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Yesterday the D.C. Council voted to eliminate jail time for marijuana possession (Washington Post). Due to this extremely relevant news, we decided today is a very good time to revisit our interview with Steve DeAngelo, founder of Harborside Medical Marijuana Dispensary from August 11, 2010. -ed.

All Photos by Dakota
All Words by the Ganja Guru

On April 20th, DC city council unanimously supported medical marijuana in a preliminary vote. But don’t start asking the cops where you can buy pot- the bill hasn’t actually passed yet. Keep up to date on the process here.


Steve DeAngelo is a Washington native who has been a very influential in the national marijuana movement since the 1970’s. A key player in passing Washington DC’s Medical Marijuana Initiative in 1998, DeAngelo moved to California to found Harborside Health Center a non-profit medical marijuana dispensary.

I-59 was a medical marijuana ballot initiative that passed in 1998 with a strong 69% voter support. However, because of DC’s stateless rights, Congress was able to veto the initiative before becoming law. Now, more than a decade later, Steve (and a dedicated group of individuals) is back to finish what they started.

BYT: You’ve been active in the medical marijuana movement for many years. How’d you get started?
Steve DeAngelo: It was kinda the spirit of the times, I was in 7th grade in 1969, which was the height of the Vietnam war protests in Washington…. There were demonstrations virtually every weekend. As a kid, instead of skipping school and hanging down at the swimming pool, I would skip school and go to the demonstrations.
I dropped out of high school to join the yippies in 1974, and moved to 10th and K St to start the Outlaws Collective, a yippie activism house. Yippies were the Court Jesters of the new Left movement. We believed you had to combine cultural and social change with political change in order to move toward a better future. After the war ended in 1974, we moved towards cannabis reform.
In 1974, I organized the first 4th of July White House Smoke-in, and continued every year into the early 80’s. I was going down to the Park Service getting the permits, handing out flyers, putting up posters, setting up the stage and the speakers… It’s still an annual tradition.
In 1978, we had the largest smoke-in of all time. It was a three day extravaganza, where we had thousands of people camping out on the mall, three days of concerts on the stage, a great big parade around the White House. It was quite a large and important event for a number of years.

BYT: That sounds amazing, I never knew that DC had a such a smoking culture. I actually forget most of the history of smoking culture, I guess I smoked before that history lesson. Can you recap?
SD: The movement to legalize marijuana officially began in the late 60s when Allen Ginsberg founded LEMAR, Legalize Marijuana. In 1972 was the development of NORML, who put on their suits and ties and could speak well to politicians. In the early 70s, we had this upswelling of support. Between 1972 and 1978, we were quite successful: we passed cannabis decriminalization bills in 14 different States. President Jimmy Carter even came out in support of nationwide decriminalization.

1978 was an interesting year, and has a lot of lessons for us here in this time. At the beginning of the year, we were virtually certain that we were going to win this struggle. We had 14 successes in a row, we hadn’t had any defeats, and the president had come out and supported our basic policy. Basically what we see now with medical cannabis and the Obama administration. (after the DOJ released their Medical Marijuana Memo)

What happened then was that we totally didn’t see Ronald Reagan and the backlash against us coming. We didn’t see “Just Say No”, it took us by surprise. We thought we were on the verge of winning, but we were actually on the verge of being shut down for the next 16 years. From the time Ronald Reagan came into office, we saw no forward motion on the cannabis issue. For people that really believe that now is the time to move towards direct legalization, I would urge them to study the lessons of 1978, because I think that we have more work to do before we can take the American public to the finish line.


BYT: Wise words. It’s amazing how history works…. From a nation in support of marijuana directly to a massive drug war, and now we’re back again. What led to the modern resurgence of marijuana?
SD: That was specifically in 1987, when Jack Herer publishes his book, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” Jack broke the news about industrial hemp, and introduced cannabis to a whole new generation. Up until then, anyone that talked about the benefits of smoking cannabis, of any age, knew nothing of the benefits or history of industrial hemp; that was not part of our knowledge base. We didn’t know about the hempen sails on the USS Constitution, we didn’t know that colonists used to pay their taxes with bales of hemp, we didn’t know that the Constitution was drafted on hemp paper, we didn’t know that Henry Ford was experimenting with hemp fuels a hundred years ago. We didn’t know all of these historic things. I will never forget when Jack Herer comes running to me with a tattered manuscript. “Steve! Steve! Read this, you gotta read this! They HAVE to make it legal! I’ve got it right here, they have to make it legal NOW!!”

BYT: So one book started a movement? How did it become so widely read?
SD: Well, in 1989, we set out to publicize Jack’s new book. We got together a couple van loads of people, and organized the first ever Hemp Tour. We rode around the country, going to colleges and Universities, preaching the gospel of cannabis hemp. On that first hemp tour, there were a few students who left school and jumped on the bus… we soon founded Cannabis Action Network.


BYT: So the tour was a success?
SD: Absolutely. For the next 10 years or so, we organized more hemp tours around the country. At one point, there were two different tours going on simultaneously, for a total of over 250 dates per year. Those hemp tours brought in a new generation of activists to the movement, mostly centered around San Francisco. Through the 90’s the movement grew and spread throughout California. In 1996, we were strong enough to pass the first ever medical marijuana law, Proposition 215.
Immediately after that passed, I was back in DC working to pass something similar. We didn’t have any funding from outside organizations, it was a grassroots effort. Two years later, in 1998, we passed I-59 with 69% support, the largest margin of victory in any part of the country.

BYT: So what’s next?
SD: We need to focus on passing regulations to enoucrage the creation of places like Harborside. It is a safe way to get marijuana to people that really need it, patients with serious, debilitating illnesses. Only then can we start to talk about how else our society can benefit from cannabis. Without this safe and sustainable infrastructure, marijuana can be potentially harmful to society.

BYT: Is there a way to write that into the legislation? To me, greatest nightmare would be that the marijuana industry would turn into another tobacco industry, with chemicals and additives and becoming corporatized.
SD: The only way to do that is to require that cannabis dispensaries be non-profit organizations. Only if we embrace the non-profit model, can we be sure that it doesn’t go in that direction.


BYT: I heard that they were giving you a hard time at the hearings. Why was that, given your history with I-59?

SD: I was the closest thing to a California entrepreneur that they had. They don’t want to see the kind of situation that has developed in LA to develop in DC. I agree 100%, that’s the reason I’m here. They’re going to realize, I’m not who they have to worry about. The California entrepreneurs they have to worry about don’t care enough to talk about policy. I helped pass this legislation over 10 years ago before founding Harborside. The Harborside model works.

BYT: What happened in LA?
SD: LA is a classic example of failure to regulate. In California, it was legal to dispense cannabis, but the state law leaves regulation to individual cities and counties. In LA, there was political paralysis. Law enforcement was telling city council not to license and regulate, because that would legitimize marijuana. Patients initially didn’t understand its true benefit, so even they initially opposed it. Entrepreneurs capitalized when no one knew what to do. In DC, we’re moving towards regulation to avoid these pitfalls.

BYT: Does DC’s bill have any similar pitfalls?
SD: Yes, unfortunately it does. For one, the bill would allow for-profit corporations. This was not originally part of I-59, and most other States have a non-profit requirement. Another challenge is that the current bill contains only a small list of qualifying illness, such as cancer and AIDS, while marijuana is known to treat a variety of other illnesses under a doctor recommendation. Patients with severe chronic pain may be denied access to a safe medicine.


BYT: So, what’s going on now, and can other people help too?
SD: DC residents should be asking for a better bill. On Monday May 3rd, there will be a lobby day to try to change the aforementioned amendments. On Tuesday, there will be the final vote, and then we must wait 30 days for the bill to officially become law. On Saturday May 8th, as part of the Global Marijuana March, there will be a rally and concert at Malcom X park until sunset. Also, check out http://safeaccessdc.blogspot.com/ for updates.

BYT: Thanks so much for your time. Now let’s smoke a doobie.

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