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Exclusive Interview with “Weed Wars” Star Steve DeAngelo

A portrait of "Weed War's" host Steve Deangelo wearing a bowler hat, two long braids, gauges and a blue suit.
Photo by Robyn Twomey

Dispensaries

Exclusive Interview with “Weed Wars” Star Steve DeAngelo

After 40 years of activism in the cause of legalization, Steve DeAngelo, co-founder of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, has embarked on a new tactic: to build a model medical marijuana dispensary proving that what’s good for patients can be good for business and the surrounding community as well. Harborside is the subject of the Discovery Channel’s newest reality series “Weed Wars”, which premiered last November. Cannabis Now sat down with DeAngelo in his Harborside office to discuss how Harborside can change the terms of the national debate over medical cannabis.

CNM: Let’s start with Harborside’s public relations campaign, which has featured you and this dispensary in newspapers, magazines, and now television. What kind of image are you trying to promote, and what kind of image are you trying to combat?

SDA: The number one issue we’re concerned with as far as image goes is the presentation of cannabis as a tool for wellness instead of for intoxication. One image is related to old stereotypes which have been used to justify bad policies, and the other can help make cannabis accessible to the majority. One thing we’re trying to show is that almost everyone who uses cannabis in this country uses it for wellness purposes, whether it’s for cancer, or insomnia, or maybe reducing stress, or increasing creativity or libido – all are issues of overall wellness. Even talking about “recreational” use as a separate activity is a false dichotomy when you look at American history – in the struggle for the 40-hour workweek many doctors pointed out that for overall health and wellness, it was necessary to take a certain amount of time each week for recreation.

CNM: Is it this focus on wellness that has increased Harborside’s interest in high-CBD strains of cannabis?

SDA: Well, we’re interested in high-CBD strains because the more we learn about CBD, the clearer it becomes that it’s a very important medicine. We seek out strains high in CBD and low in THC because many of our patients have no prior experience with cannabis, and for them, the psychoactivity is a side effect that some just can’t tolerate.

CNM: About the idea of a ‘high’ being a side effect instead of an intoxication: why do you think so many Americans are accepting of medications with undesirable side effects but not of one that makes you feel good?

SDA: They’re just uneducated, because they’re still thinking of cannabis primarily as an intoxicant. When you look at cannabis as a wellness product, you see that it provides equal or greater relief than many medicines with a list of side effects sounding like they came straight out of a Stephen King novel. And here’s an alternative that says “Warning: may cause increased appetite and libido, along with feelings of euphoria.” Which would you choose? But it just hasn’t been presented that way.

CNM: One of the ways in which Harborside is trying to change perception of the industry is by conducting research. How is that going?

SDA: Very well. Soon we’ll be wrapping up our first six month efficacy study for the use of cannabis to break drug addiction. Jenny Janichek is authoring a paper on our results which will soon appear in a peer-reviewed journal. So far it seems to have helped a lot of people.

In two weeks we’ll be wrapping up another efficacy study with the University of the City of London and the Beckley Foundation involving patient feedback via questionnaires coded to every type of medicine. We pair these with patient evaluations to build a database to cross-reference patient experiences with data we already have on cannabanoid content, to create usable scientific data of which strains are best for which symptoms; then we compare cannabanoid profiles. We don’t need the Fed’s shit-poor Mississippi three percent when we’ve got the patients, we’ve got the cannabis, we’ve got the testing, and we’ve got the science, we can do an end run around the federal government’s blockade on actual scientific research into its effects.

CNM: On the subject of cannabis’s presentation as a medicine – you’re aware that the DEA recently denied a petition by patients to re-classify cannabis under federal law. Now the door has been opened for a lawsuit to overturn that decision. Do you think, with all that has been learned about medical cannabis in recent years, that a federal judge could rule that the DEA correctly classified cannabis as a substance with ‘no accepted medical value’?

SDA: Well, they didn’t the last time it came up, in 1987. In that case, the DEA’s own judge, Francis L. Young, ruled that cannabis should be reclassified. He didn’t need all the new research we have now: the Chinese have been using it as a medicine since before history began, and cannabis was first written into the American Pharmacopeia in 1850. So no, I don’t think there’s any way a federal judge could uphold that decision.

CNM: On other legal matters, Harborside just got hit with an IRS letter which forbids you from using routine expenses like rent and utilities as deductions on your tax return, even while saying more unusual expenses like the cost of buying medicine are deductible. Can you explain the IRS’s reasoning? It seems rather arbitrary.

SDA: Common sense tells you it’s all backwards. Why forbid us from taking advantage of deductions every business in America uses every year, while allowing us to deduct the cost of medicine which is illegal under federal law? It’s absurd. But it comes out of the language of a provision in the tax code called section 280E, which prohibits ‘deductions’ used on the return of anyone supposedly trafficking in a controlled substance. The whole reason it was passed by Congress in the 1980s is because there was a Colombian drug lord who got caught, and the feds tried to seize his assets. But he successfully mitigated his case in tax court, by deducting his yachts, his estates, his weapons, etc. So Congress responded to the public outcry by passing 280E; it was never intended for use against organizations like ours.

CNM: Getting back to the image of the medical marijuana industry. There are some patients who complain about the lack of competition in dispensaries: local regulations limit the number of dispensaries within city limits, and the few spots available often get awarded to groups who already operate another dispensary nearby. Is Harborside, by opening a new location in San Jose, contributing to a lack of choice for patients?

SDA: Well, first, I wouldn’t be too critical of local governments. Local governments traditionally have control over what kind of activities go on in their cities, and most of the time those decisions are better made at the local level. Concerning the other question, I think that patients are better served by a few dispensaries like Harborside than they would be by hundreds of so-called ‘pot shops’. A dispensary with a viable market base can afford to make significant investments into medical testing, training of employees, and giving back to the community. Because of these kinds of investments, we can associate the movement with competency and reliability, instead of the harmful stereotypes which have dogged us for years.

CNM: The Harborside brand is gearing up to go national in a big way. Any nerves?

SDA: Nerves? No. A lot of excitement. As a movement, we’ve been through some dark times. There were many years of passing out leaflets no one wanted for rallies no one came to; now we’re looking at a remarkable opportunity to show people what medical cannabis does. If we’re able to show cannabis patients for real, I know people will support us. The only nerves I feel are the ones I feel for the very real fact that the feds could come here any time they want to shut us down, and that’s been a fact the whole time. But one thing about being in the public eye, it’ll be very difficult to sell my arrest to the American public once they’ve seen the truth about what we’re doing here.

Interview by Jeremy Daw for Issue 3 of Cannabis Now Magazine.

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