“A bunch of really bad things can happen to me and my family if things go sideways here. And then you consider the alternative, which is if you don't take action, then maybe this plant, which already has and will undoubtedly save millions of lives, is kept locked away in a cage. You make the risk calculation once and you go, ‘Gulp!’”
Activist, author, entrepreneur and founder of Harborside Health Center, the world’s largest medical cannabis dispensary, opens up about what ignited his 40-year crusade, modern cannabis culture and his personal routine.
In conversation, the first thing that strikes you about Steve is a kindness in his eyes that accompanies a rich, confident voice and larger-than-life presence. He carries himself with an ease that brings to mind his Cannabis Manifesto, which reads like the distilled insights of someone who has put himself in the lived experiences of a wide array of people. For anyone reaping the benefits of medical cannabis, Steve DeAngelo has long been one of the most tenacious voices—if not the leading voice—fiercely advocating on behalf of the flower and the people it can help heal.
TH: At what age did cannabis enter your life?
Steve DeAngelo: 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. 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.
TH: When did you realize you’d become an activist for the cause?
SD: It was a progression of moments. 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. Then there was a racial component to this, too. 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. Another moment, I saw a picture of Allen Ginsberg, who was kind of like a hero of mine, in a photograph standing in an overcoat looking quite miserable with a sign around his neck that says “Pot is Fun.” Right? This is my first inkling of cannabis activism, that you could actually start challenging the preconceptions and the stigma.
TH: The cannabis movement is gaining massive momentum. Are there parts you wish would slow down?
SD: 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.
TH: What’s your greatest concern about this movement right now?
SD: I mean, when Jefferson Sessions gets up and says that he thinks cannabis is only just a little bit less horrible than heroin, when he says that good people don't use cannabis, when he says that he's going to enforce the laws of the United States rigorously and faithfully, when he tells his prosecutors to seek the maximum penalty for drug crimes, that directly affects me.
Under federal cannabis law, you can be sentenced to death for every 60,000 cannabis plants that you possess or distribute. I distribute about 2,000 little cannabis plants to patients every day so they can grow their own medicine. The bad news is I'm eligible—I mean, they could lock me up for the rest of my life or execute me if they got a conviction. You sort of make the risk calculation once and you go, “Okay. A bunch of really bad things can happen to me and my family if things go sideways here.” And then you consider the alternative, which is if you don't take action, then maybe this plant, which already has and will undoubtedly save millions of lives, is kept locked away in a cage. You make the risk calculation once and you go, “Gulp!” The worst thing that happens is these guys hurt me in some way personally, but in the meantime, I get to have the most wonderful mission that anybody could ever have. I'm fine with those odds.
TH: Are you worried Big Pharma will come in and cheapen the product?
SD: I'm pretty sure Big Pharma won't cheapen the product because Big Pharma doesn't cheapen anything. They specialize in taking something that should be relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated and make it extremely expensive and complicated and available from only one source. 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, and it becomes expensive and difficult for people to access cannabis, 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.
TH: How does one describe being high?
SD: 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. You can put that down to saying, "Oh, yeah. Well, when I was high, those roses looked really great and smelled wonderful, but I was just high." Or you can go, "Cannabis has opened my eyes to seeing this creation of nature and appreciating it in its fullness. This is a valuable lesson, and I'm going to carry it around with me." 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.
TH: How has cannabis helped you the most?
SD: 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. Stoner epiphanies, right? Promoting self-examination, helping me to be the person that I really want to be.
TH: What does your cannabis routine look like?
SD: I use cannabis on a daily basis. Generally, it's edible cannabis while I'm working and dabbed cannabis when I'm not. I find that edible cannabis energizes me. It takes away my aches and pains. It improves my mood. It doesn't diminish my focus or my drive. When I smoke cannabis, it's relaxing for me. My drive decreases. I open my mind to different things that I'm not quite as focused on as when I'm working. I usually start off with a PRANA THC capsule in the morning, then I repeat that midday, and then the dose increases in the late afternoon.
If I'm really running rough at the end of the day, and it's been a bumpy day for whatever reason and I'm just kind of not into it and really feel like I'm not working anymore, then sometimes I'll have a couple of dabs or step out on my balcony and smoke a little bit of a joint and then I'm good for another couple of hours of emails or whatever it is that I need to wrap up. Cannabis can give me stamina when I'm running out of gas. After I stop working, generally, I will start dabbing. That's pretty much the routine, except when I go to Grateful Dead concerts or on a hike or something else that's really enjoyable. I'll generally roll several really big, fat joints that are packed with hash and a bunch of cannabis products that most people probably can't afford to pack into a joint, and I make them big enough so that I can get everybody within sight stoned. That's my social routine.
TH: Well, I hope to bump into you at a Grateful Dead concert then. What other forms of wellness do you practice?
SD: I do some yoga, swimming, hiking, biking, acupuncture, and massage almost every week. I live in a place where I'm fortunate to be surrounded by trees, and walking through the trees is, for me, a real act of wellness. I'm 59 years old, so there is some saw palmetto that's a part of my regular routine and there's wellness formulas to boost my immune system, but 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 empathic, 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.
TH: How do you find joy in the middle of constant controversy around the cannabis industry?
SD: 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 of their own. 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.