Q&A With Debby Goldsberry, Legendary Cannabis Activist

Debby Goldsberry has been on a mission for 30 years. Ever since she joined her college’s chapter of NORML in 1986, she has been working to, as she says, “save the planet and create a better America” through cannabis law reform.

Only a handful of people have been involved with the legal cannabis industry since its infancy, and Debby Goldsberry might be one of the most wonderfully vibrant of those few. The long-blonde-haired, honey-voiced, activist co-founded the Berkeley Patients Group dispensary in California in 1999, where she developed many of the best practice methods that dispensaries across the nation now replicate. She went on to co-found and direct Americans for Safe Access, Medical Cannabis Safety Council and the Cannabis Action Network. Now, she teaches at Oaksterdam, serves as ambassador for two leading dispensaries and will be speaking at the International Cannabis Business Conference in February.

Cannabis Now caught up with Debby Goldsberry to talk about what she’s learned after three decades, the reason she believes cannabis business conferences are crucial and why legalization in California makes her feel like the straight lipped emoji.

You’ve been a leader in the California cannabis industry for over three decades now. What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the years?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that when there’s an injustice as large the War on Drugs, even if you have to risk your personal safety and your peace of mind to fight back, you have to fight back.

California is at a huge turning point, having just regulated its medical industry and with many forecasting the legalization of adult use cannabis in 2016. Where do you see California’s cannabis industry heading next year?

It’s hard to predict right now because we can’t guarantee legalization. The only thing we can predict is that we’re going to implement those medical marijuana regulations we did pass. A lot of California cities and counties are banning cultivation while a lot of cities are expanding their medical programs. I think the next year is about fighting bans and expanding laws in 2016. I’m not particularly optimistic because there are a lot of problems with the initiatives being proposed. The initiatives with the good language have no funding. It really puts us at a disadvantage.

Part of the swing of legalization across the nation seems to have come from the growing understanding that the cannabis industry can be professional. Do you see conferences like the International Cannabis Business Conference fitting within the trend of normalization?

One of the reasons why we do the conference is to even the playing field. We need to provide training to cannabis advocates who might not have much business experience. And we’re also trying to infuse the values and virtues of the longtime cannabis movement into the other side, into the new entrepreneurs. We can encourage those business people to feel imbued with the mission to save the planet and create a better America.

Does the International Cannabis Business Conference try to connect those two sides of the industry?

Absolutely. People who are looking to fund cannabis businesses come to the conference and combine with people in the industry. The thing is, the customers who use the cannabis are still on a mission. The entrepreneurs realize if they’re coming into the industry cold and they don’t understand the end user, they’re going to fail. Most of the entrepreneurs coming out of big business are looking for someone like me to partner with. We’re looking to provide a network for those people.

The amount of cannabis events have grown exponentially since Colorado and Washington allowed adult-use marijuana in 2012. What makes participating in the International Cannabis Business Conference different from other cannabis events?

Not only are you going to learn new information, but it’s meaningful, and the way you feel when you leave is empowered. This conference isn’t about making a bunch of money. We’re on a mission to make a better America — so not only are you getting all the business information you need, you will also be empowered to become a part of a bigger movement. It’s thrilling to find your community and become a part of it.

What will you be speaking about at the event?

I am speaking about legalization in California. We’re going to have a panel talking about the positive reasons. We’ve had this medical marijuana law in place for 20 years and it was working okay. There’s a fear that if we put regulations in place that aren’t good, we might make a law that moves us backwards. We’re going to discuss why it’s important to legalize, what’s the bigger picture beyond what the room feels — a room filled with cannabis industry members — and what initiatives we should unite around. We’re going to have a talk around why it might be important to legalize marijuana right now even if we can’t get a perfect law in 2016. I’m a supporter of getting behind which initiative can get the signatures and get on the ballot, because they all can do good things for California.

The conference is going to be held in San Francisco this year. What is the cannabis industry in the Bay Area doing right, and what are some areas you think should be improved moving forward?

We need more dispensaries. Right now we have a lot of strict limits on the amount of dispensaries in Bay Area cities, so a large part of the population who sells cannabis are left still operating under the table. Look at a city like Denver. If the Bay Area is going to be world class, we need more dispensaries, more retail outlets, more cultivation centers. Most cannabis is still being bought and sold underground and most people in the cannabis industry don’t have access to payrolls, labor laws that protect them, they’re not getting unemployment, and they’re not getting access to healthcare. A lot of the people that have the dispensary permits are of the mind that they want to hold on to the monopoly. I am not of that mind. We need to make the Bay Area a world-class attraction for cannabis. how do we really compete with a city like Denver, which has somehow managed to take the lead. Oakland’s taking back the lead!

Conversation edited for length and clarity. Tickets for the International Cannabis Business Conference can be purchased here. Members of the Magnolia Wellness dispensary in Oakland, Calif. — where Goldsberry works as an ambassador — can purchase the tickets at a significant discount.

Julia Clark-Riddell is currently studying journalism at Northwestern University (where professors release reports on the negative effects of long-term cannabis use on the brain), but she is a graduate from Berkeley High School (where a visiting lecturer taught her class how to make edibles). She has previously written for the Santa Barbara Independent and In Our Nature, as well as edited for North By Northwestern, Helicon Literary Magazine and The Berkeley High Jacket. Julia is an editorial intern for Cannabis Now.

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