By Patricia Whyte
Ever since he first encountered the plant at an early age, there has only been one mission for Steve DeAngelo: legalizing recreational cannabis.
“I immediately fell in love and immediately knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life like a criminal. I wasn’t going to give up the plant. So there was just one option, and that was to legalize cannabis,” DeAngelo says.
Entrepreneur, activist, author, and on-screen personality, Steve DeAngelo is often regarded as the “father of the legal cannabis industry.” He is a longtime advocate and co-founder of several iconic cannabis businesses, including Harborside, one of the oldest and largest dispensaries licensed in the United States; Steep Hill Laboratory, the first dedicated cannabis lab; The Arcview Group, the first cannabis investment firm; and the National Cannabis Industry Association, the industry’s first trade association. Famously, DeAngelo and his company Harborside were the subject of the Discovery Channel’s mini documentary series, Weed Wars. In June 2015, DeAngelo was recognized with the High Times Lester Grinspoon Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition for his four decades of activism in the cannabis reform movement.
DeAngelo didn’t know much about the plant when he was first introduced to it, remembering only what he had heard from the media and people around him. The only thing he really knew was that consuming the plant helped him become the person he wanted to be. Walking home from a friend’s house after smoking his first joint at the age of thirteen, DeAngelo thought he had felt nothing. However, while making his way through the park, he began to notice things he never had before. The sun on the back of his neck, light filtering through the leaves of trees, the gurgling of a creek and its water, the crunch of leaves beneath his feet. This was a spiritual experience.
“I didn’t recognize it at the time, but it was,” DeAngelo testifies.
And so, he had to learn more. In junior high, he would skip school, go to the University of Maryland’s library, and spend hours poring over materials. It was there that he first read documents like the East India Report from 1898 and the Canal Zone Report from 1922. He went back to the source material before prohibition to learn about the medical and industrial uses of cannabis, and the history of its illegality in the United States.
“When I learned what really lay behind cannabis prohibition, it just fired me up. I thought it was so outrageous and so unjust and such a wrong thing. So that’s what first impelled me, just the injustice,” DeAngelo recalls.
DeAngelo started his career of activism in 1971 at the age of 16. After dropping out of school, DeAngelo joined the Youth International Party, where he organized July 4th smoke-ins in Washington D.C. to protest marijuana prohibition. These protests demonstrated the futility of cannabis prohibition by gathering advocates together to consume publicly.
“And most often when we did that, there were zero arrests. So it was this very effective way of pointing out the basic hypocrisy of the laws,” DeAngelo says.
Though he continues to advocate for cannabis’s ongoing legalization, the mission of DeAngelo’s work has shifted over the years. As cannabis becomes increasingly legally acceptable in this country, we are only beginning to understand its capabilities and role in our society. According to DeAngelo, cannabis gives us the raw material we need to build a new, green economy. As the plant has enriched his life in so many ways, DeAngelo strongly believes cannabis to be a force for positive social change, and the world needs to learn of its benefits. This motivation drives not only all of his businesses, but his personal mission.
“The world is in a pretty dire situation right now. If there’s ever a time that we all need to learn how to be kind and gentle with each other, now is the time,” DeAngelo notes. “If we don’t come together in a good way and we don’t push this far, I don’t know if we’re going to have a planet.”
Alongside Steve in most of his professional and creative projects is his business partner and younger brother, Andrew DeAngelo. The two work closely, much of their relationship founded on the vulnerabilities they were able to share with one another when they first began consuming together. In their work, Steve casts the visions, and Andrew leads, manages, and executes them.
“We motivate each other. So, I gotta keep up with my brother, and when he develops new skills and new things, that… motivates me to try and build those skills too and make sure that we’re not falling behind,” Andrew comments.
With a ten-year age difference between the two, the brothers experienced a lot of distance from each other as kids. They experienced their parents’ divorce at young ages, didn’t see much of each other growing up, and had different personalities as well. Steve was a “freak;” Andrew an athlete. However, when Andrew got injured and couldn’t play sports anymore, he had his first identity crisis. He had never smoked with his brother because of sports, but one day, while he was in recovery, his brother was in the kitchen with a joint. When offered, Andrew took it for the first time.
“That experience of sharing that consciousness with my brother, with that joint and subsequently many, many sessions in his basement, opened my eyes to a world where there’s more to life than playing sports and trying to heal from our broken family,” Andrew remembers.
Sharing cannabis was the first bridge between the brothers. They started smoking together, which allowed them to experience vulnerabilities together. Much of the love Andrew and Steve have for one another is founded in the shared pain they carried from their childhoods, from dealing with both their parents’ separation and the loss of their middle brother, whom they loved profoundly.
Steve was also a guide for Andrew. “He taught me and exposed me to [counterculture] and it really set me on my path, not just in cannabis, but as a creative and as an artist too,” Andrew says.
“[Cannabis] really opened the channels of communication between myself and my brother,” Steve affirms. “The great thing about having a brother that you’ve spent so much time with and you’re so close to is that our communication is intuitive.”
Of course, there are challenges that come with working with one’s sibling, small rivalries or jealousies that may emerge along the way. However, Andrew and Steve are able to use whatever challenges they may have to motivate each other and prioritize their common mission of promoting cannabis as a vessel for social change, a cause they admit is much bigger than themselves. At the end of the day, they come together, rely on the plant, and understand the love they have for each other and the impact of their work.
“We are not ever gonna lose each other, right? That was a promise we made to each other a long time ago,” Steve attests.
As part of his ongoing calling to learn about cannabis’s cultural roles, Steve has spent time working with indigenous leaders around the globe. He just got back from Colombia, where he had the opportunity to meet with figureheads from three different tribes. According to DeAngelo, their message was crystal clear: “This plant has come into our hands so we can fix the damage that’s been done to our planet, because we don’t have much time left.”
“This is something that we’ve heard from a number of scientists. Cannabis has this amazing potential to address that problem. The biggest problem all of us are facing. This planet is threatened by all kinds of things… and this plant gives us the means to accomplish it,” DeAngelo declares.
In their ventures, Steve and Andrew push that message forward every day. Harborside, which started out as a small nonprofit organization with a mission to legalize cannabis, has now flourished into seven dispensaries, 200,000 square feet of cultivation space, 250 employees, two different brands, and several products. The company won a major court case in 2016, after a four-year battle with federal prosecutors trying to seize and shutter the dispensary through civil forfeiture. This victory effectively established the medical cannabis industry’s right to exist on a national level. Recently, Harborside achieved new heights of success by going public and being listed as part of the Canadian Stock Exchange for potential investors.
“It’s a real milestone in the evolution of Harborside and the evolution of the cannabis industry,” DeAngelo said.
Though Harborside is an American company, U.S. stock exchanges have a tenuous relationship with cannabis businesses. Canada has dealt with reform differently than the U.S.; its policies came from the federal government, and the nation had one change of law, applicable to the entire country. As a result, many of the problems American entrepreneurs face are not present in Canada. For example, because cannabis is not federally legal, companies like Harborside cannot receive federal banking in the United States nor participate in public exchange, where they can across the northern border.
“We were forced to go through this very complex set of transactions to be able to list on the Canadian Stock Exchange,” Steve says. “And you know, I love the Canadians. I’m so happy that Canada is there for us and the Canadian stock exchange opened because it gives us the capital that we need to really professionalize this industry. As an American, I’m just in a state of shock and dismay that our federal government has decided to give away what is probably the most important economic opportunity in a hundred years to the rest of the world. It’s crazy.”
Despite its challenges, this merger will give Harborside and the DeAngelos the opportunity to expand, further professionalize their business, and make cannabis more accessible for more consumers than they ever thought possible. Steve hopes that the American government will wake up to empowering homegrown companies to list on our nation’s exchanges and create local jobs. The cannabis industry thus far has created 250,000 new jobs for Americans.
“That’s more than coal! And the federal government is still burying its head in the sand and claiming the cannabis has no medical properties,” Steve observes.
Andrew adds, “If you would’ve asked me when I was eighteen in college, if we would be trading on the public markets in Canada, I would’ve said, ‘No way. I’m never going to do that.’ But the plant takes us into different places, sometimes. It gives unexpected opportunities for us to spread the seed that will save the planet.”
As Steve puts it, legalizing the plant makes society better not just for those consuming, but for everyone. As we’ve seen in California, after adult-use cannabis legalized in 2018, crime rates dropped, alcohol consumption dropped, medicare and medicaid reimbursements dropped, and even domestic violence dropped by forty percent. According to DeAngelo, “Not only does the sky not fall when you legalize cannabis, it becomes much more blue.”
But the challenges of the cannabis space still accompany the benefits. Because there is now a legal cannabis industry, billions of dollars are being made and international wealth is being created… yet white men are almost exclusively reaping the rewards of that pay. This leaves black and brown communities behind as those still imprisoned for cannabis consumption are largely minorities.
“I think everybody can prosper with cannabis, but you can’t do that, and at the same time have hundreds of thousands of people, mostly black and brown, locked up in prison with their families suffering through life without a breadwinner. That has to be fixed,” Steve emphasizes.
To that end, the DeAngelo brothers have revised their mission yet again. In Summer 2019 they launched The Last Prisoner Project (LPP), a nonprofit long in the making, dedicated to restorative justice to ensure every one of the thousands of people currently incarcerated for cannabis comes home. Through an innovative approach to clemency and reentry programs, LPP is helping to alleviate the collateral consequences suffered by marginalized communities. In that effort, Steve and Andrew have been joined by prominent figures such as Jim Belushi, Willie Nelson, and Stephen and Damian Marley, the latter pair becoming advisors to LPP’s board. The reach grows every day, combining the human impact with the power of the plant so dear to the DeAngelo brothers’ hearts.
“So, if we are known for anything a hundred years from now, I would like to be known as the person that got our brothers and sisters out of prison,” Steve says.
For those who love this planet, cannabis, and their fellow living beings, Steve and Andrew DeAngelo’s legacy is secure. We owe the evolving, brave new world of the industry to their willingness to fight for the greater good. As we all begin to enjoy more freedoms based on the foundations they’re building, let us cheer the Mother (Nature), the Brothers, and the Holy Plant. Amen.
**A version of this article appeared in print in the PRIMO edition of HONEY POT. Find the full issue in Barnes & Noble and Books A Million locations nationwide, as well as other major retailers, and digitally on the Honeysuckle Magazine app for iTunes and Google Play, Apple News and Zinio.