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Steve DeAngelo: “Cannabis is the biggest medical breakthrough of our time”

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Steve DeAngelo has been at the forefront of the campaign to legalise cannabis for decades. Photo: Jamie Soja

Dubbed the ‘father of the legal cannabis industry’, Steve DeAngelo is a trailblazer of legalisation and a world-leading expert on cannabis for medical and wellbeing purposes. Here, he tells Sarah Sinclair how the plant saved his life and why he believes it can save the planet. 

 

“I’d probably be dead without cannabis,” admits DeAngelo, on Zoom from his home in California. 

Having watched six of his mother’s siblings succumb to alcohol dependency, the 62-year-old really does credit the plant with saving his life. 

“I come from a family with a history of alcoholism. There were seven siblings and six of them died prematurely,” he continues.

“As a young man, I saw myself heading down that same path and I really credit cannabis with helping me stay healthy and find a productive lifestyle.”

But, he adds: “That’s just the beginning of the relationship.”

Photo: Founders Forum

DeAngelo’s first experience of cannabis is one which will resonate with many; smoking a joint in a friend’s bedroom as a 13-year-old boy. 

Walking home through the same park he passed through every day, he had what he now describes as his first “spiritual experience”. 

“I’d never really noticed much about what was going on in that park, until that day,” he says.

“I started noticing the light filtering down through the leaves and the way that the light was casting shadows on the path. The way that my foot was stepping on dry leaves underneath. The sun on the back of my neck . The gurgling of a creek in the background. There was one moment where all of those things came together and I felt like I was connected to this whole web of nature.

“I knew when I came out of that park that cannabis was going to be in my life forever,” he adds. 

But growing up under heavy prohibition in the early 70s, DeAngelo was also aware that his enlightening discovery was illegal. 

“Cannabis helped us be the people we really wanted to be”

An early advocate

Raised by parents who were active in the civil rights movement and already skipping school to attend anti-war protests, DeAngelo was never going to keep his head down and subject himself to a life of consuming in the shadows. 

“If I saw an injustice, it was very natural for me to stand up and try to do something about it,” he says. 

“I didn’t know anything about the medical effects of cannabis or the endocannabinoid system – which hadn’t even been discovered yet –  at the time.

“What me and my friends knew was that cannabis helped us be the people that we really wanted to be. It taught us a new set of lessons, a new set of ideals at a time when we were profoundly disillusioned with what we saw going on in the world around us.”

DeAngelo eventually dropped out of school completely to join the Youth International Party – also known as the Yippies – and went onto become the lead organiser of the annual Fourth of July Smoke-In in Washington DC, carrying the position for a decade. 

He later opened what would be known as a legendary D.C. counter-cultural gathering place that became known as a refuge for local cannabis and peace activists during the Reagan-Bush era, and played a pivotal role in the passage of Initiative 59, Washington D.C.’s medical cannabis law in 1998.

From a belief that cannabis use should be wellness centric, DeAngelo co-founded the California dispensary, Harborside in 2006 [he stepped down from his position as Chairman Emeritus in January 2021]. With over 300,000 patients now registered, Harbourside was one of the first in the nation to support comprehensive cannabis education for seniors, veterans, and families with severely ill children.

Overcoming multiple attempts by the US Department of Justice to close the dispensary down, he remained at the forefront of the cannabis reform movement and made history on January 1, 2018, with the first legal cannabis sale in California’s first moments of legal recreational use.  

The ‘overlooked wellness benefits’

But DeAngelo continues to believe that all cannabis consumption is rooted in wellness and dividing it into recreational and medical categories fails to capture the true essence of why people use it. 

“I look at cannabis as this multi-purpose wellness tool, and I define wellness very broadly,” he explains.

“It includes things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, epilepsy and all of the very grave diseases that we know cannabis is effective for. 

“It also includes chronic conditions that can make people’s lives miserable, from depression, anxiety and insomnia to Crohn’s disease.”

He continues: “But then there’s a whole range of effects that have been written off as just ‘getting high’ – I like to think of them as the overlooked wellness benefits of cannabis. 

“That includes the ability of cannabis to extend your sense of patience, its ability to wake up your sense of play, to spark creativity, to bring you closer to nature, to turn an argument into a discussion or a walk through the park into a spiritual experience.

“I use cannabis for a wide variety of purposes. Sometimes it’s for a medical issue – I am 62-years-old, I frequently wake up in the morning with aches and pains – but it also gives me a sense of energy and helps me maintain my equilibrium.”

“Cannabis is going to be recognised as the biggest medical breakthrough of our time”

DeAngelo, literally, wrote the book on taking the wellness approach to cannabis. Originally published in 2015, The Cannabis Manifesto: A New Paradigm for Wellness, is an account of his personal journey with cannabis, outlining numerous solid arguments for legalisation while presenting research-backed benefits of the plant.

“What the ancient textbooks tell us is that cannabis has been used for millennia for almost every medical condition that you can imagine,” he says. 

“When I started surfacing that history and talking about it, people wrote me off as a crazy hippie, but now we have the science to show that it is actually true. 

“The endocannabinoid system is the largest neurotransmitter system in the human body. It is present in all of our organs, all of our connective tissue. This is the scientific medical explanation of why cannabis is effective for such a wide range of seemingly unrelated conditions. In a sane world, this discovery should have ended the debate.”

He adds: “I’m convinced that when this history is written, the rediscovery of the therapeutic properties of cannabis is going to be recognised as the greatest medical breakthrough of all time.”

“Cannabis is a resource that the world can no longer afford to do without”

How hemp can save the world

The power and potential of cannabis doesn’t stop with its wellness properties though. DeAngelo advocates that an ethical cannabis and hemp industry can tackle many of the major challenges facing modern society, from reviving the economy, to saving the planet. 

“I believe that hemp – and cannabis more generally – can and will be one of the major forces that saves this world,” he says.

“Anything that you can make out of petroleum, out of cotton, out of trees, you can make out of hemp. When done at scale it’s no more expensive than those more destructive methods and it’s incredibly healing for the planet. We sequester 20 tonnes of atmospheric carbon for every hectare of hemp that we harvest. The rise of hempcrete [a relatively new composite material made from wet-mixing hemp shiv with a binder] as a building material will revolutionise the way that we build our structures all around the world.

“The reality is that cannabis is a resource that the world can no longer afford to do without.”

Photo: Jamie Soja

 

Fallen soldiers

Cannabis is now legal, both for medical purposes and adult-use, in 15 states across the US and with Biden in the White House, DeAngelo expects to see complete legalisation – either federally or by individual state – within the next four years. 

On the one hand the nation is leading the way but on the other, 40,000 US citizens are still locked up for cannabis offences now legal in most states. Once cannabis had been legalised in California, a natural progression for DeAngelo was seeking justice for those still serving extreme sentences for what are often relatively minor crimes. 

Founded in 2019, The Last Prisoner Project has a simple but – as DeAngelo admits – “extraordinarily ambitious” mission, to release every single prisoner currently imprisoned for cannabis related offences. 

Working with a number of organisations as part of broader social justice effort, the non-profit has played a part in the mass releases of hundreds of prisoners, as well as being directly responsible for the freedom of others. 

Success stories so far include that of Donte Westmoreland, 25, who was serving an eight year sentence in the state of Kansas for possession of one pound of cannabis and in December 2020, 71-year-old Richard DeLisi – the longest serving non-violent prisoner in the US. DeLisi had been sentenced to 90 years in 1988 for conspiracy to distribute cannabis. He was home with his family in time for Christmas.

This is not an issue that’s confined to the US. Albert Tió, one of the leaders of the Spanish movement for the regulation of cannabis was recently sentenced to five years for a cannabis intervention at his Barcelona club and is in the process of taking his case to the European Court of Justice.

“That said to me that it’s time for us to take the Last Prisoner Project to Europe and the rest of the world,” says DeAngelo.

“Our mission is to make sure that every single cannabis prisoner on this planet is released, and we’re not going to stop until we accomplish that goal, no matter how many years or how many generations it takes us to do that. 

“I don’t start something without assuming I am going to complete it. We are certainly not going to leave our fallen soldiers on the field of battle.”

Photo: Jamie Soja

“It’s time for activists in the UK to take things into their own hands”

 

Change is coming

Turning our gaze to the landscape in the UK, where despite the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2018, barriers to access show little sign of shifting, is it time to take a leaf out of DeAngelo’s book?

“It’s time for activists in the UK to take things into their own hands,” he says.

“It’s an outrageous situation where you have thousands of people who are suffering, in some cases dying, needlessly, when we know there is a medicine that can help.

“There are people in the UK who grow great cannabis and it’s time for those growers to get that medicine into the hands of the people who need it.”

And what if they fear finding themselves in the very same position as those DeAngelo is currently seeking justice for?

He is undeterred.

“Are 12 jurors going to stand up and convict somebody who was growing cannabis and giving it away to a child with epilepsy, or a patient with brain cancer? I think that’s a risk worth taking.”

He adds: “I grew up under very heavy prohibition, I know what that means, but everyone who is part of the movement in the UK is on the winning side of history.

“One day the prohibition of cannabis is going to be looked upon as a bizarre time in human history, when we willingly divorced ourselves from the most valuable plant on the planet.

“Change is coming and we will win this one, I promise.”

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