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‘Our Struggle Is Not Going to End Until the Last Cannabis Prisoner Walks Out of Their Cell’

Steve DeAngelo, California’s godfather of weed, surveys the landscape of a brave new world.


This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Name: Steve DeAngelo
Occupation: Cofounder and executive director of Harborside
Age: 58
Residence: Oakland

San Francisco: This must be quite a time to be a weed activist.
Steve DeAngelo: Yes. It hasn’t been easy. Legacy cannabis people—we’ve been raided, we’ve been arrested, we’ve been put on trial, we’ve been locked up in prison, we’ve had our homes seized, and our bank accounts seized, and our children seized, and we’ve been sentenced to ridiculously long terms in prison, and sometimes lost our lives. But we embraced this plan anyhow, because we knew it was a good plan. We knew this change was important.

What was election night like?
It was really strange. I’ve been working to legalize cannabis my entire life, since I was 14 years old. So I was just euphoric and elated, feeling very, very happy. Even the election of Donald Trump didn’t do a whole lot to dampen my joy. But all around me I saw people who were really, profoundly upset and scared. It was a very surreal night.

How could a Trump administration affect the progress that was just made?
There’s some concern about [attorney general nominee] Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, because he has advocated strict enforcement of drug laws in the past. But he’s also a strict constitutionalist, so we hope that he’s going to stick by his principles and not interfere with any states that have chosen to have a different position.

Did the election suggest that attitudes about pot may be changing?
We won eight out of nine cannabis reform initiatives nationwide. The only way that happened was through the votes of millions of Trump voters, so what we see at the national level is that there was really only one bipartisan consensus amongst voters this election cycle, and that was cannabis reform. Both red states and blue states, Clinton voters and Trump voters, embraced cannabis reform.

So does that mean that your work is done?
The passage of Prop. 64 is just one more battle in a long, ongoing war. Our struggle is not going to end until the last cannabis prisoner walks out of their cell, no matter where they are, anywhere on this planet. Until that happens, we are not going to stop, and we are not going to rest. The next step is going to be making sure that we get similar initiatives or laws passed in all 50 states, and that we get the federal government to start listening to the voters and legalize at the federal level.

Are there any problems with Prop. 64 you’d like to see amended?
The largest license that can be issued for outdoor growing under Prop. 64 is one acre. I think this is a problem for California, because in other states, like Colorado, they are allowing much, much larger cultivation. California’s going to need to compete for the national market for cannabis, and I don’t think that we’ll be able to compete effectively for that market if all of the large growers of cannabis are located in other states. At the same time, I think that it’s really important that we make sure there’s a place in the new cannabis economy for small cannabis growers, for a lot of the folks who have carried this plant through the long and dark and difficult years of prohibition.

Are you worried that big, Fortune 500–type corporations will eventually take over the industry?
Sure. Look, I’ve known since the day I started working on legalizing cannabis that if we were successful, corporations would be involved. But I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. I think that’s a good thing. Nothing is mainstream in the United States of America until it’s in the mainstream of commerce. There’s not enough hippies in Northern California to get this plant into the medicine cabinet of every American family, much less the medicine cabinet of every family around the world.

Can you do all that and still keep weed a part of the counterculture?
I don’t want to wall it off in a counterculture ghetto. I don’t want it to remain in the subculture forever: I want this plant to go from subculture to culture. It is not a defeat for us to have corporations take this plant and spread it around the world. It is our ultimate victory. This is like the Trojan horse that the counterculture built and rolled right into the heart of corporate America!


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco 

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