“Imagine being in a cell, looking out and seeing people build intergenerational wealth for doing exactly the same thing you’re locked up for. We will not rest and we will not stop until the last cannabis prisoner is set free.” — Steve DeAngelo, aka ‘Father of Cannabis’
Steve DeAngelo has long been one of the — if not — THE most tenacious voices fiercely advocating on behalf of the flower and the people it can help heal.
The activist, author, and entrepreneur has 40 plus years in the cannabis trenches and was dubbed ‘Father of the Cannabis Industry’ by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown for good reason. Steve has co-founded ArcView Investment Group, Steep Hill Laboratory, and most notably Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Harborside, a vertically integrated California cannabis company now trading publicly on the Canadian Securities Exchange under the ticker symbol HBOR. Harborside Health Center, is an iconic dispensary chain that originated in Oakland, CA. Steve’s latest undertaking is Last Prisoner Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to repairing the past and continuing harms of the criminalization of cannabis.
Despite the legal cannabis industry (predictably) taking off, there are more arrests for cannabis possession per year than for all violent crimes combined. Minorities —especially black and brown people — are disproportionately subject to cannabis-related law enforcement. And this is after cannabis-law reforms.
There are currently over 40,000 incarcerated people in the US who have endured months or years of incarceration —not to mention the permanent blight on their records. Many affected individuals lack the knowledge or financial resources to seek relief through clemency and/or expungement. Goals centered on social and economic justice and equity for those convicted of cannabis-related crimes tend to clash with entrenched stakeholders’ agendas. For instance, efforts to legalize recreational cannabis use in New York and New Jersey stalled in the spring, in part over disagreements about expungement provisions. New York eventually signed a bill earlier this summer. The forces behind the Last Prisoner Project are intent on making sure that black and brown individuals and communities receive their equitable share of the benefits of the legal cannabis industry and bringing about the day when every last cannabis prisoner on the planet is released, welcomed home and supported.
In conversation, the first thing that strikes you about Steve is a kindness that comes through his eyes and accompanies a rich, confident voice and larger-than-life presence. He carries himself with an ease that brings to mind his book, The Cannabis Manifesto, which reads like the distilled insights of someone who has put himself in the lived experiences of a wide array of people.
On Last Prisoner Project
Trying to unroll something as deeply entrenched in America as racism requires a big push.
Those of us fortunate enough to find success and build wealth in the cannabis industry have an opportunity to make sure that every single cannabis prisoner is released and supported through the process of rebuilding their lives by providing support for clemency, expungement and re-entry programs that provide training and resources to help those released to rebuild their lives and be supported by their communities.
We want to get every single cannabis prisoner out of their cells and back home to their families.
First impression of cannabis
I grew up in a civil rights house. I was five years old at Martin Luther King's march in Washington, making sandwiches for the marchers, and saw it being used at the demonstrations. I saw it as an anti-war thing.
On becoming an activist
There was the first time I was harassed by cops for being involved with cannabis. That stung. I didn't like the feeling of fear. I didn't like the way they tried to humiliate me. It made me angry. I grew up in one of the few integrated parts of Washington, D.C. and went to a school that had Hispanic kids, black kids and white kids in more or less equal proportion, and we all hung out together. It was really evident that the brown kids and the black kids who smoked cannabis were getting arrested at a higher rate than any of us white kids were.
Then there was this moment I saw a picture of Allen Ginsberg, who was kind of a hero of mine, in a photograph standing in an overcoat looking quite miserable with a sign around his neck that said “Pot is Fun.” Right? This was my first inkling of cannabis activism, that you could actually start challenging the preconceptions and the stigma.
First introduction to cannabis use
When I was 13 at a friend's house, we shared a joint. I felt nothing. On my way home, I walked through a park that was a thoroughfare and started noticing things that I never noticed before. I can smell this richness and this life that's in there. I feel the sun on the back of my neck and I look up. I see that same sun filtering through the leaves on the trees. I can hear the crunch of dried leaves under my feet. I feel sweat begin to come up on the back of my neck, and I hear a stream gurgling in the distance. I have this moment of transcendence where I felt, in a really intimate way, connected to the web of life. I didn't recognize it then, but looking back, I recognize it as the first genuine spiritual moment in my life. It was like, “Wow. I'm connected to all of these things, and they're connected to me, and they're all connected to each other.” I came out of that knowing that cannabis was this very special thing and that it was going to be a part of my life.
On the state of the industry
We’re seeing a kind of unfortunate trend in the cannabis industry toward professionalization putting the legacy farmer out of business. A lot of the folks who are having a difficult time finding their way in the legal cannabis industry are the people who sacrificed the most to bring it about. They're also the people who have the deepest affinity for, love for, and understanding of the cannabis plant.
Mother Nature has this beautiful check on the cannabis industry. If we get too far out of hand, whether through pharmaceutical companies or profit-making cannabis companies, people will do what they've been doing for decades. They will take these little seeds that Mother Nature has given us, and they will put those seeds in the ground.
Describe being high
It’s a different feeling for different people. There are certain truths about this plant you can’t lose sight of, and one of them is that it's a psychedelic substance. One of the factors that comes into play with any psychedelic substance is something known as set and setting. Set refers to your mindset. What's going on? Where are you? What are your circumstances? Your set and setting will have a profound effect on the way cannabis works for you. That's something that everybody will have to tune in to. I think cannabis has these really special lessons to teach us, and you won't learn all of the lessons in one encounter, and not everybody learns the same lessons. But it teaches us these things that, if we take them seriously, can be really powerful. Like the thing that happened with me when I first tried cannabis: I started appreciating nature. It doesn't matter whether I'm ingesting cannabis or not. I've had that experience. I've learned that lesson. I think cannabis can teach a whole range of lessons about creativity and about patience and playfulness and honesty and intimacy.
On personal cannabis use
Taming the addictive parts of my personality is the most important contribution. My mother's family was composed of seven siblings and she was the only one who didn't die of alcohol-related causes before 60. I realized after a few years of some pretty horrifying experiences that I was headed for the fate that my uncles and aunts had experienced, and cannabis was there for me when I decided to stop drinking alcohol. It saved my life and allowed me to be a productive, functioning human being. It has made me gentler. I'm a person who has a lot of passion and energy, and when I decide on something, it's very difficult for me to accept no for an answer. That's a good quality to have in an activist, but it's also something that needs to be tempered from time to time. Cannabis helps me temper that energy and what can turn into uncomfortable aggression if it doesn't find its right balance.
I think cannabis has been helpful in my relationships with people who are unlike me. I think it has allowed me to put myself in somebody else's shoes. It makes me more generous.
I find that smoking cannabis tends to relax me more than I want while at work, so [I use] edible cannabis while I'm working and dabbed cannabis when I'm not. Edible cannabis energizes me, and takes away my aches and pains. It doesn't diminish my focus or my drive. When I smoke cannabis, it's much more relaxing for me. My drive decreases, I become more relaxed and it opens my mind to different things.
Most of my healthcare is outside the traditional Western system. We have great health insurance at Harborside, and I typically get all of those scientific tests, and they don't tell me anything that I don’t already know, and they aren't able to do anything to make me feel better than I already do. There's this whole school of medicine called ‘compassion medicine.’ When you are kind to somebody—not just empathetic, but when you take some type of action to assist another human being in a selfless way—it gives you measurable health benefits. Those health benefits are equal in magnitude to the benefits of being at your right body mass and exercising regularly.
On living a life in the middle of controversy
I stay happy with cannabis. I'm blessed to be surrounded by people who take care of me, appreciate me and love me. I have been with my partner Yoli for more than 15 years. I never had kids of my own because I was afraid that maybe I'd be in prison or something and couldn't take care of them. Yoli has two daughters, each of whom have two daughters. I'm surrounded by these very strong and beautiful women who are powerful carriers of light force. And the people that I work with--it's such a joy to work with people who are so talented and so dedicated. Of all the things that you can do and be in this world, I can’t think of anything groovier than to be the carrier of a flower that brings people joy and happiness and heals their diseases.
More information can be found at www.lastprisonerproject.org, @lastprisonerproject on Twitter or text FREEDOM to 24365.
The Highly Recommended: The Cannabis Manifesto, by Steve DeAngelo
Art by Jenny Kroik
There should be self-sanitizing doorknobs!
— Stoner Epiphanies, anonymous