensely personal. He’s currently entangled in a legal battle with federal prosecutors that aim to shut his business down. HHC is the target of a federal crackdown, as U.S. prosecutors filed a forfeiture case to seize its building in 2011. They claimed the dispensary—which distributes more than 70 strains of cannabis—was a "superstore" serving 100,000 customers in violation of federal law, but in an unprecedented move, the city of Oakland came to the defense of the local dispensary as the first California city ever to challenge federal threats on a cannabis facility.

In City of Oakland v. Eric Holder, Oakland sued the federal prosecutor to block Harborside's closing. On July 3, Judge Maria-Elena James  granted a motion to stay by the city of Oakland that effectively delays the feds' case against Harborside for more than 15 months, at which point DeAngelo may have to face a jury, risking his life’s work and livelihood.

So, why would anyone put their very freedom at stake and choose a mode of business that involves so much risk and strife?

DeAngelo’s answer comes with a crash as he slams the book CHI (Cannabis Health Index) down on the table.

“Look at this,” he says. “This is an index of all of the studies this guy could find on cannabis.”

Each chapter in the book begins with a particular ailment, discusses how that ailment interacts with cannabis, and unveils a tremendous number of studies to back up those claims. The studies come from accredited research universities and cancer centers, and each is backed up with a link to the study online.

“They’ve established the fact that cannabis is tremendously effective against cancer,” he says. “If that’s all they discovered about cannabis, that would be immense.” He leafs through the stack of bound pages and points to research from around the world showing cannabis’ successful treatment of everything from night sweats and epilepsy to bone cancer, throat cancer and leukemia.

“You can just go through this thing and almost every single major disease that still plagues mankind can be at least alleviated, in many cases prevented, and oftentimes cured with cannabis medicine," he says.

The reason cannabis has an anthology’s worth of health benefits, both curative and palliative, DeAngelo says, is the way it interacts with the brain. Cannabis works with receptors already in existence in the human brain—the endocannabinoid system. This is the same group of neuromodulatory lipids and receptors that control physiological processes like pain, mood, memory and appetite.