As the Executive Director of Harborside Health Center, the largest and most well-known medical cannabis dispensary in the world, as well as the co-founder of Steep Hill, The ArcView Group, and many other cannabis industry titans, Steve DeAngelo needs no introduction. He is a true pioneer of the cannabis legalization movement, and has worked as hard to educate the public about the health benefits of cannabis as anyone else.
Recently, we had the honor of speaking with Steve on the day that his new book, The Cannabis Manifesto, was released. We asked him about the book, as well as his history of activism and his advice for cannabis investors and heritage growers who are looking to build a business in the legal industry.
“Focus on talent. I think that talent is a lot more important than money. I’ve seen cannabis companies who have received pretty significant infusions of cash and not done a whole lot of great things with that cash because they lacked the talent to be able to properly execute on it.”
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Shango Los: Hi there and welcome to the Ganjapreneur.com Podcast. I am your host, Shango Los. The Ganjapreneur.com Podcast gives us an opportunity to speak directly to entrepreneurs, cannabis growers, product developers, and cannabis medicine researchers all focused on making the most of cannabis normalization. As your host, I do my best to bring you original cannabis industry ideas that will ignite your own entrepreneurial spark and give you actionable information to improve your business strategy and improve your health and the health of cannabis patients everywhere.
Today my guest is Steve DeAngelo. Steve DeAngelo is a lifelong cannabis activist and entrepreneur with over 40 years teaching and bringing cannabis liberation to the people. He is presently executive director at Harborside Health Center, the country’s premier medical marijuana facility located in San Francisco. He is also founder of Steep Hill, a national cannabis analytics laboratory helping to establish nationwide standards for cannabis medicine. His new book, The Cannabis Manifesto comes out everywhere today. Steve is the gold standard in cannabis activism and entrepreneurism and I dare say, a hero of mine. Welcome Steve.
Steve DeAngelo: Thank you Shango Los, good to be here.
Shango Los: We’re really lucky to speak with you today on the day that your new book, The Cannabis Manifesto comes out. It’s a powerful re-framing of cannabis not as a drug to be regulated but more of an opportunity for health that we’ve been missing for years. What’s the message from the book that you most want people to be aware of?
Steve DeAngelo: I think the message is that cannabis is not a bad plant, it’s a good plant. It’s not a harm that should be tolerated, it’s a benefit that should be actively promoted.
Shango Los: One of the tenets of your book that I really identify with is that everyone is essentially a patient because cannabis holds some sort of health benefit for everybody whether it’s anxiety, acute pain, neurodegeneration, cancer, or simply acne or even boredom. What do you think it will take to transition the common American citizen from being suspicious of the plant to embracing it for all the good it does.
Steve DeAngelo: Two factors, one is education and a lot of the changes we’re seeing now are the result of many decades of education. Then personal contact. What we’ve seen in California is that now that we’re 20 years into legal medical cannabis, almost everybody in the state has a friend, a relative, knows somebody who has used cannabis therapeutically and had very good effects. That’s really the key in changing people’s minds is when a trusted messenger brings them the message. When they see it for themselves and then they really begin ready to start shedding the stereotype.
Shango Los: To what degree to you think that the progress of people learning about cannabis as medicine has been slowed since it’s a schedule I drug here and a lot of the research has not been done in the United States? To what degree do you think that it’s a schedule I drug hinders people believing that it can truly be medicine?
Steve DeAngelo: I think the schedule I status has hindered research because under federal law all of the research that has been conducted with federal dollars has been aimed at showing the harms of cannabis and they haven’t even researched benefits of cannabis so schedule I is critically important there. I think it’s also important in public perception when you have the most trusted authorities in the country saying that something has absolutely no medical use, there are a lot of people who are going to believe them.
Shango Los: One of the things that I really appreciate about your book is you approach it from a real human perspective. Certainly you talk about the laws and the implications of the entrepreneurial aspects of it but you really treat it as a human and a plant, more of a Gaia approach if you’d allow that. What has been your experience over the years with the difference between people approaching the plant as a healing herb versus a marketable product.
Steve DeAngelo: Where I would really I think draw the distinction is between people who see cannabis as more of an intoxicant as a sin industry more akin to alcohol or gaming or even porn and people like myself who believe that cannabis is a wellness product, that it should be marketed, and that it should be regulated as a wellness product. This plays out in some very specific policy positions. One of the things that we’ve seen in many of the reform states is extremely high taxes on cannabis. One of the justifications for those high taxes has been to discourage cannabis consumption by young people and by people who have lower incomes and I don’t think that’s something we want to do. I think in fact, when you take a look at the public health statistics that are coming out, they show for example a 25% reduction in opioid overdose deaths in states that have made access to cannabis more available. The last thing you want to do is burden this very, very good plant with a heavy tax burden and encourage people to use pharmaceuticals or alcohol instead of cannabis.
Shango Los: I definitely think that that’s part of the image that we need to overcome because people who are not familiar with cannabis medicine they just imagine someone smoking a joint but in most cases the proper application of the cannabis plant is going to be at subpsychoactive doses to take care of the body, not necessarily to get high. I think the placing of a sin tax on it at the state level I think is part of that.
Steve DeAngelo: Yeah, sure it certainly is and when we talk about wellness, I think that it’s important to understand that it’s not limited at least in my mind to things like cancer or Alzheimer’s or epilepsy or even anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Wellness certainly includes those things but I believe there is a great number of what I called overlooked wellness benefits that often described by people as just getting high and that includes things like extending your sense of patience, waking up your sense of play, sparking your creativity, enhancing the sound of music or the taste of a meal or the touch of your lover’s skin or opening you to a more spiritual experience or putting you in closer touch with nature. Those are not intoxication experiences, that’s not just getting high. We’re talking about some of the most meaningful, precious parts of our lives that are enhanced by cannabis. I think that that’s really the main distinction in approach.
Shango Los: I like the way that you describe it because in that way it sounds like the benefits of mindfulness or meditation as it is about getting trashed like some people approach it.
Steve DeAngelo: If you look up intoxication in the dictionary, you’ll read a definition that says something like to drink or eat something that causes you to lose control over what you say and do. Cannabis doesn’t cause people to lose control over what they say and do and anybody who has consumed cannabis knows that very well. I think that once I talk to people and explain this concept, there are a lot of people who realize that their own cannabis use, they’re mischaracterizing their own cannabis use. I often have people who will come up to me at an event and they will say something like, you know Steve I totally support everything that you’re doing to get medicine to the patients who need and me, myself I’ve been using cannabis for years but I’m not a patient. I wouldn’t get sick if I stopped using it, I wouldn’t go the hospital. I usually ask those people a few questions about their cannabis use. When do you consume cannabis? Why? What benefits does it bring you and how is your life different when you use cannabis from when you don’t?
I usually get a reply that goes something like this: When I’m not using cannabis, I get off work at the end of the day, I’m stressed out, I might be irritated at a fight with my boss or frustrated because I didn’t get as much work done as I wanted to do, my stomach is kind of sour, my back is hurting, I’m feeling kind of testy, I’m not really looking forward to getting home and dealing with my kids and telling my wife about the lousy day I had. I’m not particularly hungry and when I get home I eat the meal but I don’t really enjoy it that much and after the meal I sit down in front of the TV and I pass out in front of the TV and stagger into my wife in the middle of the night and wake up in the morning kind of bleary-eyed and not too happy.
But with cannabis at the end of the day, I’m not testy, my stomach is not sour, I’m not impatient, I’m really looking forward to getting home. I’ve got a great appetite. When I get there, I enjoy playing with the kids as much as they play with me and no matter how bad the day has been, I enjoy telling my wife about and reuniting with her. The food tastes wonderful, my back doesn’t ache, and after the meal me and the wife put the kids to bed and we have a little special intimate time because of the cannabis. I fall asleep in her arms and wake up the next day ready to go for a new day.
If that person had gone to a doctor and talked about an aching back, about a sour stomach, about not much of a sex drive, about being anxious, about being testy, about not sleeping very well, they would be diagnosed with a whole range of disorders including Insomnia, anxiety, depression, anger management issues, arthritis, acid reflex, low testosterone and would be prescribed a whole raft of pharmaceuticals. We see TV ads for these pharmaceuticals every night. They’ve got a list of side effect that read like something out of a Steven King novel.
Shango Los: We need to take a short break there Steve. I really appreciate that holistic view. Actually, that environment that you’re describing sounds like such a warm and healing place to be at the end of every day. Let’s pick that up after the break. We’re going to take this short break and be right back. You’re listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast.
Welcome back, you are listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I’m your host Shango Los and our guest this week is cannabis entrepreneur, activist, and author, Steve DeAngelo. Steve, before the break we were talking the best ways that people can integrate cannabis into their lives and in the early days though, there was a lot of push back and your first major cannabis event was a smoke in that took place in Washington, DC that you put together. In those days, did you see the activism as a precursor of going forward into the cannabis business or could no one really see beyond just trying to get the plant liberated?
Steve DeAngelo: I think that for me cannabis entrepreneurship and cannabis activism have always been contemporaneous activities. Back in my days as a yippie when we were putting on the smoke-ins, we financed the smoke-ins by selling small amount of cannabis. It was always clear to me that there was a phenomenal amount of commercial potential but it was also clear to me that the only way that that would every be unleashed is if we change the law.
Shango Los: There’s a really fine line there between seeing yourself solely has a cannabis activist and then being a cannabis entrepreneur. Talking with entrepreneurs as I do now, I see a lot of folks being pulled in different ways from the feelings that they had when they were an activist versus how they’re now feeling as an entrepreneur and concerned with margins and making sure that they can pay their rent and their employees when at the same time, they just want to give cannabis oil away to cancer patients because that’s where their heart remained as an activist. I’m sure that you’ve run into this dozens and dozens of times. What kind of advice would you offer to activists who now see themselves moving into more of an entrepreneurial role in their community where they can respect where they came from?
Steve DeAngelo: It is a simple thing but a difficult thing. What we need to do is build operations which simultaneously generate profits for our shareholders and return social benefits to the communities that we’re a part of. I believe that it’s possible to do that with Harborside, which even though we are technically a nonprofit under law, we are a profit making organization and that’s what needs to be done. It’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do and one of the things that we’re finding in California is that as the competitive intensity of the industry heats up, there’s been generally a trimming back of a lot of the social benefits that a lot of the nonprofit dispensaries have been able to provide.
Shango Los: Yeah, we’ve experienced that here in Washington where we’re recording from and one of the challenges that some folks have is that if they’ve come up through the prohibition era times, they are holding on very strongly to their activism but as the industry becomes more business oriented, there are a lot of folks who were entrepreneurs in other industries who are moving over into cannabis and some folks are calling them carpetbaggers and other less than positive words. But your work with the ArcView group is taking a different approach. Your approach is to embrace all sorts of folks, both the activist and the folks who are bringing their expertise and capital to the business. What kind of advice can you give for folks who have come up through the activist side in interacting with people who are more comfortable thinking about business and profit and loss sheets than having spent the time taking part in cannabis activism?
Steve DeAngelo: We need to keep in mind that nothing is mainstream in America until it’s in the mainstream of commerce. We cannot have legal cannabis in this country unless we have business people involved in producing it and distributing it. It’s the way that the country works. I certainly have some mixed feelings when I see folks coming into the cannabis industry who maybe have never used cannabis in their lives who proudly say that they never would use cannabis in their lives, who may have approaches and values and ethics that are different from my own. But I also recognize that if we really want this plant to be legal, we have to allow the engine of free enterprise to do its work and that means there are going to be a lot of different competing business models and a lot of competing brands.
My suggestion to people who come from an activist background is that you develop brands and you develop business models that reflect those values. I think that there will be many, many, many people in the consumer marketplace for cannabis who are going to be attracted to that kind of authenticity. There will also be plenty of other new consumers who are coming in who are attracted to other kinds of brands. I think there is going to be plenty of room for both of them.
Shango Los: One of the things that activists who do want to go into business find that they like about these newly added capitalists is that they bring with them this infusion of money so maybe they need startup capital or they need growth capital or something like that. One of the unique things about you started Harborside though is that you started Harborside with very little original investment and then you did not need to take any growth capital. What kind of suggestions would you give to someone in a state that is moving towards normalization to help them build them business without either having to take large cash infusions and giving up a lot of equity in their company or feeling like they have to give up because they just don’t have enough money?
Steve DeAngelo: My suggestion is that they focus on talent. I think that talent is a lot more important than money. I’ve seen cannabis companies who have received pretty significant infusions of cash and not done a whole lot of great things with that cash because they lacked the talent to be able to properly execute on it. I think that the very first and most important thing is talent. When I look at the new folks who come from a more traditional business background who are coming into the industry, the thing that excites me isn’t the money that they’re bringing with them, it’s that they know how to do all of these things that I don’t know how to do. I’ve been focusing on cannabis for 30 or 40 years. I haven’t been focusing on investor relations or fundraising strategies or systems. Having these folks coming in I think is hugely helpful. The new talent that is coming into the industry needs to be educated and the smartest new talent that’s coming in is acutely aware of that.
My best advice to the legacy cannabis businesses is that you identify some really talented, high talented people from traditional business backgrounds and then you form an alliance where there’s an interchange of information and teaching where they can teach you more about modern business techniques and strategies and tools and resources and you can teach them about cannabis.
Shango Los: A lot of these new cannabis companies because they’re being started on a bootstrap and sometimes they’re being started by folks who don’t have much business background, they don’t really have an HR department yet. You’ve got whoever the principle is going ahead and doing the initial hiring themselves, which they may not be all too comfortable with. There are a lot of folks who are applying for jobs who are just excited about getting into cannabis but they may or may not have the skill set to back that up and sometimes they have the skill set but maybe their fantasy of what it’s going to look like to be in cannabis is more than their work ethic. You’ve obviously hired a lot of people. What would you say as an advice to someone who is hiring for their own cannabis business to kind of wade through the deluge of talent that’s offered to you to find the particular people that are going to best for their companies?
Steve DeAngelo: Hire an HR professional to help you with that. This is not something you should take on yourself. Most people who come from a legacy cannabis background of necessity have had to remain rather small in order to survive. We have not had a great deal of experience in hiring large numbers of people. Each hire is critically important, especially to a small company and a new company. One bad hire can really set you back. What I found is most effective in hiring is to look at a lot of different candidates, to review them, to rigorously check out their references and then to have an interview process which includes actually assigning them tasks and seeing how each one of the candidates performs with those tasks. What I’m describing is a time consuming process. It’s really best conducted with the help of a qualified HR professional. I’d say that the cost that is expended would be well worth the return.
Shango Los: That’s some great advice. We’re going to take another short break and be right back. Your are listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast.
Welcome back. You are listening to the ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host, Shango Los and our guest this week is cannabis entrepreneur, activist, and author, Steve DeAngelo. Before the break we were talking about the best ways to implement policies and a new cannabis business wherever you live in the country but Steve specifically, you live in California and there have been some huge changes in your local California cannabis regulations recently. How are they affecting our business and how do you see they are going to evolve over the next few months?
Steve DeAngelo: The California legislature, finally 20 years after the voters instructed them to do it in Proposition 215, has passed regulations for medical cannabis. We will finally have state level licensing for medical cannabis businesses in California. That’s the good news. The bad news is those regulations in essence make success in the medical cannabis industry in California illegal. As they are currently written, you cannot operate more than three dispensaries if you have any type of vertical integration. there’s a mandatory level for distributors, a lot of issues in this legislation. We are hoping that the legislature takes a second look at it and puts some fixes in next session.
Shango Los: We speak with a lot of folks from Humboldt County and other folks that would consider themselves artisan growers versus big more I guess I’d call commercial warehouse growers. How do you see these new group of regulations affecting smaller mom and pop growers? Do you think they’ll be a way to integrate them effectively into the overall?
Steve DeAngelo: The new regulations require that all cannabis cultivators sell their product only to a distributor and not to anybody else. They make it impossible for small growers to do a farm-to-table operation, for there to be farmer’s markets, for there to be bud and breakfasts, for there to be a weed ranch type of model. I think that it’s a real step backwards for our small growers.
Shango Los: I think that’s a good point too that the impact that the legislative actions have on individual business. We’re not really in an industry where you can simply run your business and ignore what is going on in the legislature because the regulations are changing so quickly. In your experience, what’s a good approach for an entrepreneur who is looking at their business and how to make it better and they kind of want to keep their head down but at the same time they need to remain aware and participate in the legislature? Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who are trying to live both?
Steve DeAngelo: Sure, look there’s always a problem for businesses to become politically active when it’s one individual business. Problem one, political work costs a lot of money and no individual business can really fund it. Problem two, you’re putting yourself out there and whenever you articulate a political position, there will be people who are opposed and then your business specifically becomes a target for them. The solution to both of those problems is to support organizations like the National Cannabis Industries Association or one of their state affiliates who can really represent the common interests of the industry at large in these legislative processes.
Shango Los: In your new book The Cannabis Manifesto that comes out today, you really talk a lot about opening up the doors for common everyday people who don’t really have much of a history with cannabis to feel comfortable with it and to a certain degree, there is a certain amount of activism that creates for a normal person because first they have to go out and find out about cannabis and learn about what it can do for them. Then if they live in a state that cannabis has not been normalized yet in, they’re going to have to take some action with the legislature to make that medicine available in their state. What do you recommend for the normal person, the everyday American citizen, actions that they can take to help normalization along where they live.
Steve DeAngelo: The most powerful thing that you can do is pay a person to person visit to all of your elected representatives. That includes your city council, your county board of supervisors, your congressperson, and your senator if you can get an appointment. One constituent meeting with an elected official has more impact than almost anything that you can do. I strongly encourage people who have not met their elected representatives to do that. It’s very easy. You just call up their office, say that you’re a constituent and you’d like to meet with the representative and almost always a meeting will be set up for you. The second thing that you can do to back that up is write some campaign donations to those candidates. That will give you the ability to call them up between elections and ask how things are going on your issue. Just that basic level of engagement, register to vote, know who your elected representatives are, write a few campaign donations to them, and make sure that they understand how you care about this issue. If every American who was in favor of cannabis reform did that, we would have the laws changed tomorrow.
Shango Los: Steven, thank so much for being on the show, especially today with how busy you are with your book launch. It’s been a real honor to have you on the show.
Steve DeAngelo: It’s been an honor to be here, thank you so much.
Shango Los: Steve DeAngelo is executive director of Harborside Health Center in San Francisco and co-founder of both Steep Hill Cannabis Analytics and the ArcView Cannabis Investment Group. His new book, The Cannabis Manifesto is required reading for all cannabis enthusiasts and all humans who want to feel well. You can find more episodes of the Ganjapreneur podcast in the podcast section at ganjapreneur.com. You can also find us on the Cannabis Radio Network website and in the Apple iTunes store. On the Ganjapreneur.com website, you will find the latest cannabis news, product reviews, and cannabis jobs updated daily along with transcriptions of this podcast. You can also download the Ganjapreneur.com. App in iTunes and Google Play. We’re also thrilled to announce this week that you can now find our show on the I Heart Radio Network app bringing Ganjapreneur to 60 million mobile devices. Thanks to Brasco for producing our show. I am your host, Shango Los.