From America's Most Successful Cannabis Entrepreneur: Why I Have Devoted My Life to Pot and Social Justice

The following is an excerpt from the new book  The Cannabis Manifesto: A New Paradigm for Wellness  by Steve DeAngelo (North Atlantic Books, 2015):


I’m sometimes asked why I chose to spend my life advocating for cannabis reform, instead of working on more urgent issues like climate change, species extinction, or nuclear weapons.

The short and simple answer is that I never expected it to take so long. I fell in love with the cannabis plant at a young age but always hated being a criminal. There were only two ways out of the dilemma: forget about cannabis, or change the law—and there was zero chance of the former. Legalization became a prerequisite for my personal happiness, so I made it my mission.

The long answer is that my entire life has been animated by a dedication to social justice in one form or another—and ending prohibition is not just about helping people get high. It intersects and impacts just about every other cause I care about, from civil rights to environmental sanity.

When African Americans are arrested for possession four times more than white people, cannabis reform is an issue of racial equality and justice. When our individual rights are so eroded that citizens endure roadside body-cavity searches, cannabis reform becomes an issue of constitutional government. When more than 70,000 people die in drug-war violence, legalizing cannabis becomes a peace movement.

When medicine is dominated by expensive pharmaceuticals with horrifying side effects, cannabis reform reveals itself as a health-care issue. When neighborhoods are blighted with open-air drug markets, while cops spend their time chasing a flower, cannabis reform comes into focus as a community rights issue. And when climate change threatens the very existence of our species—and thousands of others—finding alternatives to fossil fuels, widespread pesticide use, and cutting forests becomes a matter of survival.

With one single stroke, legalization would dramatically reduce the negative impact of all these social problems. The creeping erosion of our most cherished rights would slow or reverse, and millions of Americans of all races would not be arrested for something that should never have been a crime. Community safety and cohesion would improve as cannabis sales move from the street to regulated dispensaries, creating new jobs and revenue for schools and neighborhoods. Seniors and vets and children with epilepsy would get the medince they need; the whole country would have a low-cost and very effective alternative to costly pharmaceuticals; and cultivation of ecofriendly hemp would begin to replace the extraction of petroleum and timber. There is no other single, viable step we could take that would so quickly yield such an abundance of socially beneficial results.

***

As I grew to adulthood, it became evident to me that many of the gains of the civil rights movement were being rolled back by the war on cannabis. Precise statistics were harder to access before the internet, but Eddie wasn’t my only black or brown friend—and just about all of them had horror stories about disparate treatment by cops. Plus, anybody who saw the inside of a jail could see they were populated mainly by people of color. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Today, black men are eight times as likely to have served time in prison as white men, and one of every nine African American children has an incarcerated parent (versus one of every fifty-seven white children).2 Upon release, those fathers will earn an average of 40 percent less than they did before prison, and their kids will be five times more likely to be incarcerated in the future than other kids. Not many crosses get burned on the lawns of black families anymore, but they are still being attacked.

I’ve seen the cycle firsthand in Oakland, where even the best of kids have a hard time avoiding the abyss.

Ricky McCullough didn’t have a criminal record when we hired him at Harborside, but he did have distant cousins who shared his last name. Some of them were well known to police. McCullough wasn’t the most convenient name for a young African American man in Alameda County.

Ricky was arrested coming out of a grow room in a mostly white neighborhood about six months later. He had been watching the garden for a patient who went on vacation. Ricky showed the cops his medical cannabis ID and written authorization for the garden, but they hauled him off to Santa Rita Jail anyhow. 

The same sort of thing has happened to multiple white employees over the course of the last eight years, and none of them was arrested—but Ricky sat in jail for six months. Fortunately, he had us to advocate for him, and in the end he was released. He’s back at work and is one of our rising stars.

Without our help, Ricky could well have been convicted, sent to state prison, and denied educational assistance or employment upon release. Even with our help, Ricky’s sudden incarceration totally disrupted his family life and housing arrangements and wiped out his carefully accumulated savings.

Oakland is full of kids like Ricky, and they deserve better. If cannabis were legal, fewer young people from the inner city would go to prison and more would have satisfying careers.

My own early encounters with law enforcement were far from positive. I first learned to fear them at antiwar demonstrations.

I was fourteen years old in 1972. Every night on TV I saw long rows of flag-draped coffins being unloaded from military transport planes at Dover Air Force Base, the largest military mortuary in the Department of Defense. In four years I too would be eligible for the draft and could end up in one of those boxes on the conveyer belt, just like the older brothers of some of my friends.

Martin Luther King’s March on Washington had been calm and orderly, and the cops were mostly polite and respectful toward the demonstrators. It did nothing to prepare me for the intense confrontation typical at anti-Vietnam War protests. I got a solid taste of that at my first sit-in.

Long lines of helmeted cops linked their heavy plastic shields to form a solid barrier along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Across the street in Lafayette Park, I and a few hundred other protestors sat chanting antiwar slogans and refused to move.

The horses came quickly, and the sound of their hooves couldn’t be heard over our own voices, so we didn’t notice them until they had surrounded almost half the park. They were tall and strong and very agitated, mounted by U.S. Park Police in full riot gear.

The speaker on top of the armored police truck was plenty loud enough to be heard, though: “Disperse now! If you do not disperse, you will be arrested.” By then we were completely surrounded by the scary mounted cops, but none of us moved—the whole point of civil disobedience is to get arrested, and it was exactly what we expected would happen.

But we didn’t expect the cops to take out their truncheons, and we didn’t expect the horses to charge us. We didn’t expect the gratuitous blows or the vicious profanity and unnecessary force. We were mostly white kids from the suburbs and had never been treated this way before.

Over the years, I came to expect the overwhelming force and accompanying abuse—it was standard procedure in the streets of DC. I saw National Guardsmen holding rifles with drawn bayonets, standing shoulder to shoulder around the whole circumference of DuPont Circle. I saw cops gleefully drag handcuffed prisoners down Pennsylvania Avenue, and mounted U.S. Park Police deliberately stampede and stomp peaceful protestors on the Ellipse. The smell of tear gas became so familiar I almost learned to like it.

In between the street fights, I studied. I learned about the revolving door between the Pentagon and major corporations, and how defense contractors like Dow Chemical and Boeing and Honeywell encouraged the war and manipulated the military budget to increase their bottom lines. I learned how the draft disproportionately targeted African Americans, and how those draftees of color became cannon fodder on the front lines in Vietnam. I educated myself on the history of Vietnam and discovered that North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh had first asked the United States to help his country become independent of France—and had accepted communist support only after the U.S. government refused to assist.

After the fall of Saigon and the end of that war, the scandals of the Nixon administration unraveled, and the whole country learned that the FBI had illegally spied on and disrupted the civil rights and antiwar movements—and maybe even assassinated some of their leaders. It was all orchestrated by the same officials who said we were criminals and unleashed the cops on us: the FBI director, the White House chief of staff, the attorney general, and a willing army of lower-ranking functionaries and local police departments.

By the time the Watergate scandal reached its apogee and President Nixon resigned, I had developed a profound and abiding distrust of anything to do with the government—which I still have, to this day. We are in a pitched struggle against not only what President Eisenhower named a military-industrial complex, but also a prisonindustrial complex. War for profit has been joined by policing and imprisoning for profit, and the two have become so intertwined it’s hard to tell the difference.

The militarization of drug policy—the War on Drugs—has been the key defining trend of my lifetime. The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on this conflict have spawned a vast punishment industry with a vested interest in perpetuating prohibition: urine-testing companies, prison builders and architects, private prisons, rehabilitation clinics, defense contractors, and consumer-facing brands you would never expect to be involved.

Companies like Westinghouse are marketing technology originally developed for military purposes (like “Night Enforcer” goggles and “Hot Wire” fencing) to law enforcement and correctional agencies. MCI runs a hugely profitable pay-phone franchise in the California prison system. It charges prisoners a $3 surcharge for every phone call, so a single prison pay phone can yield the company up to $15,000 a year. Financial firms like Merrill Lynch get in on the action with prison-construction bonds, and companies like IBM and Toys R Us use prison labor to cut costs and increase profits. Inmates are the ideal workforce for corporations who don’t care: with no health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay, and no unions or strikes to worry about.

It’s all been a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. A crime of violence occurs once every twenty-six seconds in the United States, but far more people are arrested on cannabis charges every year than for violent crime. Each cannabis arrest costs taxpayers a minimum of $750, for an estimated annual cost of $3.6 billion.

The arrests these billions buy—and the damage they cause—are concentrated in low-income minority communities. Families disintegrate, already weak social bonds are stretched to the breaking point, and the cycle of incarceration claims another generation. The New York Times reports that for every 100 African American women out of jail, there are only 83 African American men. Nationwide that adds up to 1.5 million “missing” black men. The single largest gap is—not coincidentally—in Ferguson, Missouri, where 40 percent of black men are missing.

Innocent citizens die in SWAT raids, thousands of patients suffer and sometimes perish because they cannot get the medicine they need, and the cartels and their street-gang allies continue to add to the more than 70,000 murders they’ve committed in the United States and Mexico.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out we’d be safer redirecting those dollars toward the prevention of violent crime.

***

Every day the Harborside team proves wrong the myths linking cannabis to crime and violence. The crime rate in our neighborhood has plummeted since we opened—a direct result of the high priority we place on keeping our patients and our community safe. Our safety staff has called for police assistance only a few times since our launch, and we have taken more than $100 million of cannabis sales out of the illegal market—money that is producing jobs and taxes for local services instead of funding organized crime and corruption. It’s impossible to precisely quantify the amount of violence prevented as a result, but plenty of people have died in the Drug War for far less money.

The 2011 RAND Corporation study found that California growers and dispensaries have done their jobs so well, it’s almost impossible for the Mexican cartels to sell their much cheaper, low-quality weed in our state. At the same time, the California medical-cannabis industry has collectively paid sales taxes in the neighborhood of a billion dollars, so California’s legal cannabis providers have reduced crime and generated revenue at the same time. Not many law enforcement agencies can make the same claim, but we don’t hold it against them.

Decades of militarized conflict between cannabis people and law enforcement are being de-escalated in Oakland, where Harborside has built a close and cooperative relationship with the Oakland Police Department, despite some initial harassment by beat cops disgruntled by the new cannabis regulations. OPD has advised us on burglary and robbery abatement, and we’ve taught them how to identify legitimate medical cannabis grows. When four officers were gunned down on one awful day in 2009, we kicked in several thousand dollars to fly their relatives in for a memorial. And no small part of the $30 million in tax revenue we’ve generated has gone to preserving law enforcement jobs threatened by budget cuts.

In a turnaround that still blows my mind, we regularly get calls from law-enforcement personnel who have pulled over growers bringing us cannabis. When we verify the legal status of the transactions, the police almost always release the growers and the product. Our intervention saves the cops and attorneys from wasting time on a prosecution that will go nowhere, and our growers avoid the trauma of being arrested—another win-win solution.

We even do our best to help federal agents. When a carload of them had their vehicle broken into and a laptop with sensitive information stolen, our security manager invited them to review the recordings of our surveillance system. The Feds were able to identify the perpetrators within a few minutes and eventually apprehended them and recovered the laptop. I hope they remember our help and see it as we intended it—another small step away from the War on Drugs, and toward peace.

Bringing people together and building community has been a part of my life ever since I leased the space for my first Yippie commune in DC, and it is another of the values woven deeply into the fabric of Harborside. In fact, it is the animating principle of our entire look and feel.

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