Meet the Marijuana Pioneer Who Spent His Life and Risked His Business Crusading for Pot

A pair of unassuming white binders sit on a little round table in the entryway of Harborside Health Center, a medical marijuana cooperative in Oakland, Calif. Leafing through the binders, you’ll find heartrending letters to and from prisoners who remain behind bars for nonviolent cannabis-related crimes. Patients who visit Harborside can write to the prisoners and receive responses. Harborside founder and CEO Steve DeAngelo said he has heard back from prisoners after they were finally released thanking him for facilitating the communication, saying connection to the cannabis community was the only thing that kept them going while behind bars.


Today the “crimes” of most cannabis prisoners are legal in four U.S. states, but many remain locked up on decades-old convictions. They’re serving time that would not be required were they convicted today, due to the many drug policy shifts that have occurred in recent years—including the fact that former Attorney General Eric Holder struck down mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for certain nonviolent drug offenders last year.

DeAngelo points out in his new book The Cannabis Manifesto: A New Paradigm for Wellness  that it’s imperative to the future of the burgeoning cannabis industry that these prisoners be let free and the injustices of prohibition be set right.

DeAngelo’s latest work brings to life the activism that has driven the cannabis legalization conversation to the paradigm shift we’re seeing today. It recounts the history of the movement and weaves a vision for the flourishing industry’s future. DeAngelo addresses the ramifications of the longstanding racist (and failed) war on drugs and the ways in which newcomers to the industry can help to make amends for the lives prohibition has destroyed. He also writes candidly about the real reasons people use cannabis—which are neither purely medical nor purely recreational.

The marijuana news site The Weed Blog has predicted The Cannabis Manifesto will soon make its way to the New York Times bestseller list and “likely go down in the history books as the most influential cannabis book of all time.”

DeAngelo is possibly the most successful cannabis business person out there. In addition to heading the $25-million-a-year business that is the planet’s largest medical marijuana dispensary, he is also president of the premier cannabis industry investment hub and angel investor network ArcView. An activist of more than 20 years, he has put his business and personal freedom on the line fighting for the liberation of the beloved and vilified herb.

Harborside has been the target of federal crackdowns despite the fact that it has operated without incident and in accordance with city and state laws since its founding eight years ago. In 2011, U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag brought a forfeiture action against Harborside to seize its building. The case claimed Harborside — which distributes more than 70 strains of cannabis — was a "superstore" serving 100,000 customers in violation of federal law. At the time, the City of Oakland came to Harborside’s defense, making it the first California city ever to challenge federal threats against a local cannabis facility. In City of Oakland v. Eric Holder, Oakland sued Haag and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to block Harborside's closure. On July 3, Judge Maria-Elena James granted a motion to stay by the City that delayed the feds' case against Harborside for 15 months.

Today, the civil forfeiture case appears to be moving forward, despite the fact that Congress passed a bill last year making it illegal for any federal entity to use federal funds to raid or interrupt the business of state-legal marijuana facilities. Additionally, the Obama administration issued guidelines requiring federal prosecutors to respecting medical marijuana businesses in medical marijuana states. The last action in the case was a hearing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2014 between the City of Oakland and the DOJ, which upheld the trial judge’s ruling that the City didn’t have standing in the case.

Next, the case will be appealed to the full court, then the Supreme Court, if necessary. At the end of July, Haag — who has largely led the crusade against Harborside — stepped down from her post as U.S. Attorney. DeAngelo said since then, Harborside has not heard anything new out of the U.S. Attorney’s office. His assumption is that the case will eventually move forward, but he isn’t too worried.

“We expect that it’s going to take a few years for that case to be fully adjudicated, and that long before it is adjudicated, political reforms will make the case moot,” DeAngelo said.

DeAngelo’s stance has always been that worldwide cannabis legalization is inevitable, and his new book declares that eventually, people everywhere may recognize it as an aid to healing and wellness rather than an intoxicating drug.

As The Cannabis Manifesto hit bookshelves nationwide on Sept. 22, DeAngelo sat in Harborside’s showroom and spoke over the steady flow of electronic music and chattering customers about his love affair with the cannabis plant, the long struggle against prohibition and his groundbreaking manifesto. Here’s what he had to say:

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Photo by Jesse Andrew Clark.

April M. Short: Let’s start at the beginning: What inspired you to write The Cannabis Manifesto?

Steve DeAngelo: My whole journey really inspired me to write it. I felt like it was about 20 years or more since any book had been written that really updated all of the arguments in favor of cannabis reform. And in those few decades since Jack Herer wrote The Emperor Wears No Clothes, there’s been a tremendous amount of scientific breakthroughs regarding cannabis, a tremendous amount of political developments, new historical discoveries relating to cannabis, and of course my whole story in the course of the last 10 years. So I felt like it was time for a foundational document. I felt that activists needed a toolkit so they could make themselves as effective as possible. I felt that there were a lot of Americans and people, really around the world, who were just beginning to wake up to this issue and take a look at it seriously, so I wrote it for them. And I wrote it for regulators and teachers and parents who are turning their minds to this issue for the first time. I mean, just really cutting to the chase, I wanted to pour gasoline on the fire of reform. I wanted to blow it up.

AMS: Why last year did you finally decide to actually sit down and tackle this project?

SD: Well, I had hoped to get to it actually sometime previously, but that effort was interrupted by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag and the ongoing lawsuits and litigation. I actually conceived of this book in 2011.

It turns out it’s great timing. When I finished the book, I knew the pace of change was going so rapidly that things would happen between the time I finished it and the time it came out. And, indeed, that’s happened. But, with that exception, I think it’s really a great time.

I was just struck by the Republican presidential debate. What we saw was, for the first time, our issue is a serious issue in a presidential campaign. That has never happened before. Cannabis has always been laughed off, it’s always been a joke, it’s never been a subject of serious policy debate. And it was, and it was [in] the Republican debate that that happened. So it was a huge breakthrough moment.

Now, there were a remarkable amount of Neanderthal attitudes on display, of course ...

AMS: But it came up.

SD: Right. But it came up.

AMS: I found it interesting that at the outset of the book you take a page to define the term “manifesto.” What called you to create a “published verbal declaration of your intentions, motives and views?" Or do you consider the book a manifesto for the larger cannabis legalization movement, through your lens?

SD: I started the book with a definition of manifesto, which is essentially a declaration of belief, because I thought it was something the cannabis movement needed. We don’t have one. We don’t have a foundational document. We don’t have a declaration of independence. We don’t have a constitution. So, I thought it was important to bring together in one place, in a fairly easily absorbed format, all of the most important arguments for reforming cannabis laws.

You know, every movement, I think, to be really effective needs to come to some kind of sense of agreement on what our most important principles are. Now, I fully expect this is going to serve as a point of discussion. I don’t claim to have all the answers. I may have many things in here wrong. It’s a beginning for a conversation, but we as a movement we need to consider what our strongest arguments are, where our strongest evidence is, and make sure we present that consistently to the public.

AMS: How did you narrow down the points of the manifesto?

SD: Well, I think writing the manifesto was a long and involved process. It went through a lot of changes in the course of writing it, but the points really came out of my years of being an advocate, of my experiences in delivering these arguments and seeing the kinds of responses that came from them. That’s really where that distillation came from. For years and years and years I’ve delivered many of these same messages, and people have said, “You know, Steve, you really need to write these down in a book.” And so I did.

AMS: One of the overarching themes in the book is that cannabis has always been a medicine. I wonder if you can just talk a little bit about how you yourself came to realize it as a medicine and wellness tool, rather than as a tool for “getting high.”

SD: I think the real catalyst for me thinking about wellness in a deeper way, and how it relates to cannabis, was shortly after we opened Harborside and I started getting questions from reporters. They usually went something like, “Well, aren't these people all in here just getting high?” Or “Don't a bunch of the people in here just want to get high?” Or “What percentage of your patients are real medical patients?”

So I had to come up with a way of answering those questions, and that forced me into a process of self-examination. I really had to think about it. I had to think about my own cannabis use. There are ways I use cannabis that are clearly medical, OK? I’ve got a back problem. My back’s hurting, I use some cannabis. All right, clearly medical. Insomnia. I’ve got some issues with insomnia. Clearly there’s a wellness feature there. But I also like to enjoy some cannabis before I go to a concert because it enhances the sound of the music. I like to enjoy cannabis before I make love because it enhances that experience for me. I like to use cannabis before I go into nature because it brings me into closer contact and communion with nature. Those things don’t feel like “getting high” to me. But they also don’t feel completely medical to me. So what are they?

And I wanted to answer these questions from reporters honestly, so as I started looking at my own cannabis use, I realized that most of it didn’t fall clearly into a “getting high” category or into a medical category. Most of my cannabis use is in what I call the “overlooked benefits of cannabis” category. Because it’s not just about getting high. Those kinds of experiences are some of the most precious and meaningful experiences in our lives. Being intimate with another person, being close to nature, having a more full spiritual experience — very important parts of our lives.

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Photo by Jesse Andrew Clark.

AMS: Have you always been able to openly talk about your personal experiences with and reasons for using cannabis? Does the public opinion shift regarding cannabis and the fact that people are realizing what it is and does make you feel better able to talk about it openly?

SD: I don’t think I even realized the way I used cannabis and thought about it myself until I was forced to confront the question, “Isn’t this all just about getting high." When I sat down and confronted that question, I realized, no it is not. It’s not about intoxication. And it’s also not for the most part, at least for me, medical. There’s this other realm of cannabis use on the spectrum and I think that’s where most cannabis use is. The overwhelming majority of cannabis use falls into that realm, not into a recreational—and "recreational" has become a code word for “just getting high” — or a medical category.

 AMS: Right, and as you said, it can be both at the same time. I might be taking care of my back pain while listening to music.

SD: That’s right.

AMS: One of the book chapters, or manifesto points, is “Cannabis Should Never Have Been Made Illegal,” and in it you speak to the way prohibition was born of racism and ignorance. Can you talk a little about how legalization can not only reverse the trend of prohibition, but also make amends for some of the damage done?

SD: It’s critically important that, as we think about how we’re going to make cannabis legal, we remember how it was made illegal and why it was made illegal. When it was made illegal, it had nothing to do with the properties of the plant. It had everything to do with the people who were using it, who were mostly brown people and black people. The racial disparity in the enforcement of cannabis laws is not an unintended consequence. It was the prime motivating purpose behind the cannabis laws in the first place. So, as we untangle this travesty, which has ruined people’s lives, which has cost people’s lives — and overwhelmingly black and brown people — we have to address and fix that historical reality.

So how do we do that? Well, in California there was just a very vigorous debate in the legislature about whether people who have been convicted of felonies, and specifically cannabis-related felonies, should be allowed to be licensees in the regulated system. The law enforcement officers in the state of California threatened to walk away from the table and not support regulation unless a provision was included in there that allows the regulating authority to deny licenses to people convicted of felonies, including people convicted of nonviolent cannabis felonies.

For me to say to somebody who was convicted of a cannabis crime that they are not allowed to participate in the new cannabis industry is piling injustice upon injustice. It’s also just plain stupid from a policy point of view, OK? We have a terrible problem with mass incarceration in this country, and now we’re beginning to wake up to that. And we’re going to have a lot of ex-felons who are out of prison, and they’re gonna be looking for jobs. Let’s give them some. I mean, the last thing we want to do is be blocking off a pathway for legitimate employment for people.

And then there’s another factor. If you walk into most industry conferences, or most industry gatherings, most of the people in there look like me. They’re middle-aged white guys. Not acceptable. Not acceptable. This industry cannot look like every other industry in the United States of America. Not with the history. Not with the suffering. Not with what we’ve gone through. It’s not OK. So the industry itself has to raise the flag of diversity, has to embrace diversity not as an obligation but because we know it’s a strength. We have to correct this wrong, and that means reaching out to and making a comfortable place for communities of color, for women, for people of different orientations, for people of different abilities.

AMS: Right. You’ve been saying this, and a number of people have been saying this. Michelle Alexander, an attorney who’s originally from here, from Oakland, and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has been one especially vocal participant in the conversation about lack of diversity in the burgeoning cannabis industry. So, since you’re one of the, or maybe the, most successful cannabis entrepreneur out there, how do you build that awareness into your business? And as new cannabis entrepreneurs — mostly white men — enter the industry, how would you recommend they go about keeping in touch with the movement, and helping minority communities be a part of it?


SD: Well, I think what we want to do is bring oppressed communities into the industry so that it’s not a question of the industry reaching out to those communities, it’s a question of “Do those communities have representation and are they a part of this industry?”

How do we do that? We do it by working that value into every aspect of what we do. We work it into our recruiting so that when we’re recruiting we take the efforts that we need to reach out to the groups that are underrepresented in our industry and invite them in.

Don’t wait for the resumes to come across the transom: reach out. Let people know they’re welcome. Support groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association and Women Grow, who are working to create that welcoming space. Bring it into your training. Make sure everybody in the organization knows from the very beginning that diversity and respect for diversity is a critical cultural value, and that it’s a meritocracy. That it doesn't matter what you’ve got between your legs or what color your skin is: If you do a good job you’re going to rise to your fullest potential. We need to make sure we do that in our marketing. In the way that we present our businesses to the world we need to make sure we represent a full and diverse face to people. Just work it into every single thing that we do.

AMS: The last sentence of your book is a pretty powerful statement: “We will not rest until the last cannabis prisoner is set free.” Could you talk a bit about the fact that, despite the changing tide when it comes to state and national drug policy, people remain incarcerated — often with life sentences — for doing what is now legal in many of the states where they are being held, which is selling, growing, using cannabis?

SD: Speaking for myself, my job is not going to be done until the last cannabis prisoner on this planet walks out of their cell and nobody ever goes in there again. Until that happens, I will keep on fighting. I think it’s a moral imperative of the cannabis industry to continue doing that. It is repugnant to me that people could be on the outside making money and benefitting from this plant and not do everything they could do to make sure all the cannabis prisoners are free. It’s repugnant to me. I think every successful cannabis business has an obligation and a duty to move that effort forward.

AMS: And you’re a huge proponent of people in the cannabis business also being activists, and you live that. Why? You are so successful business-wise, and theoretically you could just say, “I’m just gonna do my thing in Oakland with this dispensary, and that’s it.”

SD: The reason Harborside is successful is because of the community we’ve created here. It’s not just me and not just my vision or business acumen. It’s because we’ve created a community a lot of people derive value out of. Our patients derive value, our staff derives value, the entire city derives value out of it. I think that’s really the success of Harborside: you don’t have to choose between thriving financially and having values in your business.

Branding, think about branding in the future. We’re marketing to the smartest generation of humans that has ever been created. This generation has greater access to information and they can get it more quickly. They can synthesize that information into new ideas and act on it in a way that no other generation in human history has ever done. You cannot market and brand to the smartest generation like you did to previous generations. If you put a fancy jingle out and you put up a billboard and a bunch of fancy advertising, out are gonna come the phones, and people are gonna say, "OK, how do you grow your product? How do you treat your workers? How do you interact with your community?" And I’ll tell you what, if there is any discernable gap between the image you’re putting out and what you’re practicing, the smartest generation will find it and blow you to pieces.

So branding and marketing moving into the future, is very much a values-based proposition. People are going to spend their dollars with organizations they think reflect their values, and if they don’t they’re gonna go somewhere else.

AMS: In states so far that have legalized across-the-board adult-use cannabis, it’s been interesting the way they’ve each handled medical marijuana, and nowhere is it recognized as just a straight-across wellness product. What do you think it will take for cannabis to be seen as a wellness product like you describe in the book?

SD: If you take a look at not just the laws in the U.S. but public consciousness, the idea that you have to choose between “recreational cannabis”—or just getting high— and medical cannabis is a very widespread attitude. I think that's the way most people look at cannabis. I think it's going to take some rethinking and reimagining. I think individual cannabis users are going to need to read the information and go through the same process I did, of really thinking about our own cannabis use and what it means to us and how we relate to it. I think that first we change the consciousness of the cannabis community, because we all have direct experience with this phenomenon. There’s not one person I’ve talked to and described wellness theory to who uses cannabis that does not get it. So we start with the cannabis community, educate ourselves, and then we can move that consciousness out to the greater public. That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the book.

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Photo by Jesse Andrew Clark.

AMS: Several medical marijuana states have gone on to legalize recreational marijuana, and integrating medical into the overall legalization scheme has been an issue in all of them. Some (Colorado) have done better than others (Washington). Given that California is likely to vote to legalize recreational next year, what are your concerns about what will happen to medical marijuana in the state? And does the passage of the medical marijuana regulation package ease those concerns or not?

SD: In California and in every other state in the country I favor a unitary cannabis system. I don’t think there’s any logical, rational reason to separate the supply chain and the distribution functions of the cannabis industry into two different categories. It is the same plant. To a large degree, it's the same consumers, certainly people in the same areas.


So, in Colorado, you’ll walk into a shop that’s run by one company. There’s a wall down the middle of the shop. One one side, all the medical cannabis patients go, on the other side all the other adult-use consumers go. The selection is identical on each side. There’s no difference. It's grown by the same growers, it’s the same products. But, in order to maintain this wall between medical and “recreational” the operators are required to have a completely separate inventory, a completely separate point of sale system, completely separate managers and employees. It is crazy. Now, who pays the cost of that? The consumer pays the cost of that. There's no reason to do that.

What I favor is a system in California where you have the same supply chain. One group of people grows the cannabis, manufactures the cannabis, distributes the cannabis, sells the cannabis no matter what consumer it’s going to. The only difference is at the sales counter, where people who have a recommendation from their doctor are exempted from whatever taxes are placed on it. That’s all that really needs to happen.

AMS: If you could pick a moment that solidified for you that the fight to liberate the cannabis plant would be your fight and your life’s work, when was that?

SD: I knew that at a very, very, very young age. I think probably with my first experience with the cannabis plant I knew it was going to play a very important role in my life. I just knew it. But I’ve been an activist for a long time and there've been a lot of really critical moments.If I had to identify the single most critical moment in my career it would be the day the federal government taped a notice to the front door of Harborside saying they were going to seize the property we were located in unless we voluntarily moved out. In that moment we had to make the decision either to stand up in fight or to close down. Most of the people who gave me advice on that decision advised me to quietly close Harborside, move to another property on the other side of town and reopen. I will always be very, very happy that I made the other decision and decided to stand up and fight for what was right, no matter what the consequences would be.

AMS: And you’re still dealing with those consequences.

SD: That decision has cost the Harborside organization millions of dollars. It’s cost me many, many sleepless nights; it’s not over yet. But this is an example of putting into practice the lessons and the values the cannabis plant teaches. One of the lessons the cannabis plant teaches you is to be true to yourself. For me, to have closed down and backed down in the face of the federal government would not have been true to myself.

AMS: In the book you talk about cannabis as a valuable plant, and you talk about how, in addition to the wellness benefits of cannabis,  hemp could become a huge fuel source, renewable industrial product and so on. At the end of the book you declare eventually legalization will win and the whole world eventually will legalize. Why are you so sure of that?

SD: I am certain, absolutely certain with every single cell and fiber in my being that cannabis is going to be legal and accepted in every corner of the world. Why? Because it’s the most valuable plant on the planet. There is no other plant that gives us so many benefits and asks so little in return. Once people understand that, the pressure to change the laws is going to be unstoppable. It already is unstoppable in some places in the world.

This is the critical point in the cannabis debate. We need to ask ourselves, "Is this a good plant or a bad plant?" There are large parts of our movement that have bought into the prohibitionist paradigm and said, “Well, it’s not really good, exactly, but it's—well, it’s safer than alcohol. We can control it, it’s better if you legalize and control it. It’s a little bit harmful but we can make it less harmful that way.”

No. It is a good plant. It is a profoundly good plant. It is the most valuable plant on the planet. It has to be unshackled. There are millions of people dying and suffering, there are tons and tons of carbon being put into the atmosphere that does not need to be. If we want to heal ourselves and heal our planet, we need to embrace this plant.

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