In January, when Steve DeAngelo announced his departure from Harborside, the California cannabis dispensary he co-founded that has become a flagship of the industry, the sudden move turned more than a few heads. A product of decades of drive and activism to gain legal acceptance for cannabis, Harborside was just one of the feathers in the hat perched above DeAngelo’s trademark dual braids that earned him the title of the Father of Legal Cannabis from former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.
In addition to Harborside, one of the first six licensed medical marijuana dispensaries in the country, DeAngelo is one of the founders of Steep Hill, the first analytic laboratory dedicated to testing commercial cannabis for purity and potency. He is also a co-founder of the Arcview Group, the first dedicated cannabis investment network. And in 2019, he directed much of his attention to the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit he helped create with the aim of securing the release of all cannabis prisoners.
It’s a lofty goal. With approximately 40,000 people behind bars for cannabis offenses in the United States and untold thousands more worldwide, the group has its work cut out for itself. The failed War on Drugs has become a global affair, and DeAngelo is determined to see it end equitably as legalization slowly spreads from country to country and a new industry takes hold. He believes the key to success is creating an inclusive industry where all are welcome, a value he said in a recent Zoom interview is characteristic of the sense of community engendered by the plant.
“I got into cannabis business as an activist. And while my activism has always been focused on cannabis primarily, it’s also encompassed what I believe are the lessons that cannabis teaches us,” says DeAngelo. “So, I have been an anti-racist activist. I have been a peace activist. I have been an environmental activist. I have been an income equality activist. All of those values are important to me. And so, I want to see an industry that’s based on those values.”
Creating A Global Network
To his credit, connecting the global cannabis community has been a mission of DeAngelo’s for years. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, he traveled the world on a 200-day global tour in 2019 to learn about cannabis legalization issues in countries as diverse as Jamaica, Spain and Morocco. The last stop before the pandemic shut travel down was Mexico. And after being vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, it became his first destination of 2021.
After the country’s supreme court ruled in 2018 that prohibitions against the personal use and cultivation of marijuana are unconstitutional, lawmakers are currently in the process of drafting legislation that will create the largest legal cannabis market in the world. That prospect has attracted the attention of a growing cadre of stakeholders including academics, entrepreneurs, and rural and indigenous small-scale farmers known as campesinos.
Drafting the regulations to govern Mexico’s legal cannabis economy has proven to be a slow process, and the court has extended the deadline for completion more than once. But DeAngelo says the Senate could finish the task by November.
“It’s a really exciting place to me because Mexico is legalizing at the federal level. And that means that some of the leading institutions in Mexican life are willing to start taking a look at cannabis and potentially get involved with it,” he explains. “From the leading universities and research centers in the country to some of the agrarian and campesino organizations that have been a major part of Mexican life ever since the Mexican Revolution in 1910.”
A New Revolution Takes Shape
The excitement surrounding imminent cannabis legalization in Mexico is palpable, DeAngelo says. In addition to the buzzing prospect of economic opportunity, reform is spurring a cultural transformation as the country’s underground “cannabis tribe” leaves the shadows and demands recognition.
“What’s super exciting in Mexico is not just that this new legal industry is going to be created, but more that cannabis is part of an overall huge social revolution that looks and feels a lot like the social revolution we had in [the rest of] North America during the 1960s and the early 1970s,” he asserts.
Although the movement has yet to be given a name, DeAngelo says a cohesive structure of goals and values is taking shape among Mexico’s cannabis freedom fighters and their progressive allies. Key tenets of this new revolution are a complex of fierce feminism, a deep commitment to the environment and sustainability, newfound respect and care for indigenous peoples and their knowledge, and a profoundly radical commitment to diversity, inclusion, economic justice and fairness.
Such an environment of resistance is familiar to DeAngelo, who cut his activist teeth as a teenager at a Washington, D.C. pot legalization rally in 1974. The spirit of that era is playing out in Mexico, where activists are making their point via dramatic, and sometimes humorous, tactics. In a park adjacent to the Mexican Senate, activists have created a plantón, a demonstration akin to an occupation by protestors. Dubbed Plantón 420, the mini-community that DeAngelo describes as “a thing of remarkable beauty” includes a garden of cannabis plants growing as high as 12-feet tall.
“Not just one or two, but dozens of them,” he exclaims. “There’s this cannabis forest, this cannabis community, and everybody’s blazing away and giving news interviews. And not one cop has come there to harass them the whole time.”
The cannabis community’s activism is alive and well beyond 420 Plantón, as well. When police in Mexico City implemented a policy that allowed them to search patrons of the subway system for cannabis, the tribe pushed back with a highly visible protest.
“Mexican cannabis activists reacted by creating this whole parade, literally hundreds and hundreds of people who carried live cannabis plants into the subway of Mexico City and dared the cops to bust them,” DeAngelo explains, chuckling.
It Takes A Village
But the drive to legalize cannabis isn’t all about fun, of course. True to his roots, DeAngelo’s passion for reform in Mexico and around the world stems from his belief in the healing and regenerative properties of the plant for both people and the planet. And he also sees cannabis as a path for health and prosperity for indigenous people and other marginalized communities. As an example, DeAngelo recounted his experience with the people of the rural farming village of La Pe in central Oaxaca.
Before DeAngelo’s visit to the community in March, a friend had delivered a bottle of CBD oil to a resident of the village named Florida and her teenage son Sebastian, who is living with a severe form of epilepsy. Unable to walk and subject to “almost constant seizures,” the young man had lived much of his life at home in isolation. While a laundry list of traditional pharmaceuticals over the years had failed to provide relief, the CBD oil worked wonders almost immediately.
“In the month that they’ve been using it there’s just been a complete turnaround and Sebastian’s health condition,” DeAngelo reports. “The seizures stopped. He was able to start walking. He engaged with people who were around to a degree that he had never been able to do before.”
Sebastian’s progress has inspired a village, and DeAngelo’s visit to La Pe coincided with the community’s first communal planting of cannabis, consisting of a small plot of both medicinal strains and industrial hemp. The nutritional benefits of the plant have also been recognized by the village’s residents, who now grind hemp seeds, a source of high-quality protein, into the corn for their tortillas. The villagers of La Pe have embraced the attributes of cannabis so dearly that sowing the seeds of the first crop took on an air of ceremony for the community.
“They recognized that the planting was so important, that our connection with plants and with Mother Nature is so precious, that the work that we’re up to is so critical, that they wanted the heart, the consciousness, the soul of the entire village focused on this mission,” DeAngelo imparts reverently. “And it was a beautiful thing to see.”
He believes that the kind of relationship with cannabis that is being fostered by the residents of La Pe has the promise to bring prosperity to whole communities. But harvesting the full potential of the plant will require structuring a new local industry that includes not just cultivating a crop, but also incorporates value-added steps such as processing, manufacturing and branding that keep more of the profit at home.
“One of the things that I’m working on in Mexico is trying to figure out how the legal cannabis industry can help empower communities that traditionally have been disempowered and teach them how to capture as much of the supply chain as possible,” DeAngelo explains.
Although his time spent in Mexico and around the world has included entrepreneurial pursuits, DeAngelo says that he’s reached a point in his career that he no longer cares to be in a competitive situation with the rest of the industry. But he is “very interested in helping businesses whose values and ethics align with mine.”
That spirit of cooperation will be integral to the continued success of the movement to legalize and democratize cannabis on a global level. To help spread the gospel of ganja and share the gains made by activists around the world, DeAngelo is also devoting time to Radio Free Cannabis, a venture that invites cannabis journalists to report on the movement from locales far and wide. Originally launched as a podcast, the concept has evolved into a video program on Social Network TV, with new episodes dropping approximately every two weeks.
When he parted ways with the cannabis dispensary he helped create earlier this year (although he remains a stockholder in the business), many in the cannabis community viewed the change as the end of an era. But DeAngelo sees the move as the next chapter in a chronicle of activism that began at a rally to legalize cannabis decades ago.
“I spent almost 15 years at Harborside. It was time for me to move on and to start doing some other things in the world of cannabis,” he says. “And I’m really grateful that I have the opportunity to do that now, to be able to focus on projects like Radio Free Cannabis, to have the ability to work with indigenous campesino organizations in Mexico, and to advance this very distinct vision of the kind of industry that I think needs to be built in the world.”