Ep 371 – Big Business and Cannabis Culture Need Each Other, Industry Leader Andrew DeAngelo Explains Why

Can cannabis culture and big business co-exist? Here to help us answer that is Andrew DeAngelo, co-founder of Harborside and Last Prisoner Project.

Learn more at https://andrewdeangelo.com

Visit Last Prisoner Project: https://www.lastprisonerproject.org

Key Takeaways:

[1:32] A look back at Andrew’s 38 years in cannabis and where he sees the industry heading

[7:45] Why corporate cannabis and legacy cannabis need each other and what it will take to build a productive relationship

[23:47] Issues with bad public policy and “NIMBYism” at the local level in cannabis-legal states

[30:04] Andrew’s work with Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit leading the charge in cannabis criminal justice reform

Click Here to Read Full Transcript

Matthew Kind: Hi. I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday I look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com. That's cannainsider.com. Now, here's your program.

Sinead Green: Can cannabis culture and big business coexist? Here to help us answer that is renowned cannabis pioneer and activist, Andrew DeAngelo. In his almost 40 years working the front lines of cannabis legalization, Andrew not only co-founded Oakland Dispensary Harborside with his brother Steve DeAngelo, but he was also instrumental in helping legalize cannabis in California and recently co-founded the Last Prisoners Project, a nonprofit dedicated to cannabis criminal justice reform. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us.

Andrew: Well, thank you for having me on the CannaInsider.

Sinead: Yes, it's so great to have you here and we're so pumped to hear about all the cool stuff you're doing right now and just your history in cannabis. So much to unpack today. First off, Andrew, before we jump in, can you give us a sense of geography, where are you joining us from?

Andrew: I'm in my home office and studio here in Oakland, California. This is where Harborside started and where Harborside is still based. I have a lovely home and studio here in the Oakland Hills.

Sinead: Oh, nice. Very cool. Well, Andrew, most people know who you are, most of our listeners are probably fully familiar with you, but maybe aren't aware of your background or how you got started in cannabis. Can you give us a little history there?

Andrew: Sure. I'd love to. It's one of my favorite stories to tell. Well, you mentioned my older brother, Steve DeAngelo, and Steve is about almost 10 years older than me. He was my introduction to cannabis and like many younger brothers, I wanted to grow up to be like my older brother. He introduced me to cannabis at the appropriate time when I was in high school, when the moment was right, and I fell in love with the plant just as he did, and pretty much decided right away to work with the plant. This is in 1980.

You either have to trade-- If you wanted to consume good cannabis or have access to good cannabis, which I did [laughs] want to do all those things and still want to do all those things, and those of us who love cannabis and love consuming cannabis, we always want the best cannabis available and we're always on the hunt for the best cannabis available. It didn't matter if the market was legal or not and in those days it wasn't. So I traded cannabis. You either traded cannabis to have access to good cannabis or you grew cannabis.

I didn't have a very good green thumb nor did I have the infrastructure, the safe place to grow. So we were traders. My brother was a trader, my older brother was a trader. I started trading cannabis and that's how I started my career, and things grew quickly. [laughs]

We didn't like being underground. The lifestyle of looking over your shoulder all the time was really hard on us and we didn't like hiding what we were doing. We wanted to be proud of what we're doing. We were activists. We wanted to change the law and come out of the shadows. Of course, we didn't know how all that was going to go down, but we did not know that we wanted to do that.

We worked hard on activism and we were part of the effort in California in 1996 to legalize medical. We took that same strategy to our hometown of Washington, DC and legalized medical there 1998. Then the City of Washington, DC, basically the law we passed, we worked so hard to pass, was nullified by the federal government which has jurisdiction over Washington, DC. That made us mad and we decided to come to California where shortly thereafter, we started Harborside and we were able to finally make her dream come true of being able to trade cannabis in an open and legal way.

Note, those early days, the medical days, the golden age so far I would say of legal cannabis, we served a lot of patients and we served our community, and we were able to do a lot of pioneering to make the industry scalable. I'm proud of that and now I've left Harborside a few years ago and started Last Prisoner Project, which is nonprofit, which I think we'll talk about a little bit, which is my nonprofit that my brother and I co-founded which gets cannabis prisoners out of prison until every single one is out. That's our mission.

I'm also a consultant. That's how I keep the lights on around here and I also try my best to donate some of my time and also charge much lower rates for my advisory work for people of color and social equity folks, and legacy people like me.

As you mentioned in the intro, bringing legacy cannabis and big business, and big cannabis and corporate cannabis together is another mission of mine right now, one of my current, present missions and visions I have to create an industry that's really never been created before, that's very inclusive, that has small, medium, and large players that work together, that cooperatition and that we have super diverse ownership, much more diverse than any other industry is my vision.

We're so far away from achieving that, I'm afraid to say, and it's a real bummer what's happening in our industry with respect to diversity, particularly, ownership. There's a lot of activism, there's a lot of work. I'm one of many, many people working on this and I do believe that some of the bigger companies also want to help and figure out ways to build bridges and we have an opportunity right now to build this bridge.

Right now is the opportunity and the first thing they have to do is point out the elephant in the room and start talking about it, and saying, "Hey, it's not going well at the moment. Let's apply our moral compass and start walking in the right direction." Let's see if we can do it. I'm hopeful.

Sinead: Yes, absolutely. Yes, I know you mentioned that at MJ Biz, you just had a panel discussion about this and I really want to unpack it because it was such an interesting conversation about capitalism and big business versus cannabis culture. There is like you said this huge friction between the two that's just coming to a head. You've had your foot in both camps, what do you think it will take to build a productive relationship there?

Andrew: Well, I think there's quite a few steps we can take. First, public policy. If we could work together-- The bad public policy is hurting both the stoners and the suits. If we could straighten that out so that we could work together because right now, people are building little moats around their businesses because they got a little chunk of market share and they're lobbying against change, and they're fragmenting the activist community to improve these frameworks. The mainstream political parties are taking advantage of that and frankly, not behaving the way we would like.

It's an imperative moment where we have to get the public policy right and we have to-- That's an opportunity for both groups to work together. We're not going to win all the battles that we want on either side when we start talking about how to work on good public policy together. Right now we're oftentimes working against each other in creating these frameworks. You've seen homegrown. Homegrown is a great example. Homegrown is critical for a healthy legal cannabis ecosystem.

You have to be able to grow your own in your backyard or wherever, on your balcony, wherever that you can grow it. That has to be part of it. It also has to be legal to trade cannabis freely for other goods and services. Not to sell it because then you need a license to do that. But if your friend is a plumber and you have a plumbing problem in your home and you have a quarter ounce of weed you can trade for that plumber, our community has done that a lot and that's how working class people have survived with cannabis oftentimes. I did that kind of trading a lot.

That's critical. We've seen people, big companies and even small/medium companies in these weed trade associations come out against homegrown and that scenario that should be really easy bridge to build. Let's all lobby together for homegrown and for trade, non-monetary trade of cannabis. That would just be a layup.

And then the more complex parts of how do we make sure capitalism doesn’t just steamroller over these communities that don’t have access to the capital part of the ism? If you don’t have access to the capital, you're not going to get an ism in your business. You're just not going to get it. It's critical that we somehow level the playing field within public policy. I don’t know all the solutions of that. Certainly licensing this part of it but also funding and skill training.

I also think that we got to really look at tax policy. That’s a place where both groups, the suits and the stoners are getting crushed. That’s the area that should also be a layup. Neither the stoners or the suits like to get taxed too much. We want to pay our fair share, but these tax rates that you're seeing all over the country are just ridiculously high. What they're talking about at the federal level is just not going to work. You're not going to be able to put a federal excise tax of 25% on weed and expect to absorb the legacy market. It's just not going to happen. Tax policy is another area I think we can collaborate on. I think that we may need to have mandates on diversity that is tied to certain licensing categories.

One thing that worked really well in California was there was a law passed that said you have to have a certain amount of women on the board of directors of any California company that's of a certain size and of course they made it giant, but I wish they would apply that law to almost all companies that have boards of directors. This is for boards of directors, not executives, and it worked. That mandate increased diversity of board of directors. That’s the kind of thing public policy can do. It's not saying you have to have three board of directors that are this particular thing, it's saying, "Hey, look, you have to meet certain diversity thresholds." I'd like to see something like that. That’s going to be harder to get it done because someone is going to sue you and they might win in court because they'll say it's not fair to everybody else. That’s where the public policy gets tricky.

The layups we need to take care of first. The stuff that's easy for us to agree on, taxes and even barriers to entry. I think there's some barriers to entry. We can lower that that everyone can agree on and that would be one way. The other way is just to convince each group with panels like we had at MJ Biz with more conversations. Maybe a whole conference that just brings these two groups together or maybe a whole gathering of some kind. Maybe it’s a one-day event. Don’t have to be a three-day event. We learn about each other and see how we can be a value to each other.

The legacy market deserves a lot of credit. Under the threat of losing freedom and having your life totally destroyed, you can get weed anywhere in the world pretty much easily and fairly affordably and the weed is not bad and in some place it's pretty good. There's a lot of skill. That’s hard to do. I learned so many things doing that that you don’t learn as a Harvard MBA. We might not have the pedigree of a Harvard MBA, but we can bring a lot to the table. I want to see more of that. I want to see more legacy folks.

I'm not on any big company's board or advisory board or no one-- None of them are engaging me right now and I could do so much for those folks. I'm the one trying to build the bridge and I still can't. That's some more cross-pollination. We on the legacy side that have managed to get legal, like Harborside, we had to hire a lot of folks from the mainstream side, the suit side, and we had to bring them in and sometimes we didn’t hire the right people and that really hurt us. Sometimes we did and it really helped us. It's time for more of that to happen on the other side and to see more legacy folks coming and being part of--

There's a lot of different ways to do that. I know Curaleaf has an incubation program and they're doing some different interesting innovative things to help folks that have been harmed the most by the war on weed. I know Ayr Wellness, the other group that was on the panel, they have a bunch of community-driven programs and expungement I believe is one of the things they do, as well as their big supporters LLP. Ayr Wellness they’ve been a supporter of LPP. There is different ways for--

Every company and every bridge that we build between someone like me in a company or someone like Swami or someone like Glad, that were also on the panel, every bridge that we build is going to be a little bit different. It's going to be constructed a little differently. It's going to have a little bit different character to it.

That’s the kind of thing I think that we can be doing together and just not be so afraid to compete in a fair way with each other. Capitalism doesn’t like to be fair because it likes the move more towards monopolism like a giant game of Monopoly, but it's just not sustainable to keep doing that in any industry. We have an opportunity to not do it from jump street in our industry, but we are doing it.

I don’t want to be too optimistic. This is going to be hard. This is going to be hard. We can easily have these two market problem and have a big legacy underground market because it just can’t be done and that's the only way our people can survive.

Then I worry about Prohibition 2.0, but hopefully we can avoid that outcome. The way we’re going to reform Prop 64, the disaster at California and gosh, I look back on-- I supported Prop 64 because I felt if we lost that, that it would embolden the federal government to come in and bust a lot of people, similar to when we lost Prop 19 in 2010. That’s what happened when we lost that. I was worried about it, but we knew it was imperfect. If I had to do all that again I probably would not have supported it because of those imperfections which are now destroying us, just destroying the California market.

I see the only way to fix it, truly, truly fix it is we have to run another ballot initiative in 2024 because this was the year to fix it. It was this year. We have Governor Newsom, a Democrat that was under a recall election. We have a super majority of Democrats in the legislature in Sacramento. They were under a lot of pressure with the recall election and we weren't able to get anything except those two bills. The Trailer Bill's just meaningless. The Hemp Bill, yes it's an incremental step in the right direction, but we could've gotten so much more. We didn't get anything on taxes. We didn't get anything on barriers to entry. We actually got a rise in taxes. The tax went up during the term of the legislation.

There was a little bit of money allocated to get people from temporary licensing to permanent licensing because they've just had such a backlog of getting that done, but most of that money is just going to go to higher bureaucrats to process applications [chuckles] and collect fees for doing that. Pretty big fees, I might add.

These are not $500 fees like when you go to register your auto mechanic business or whatever, this is $50,000, $100,000, $75,000. We didn't get any meaningful reform on that. We didn't get any meaningful reform on all this packaging we have to do. That is just an ecological disaster.

We didn't get any meaningful reform on so many things, on local control. The local people are still banning dispensaries in 60% of the state. Most of those places voted for Prop 64. The legislature's not taking action on that. We have to run an initiative. That's going to take, I don't know, $20 or $25 million. I wanted to run one in 2020 when I was still with Harborside and I was up there in Sacramento working on this. I got so fed up after that legislative session that I decided to resign and let other leaders have a shot at it. Unfortunately, they haven't been able to do much better than I was able to do when I was up there.

In any case, that's how I think you fix 64 truly and meaningfully and in our way, to protect our community and to implement all the lessons we've learned. Even then, it's going to be hard. It's going to be enormously hard. The legacy market, the underground market in California is so entrenched, and pissed off, and motivated [chuckles] right now that I don't know if we can ever get them back even with another initiative. I worry.

The initiative, the only way we get that done is if corporate cannabis, again, helps. They could write the check for $25 million. Any one of these companies could write that check tomorrow and then you've got something going on that's a nice bridge that we build between these communities to fix 64. Yes, man, they're going to have to give up some market share to the legacy folks in that new initiative. Yes, we're going to have to give up some market share to the big companies. That's how this works, but if we want meaningful reform here in California, that's how it's going to happen. I'm just hopeful that what goes down in New York is so successful that it puts a lot of pressure on California.

Sinead: Absolutely. You mentioned a second ago issues at the local level, people that voted for 64, but now are working against dispensaries in their own backyard. I've seen actually you've written about this and you've used the term nimbyism, which is obviously the not in my backyard crew. What are your thoughts on that and California, and really, across the country right now in states where it's legal and people are still working against it in their own individual communities?

Andrew: Whenever you're working politics at the local level, which we are now doing-- We're not that good at it, frankly, yet because it's a whole different sport. [laughs] It's like going from basketball to lacrosse or ice skating. At the local level, for anything that's even remotely controversial, and almost anything these days can be very controversial, [laughs] something like, "Would you like to have a cannabis dispensary in your neighborhood?" Folks that don't want that in that neighborhood, even if there's just a couple of them--

It's usually not that many folks. Most people are like, "Yes. California, I smoke weed too. Go ahead," but there's a few folks that really take offense to it for one reason or another, or they're fearful of it, or have been brainwashed by the reefer madness propaganda and so forth. They come out at the local level and they make a lot of noise. They make a lot of noise. They get the neighborhood groups and they start organizing, and then they start sharing all the worst news stories from the cannabis that happens with people blowing up houses when they're making their own dabs and all this stuff that happens out there in the world when you have prohibition.

Then they whip up more people in the local community.

I've been run out of town. I was run out of Boston, I was run out of Chicago trying to bring Harborsides to these areas. The local people would just come out and go crazy. They would scare the politicians and then you had to get the license. You had to get the local people to agree to give you a license. Without that, you've got nothing in the legal market. It's a real problem. It's where legalization collides with reality. [laughs] It's like reality bites for legalizations at the local level.

What we have to do is we have to outnumber them. If we show up and there's three times as many of us as there are of the nimbies-- I call them the nimbies, I say that affectionately. Even though it is probably a derogatory term, but I love them. I want them to find the truth in their heart. [laughs] We just have to somehow get them there, but if we outnumber the nimbies, then the politicians are like, "There's three times as many of the weed heads as there are the nimbies. I guess it's a new day. All right. Weed wins." Then that's it.

That's what we have to do at the local level. It's just really hard to do because we're operating at the state level with so much energy right now in so many places just to get the state to do things right. It's also hard to fund because who funds it? Local activists? Well, they don't have any money. Local businesses? Well, sometimes they don't have any money. There's a chicken and egg problem of how does the funding--

You need a certain amount of funding at the local level to get the people out to outnumber the nimbies, but in order to get that funding, you need a legalization framework in the city to be approved that the nimbies are speaking out against in the first place. There's a real chicken and egg problem that also hurts us at the local level.

Again, if we had more coordination between activism and capitalism, we could fund it because we would have to give up some of the space to the bigger companies that were funding it, but we could also get them to agree to give up space for us.

Then we could outnumber the nimbies pretty easily by just having enough funding to just let people know to come out. It's really just letting people know to come out. People care about coming out for weed in their local community if you just let them know what, where, when and why, [laughs] and how. That's how we win at the local level. It's a big challenge for us. It really is.

Sinead: Definitely. Definitely a vicious circle there but one that, like you said, I think can be broken. It's going to take quite a lot of effort, but I'm feeling optimistic about it, especially with people like you on the frontline there doing so much.

Andrew, I want to turn into some personal development questions here in a second, but before we get to that, I really want to talk to you about Last Prisoner project. We've mentioned it a few times throughout the interview here, but I'd love to really dive into that and hear about your efforts there, the kind of work you're doing right now. Can you fill us in on Last Prisoner project?

Andrew: Absolutely. Last Prisoner project is a nonprofit organization, was started a couple of years ago now. It was really four years ago, but it took a year and a half to get non-profit status and to put the leadership team together, to put it all together.

We get people out of prison, cannabis people out of prison. That's what we do. We also have re-entry programs, so folks can have some support once they leave prison and reenter into society. We hope to have more educational and job placement programs in the industry. Those projects require a lot of funding and not all of that funding is coming in yet.

We support expungement efforts, but we don't actually do expungement. We try to give a voice to the prisoners, both that are inside still, and those that are outside so that we got now. A couple of our prisoners appeared with us in Las Vegas and Michael Thompson, Richard Delisi, are two that were there. Also Dante West was there. Evelyn La Chapelle was there. There were a couple others there.

They're all amazing people and they're now out of prison, thanks to Last Prisoner project and other groups that work on this. It's a village that needs to mobilize to get this kind of work done. They were in Vegas and there was a big fundraiser with the Blues Brothers and we got to bring them out on stage and couple of them got to speak and talk, share their experiences.

We try to give a voice to these folks and amplify what they're doing. I know that some of them are trying to get into the industry and they have brands that they're working on. They don't do that work with us, they do that work separate from us, but I know that they're doing that work and it's exciting. It's exciting to see. It's very, very rewarding work.

When you get somebody like Michael Thompson, who was locked up for, I don't know, 30-some years, just a huge amount of time. Richard Delisi, I think, again, 30-ish hears, it might've been a little bit less, a little bit more for those guys. It was right around 30 years. To help get those folks out and to be friends with them and to help them and to see them thrive in their post-prison life is so gratifying and I'm grateful that Last Prisoner project is all of our partners and funders and large companies that fund us like Ascend Wellness, and small companies that help us, like Cosmic out here in California, and everyone in between, and all of our individual donors.

I'm so grateful to that community for making it possible for us to have a great team of leaders and go about this work. The wheels of justice turn so slowly, and so it's frustrating oftentimes. Almost every day, I'm frustrated, but when you do have success here and there, it keeps you going for all the other days that are more frustrating.

Sinead: Definitely. I was looking at the website at all your various success stories, even just over the past year. I couldn't believe how many people were put away for life for nonviolent cannabis offenses. It's just mind-boggling to me that that was ever even a thing. But I love what you guys have done there and the work that you continue to do. I just really appreciate hearing the case stories there.

That's amazing. Well, Andrew, I want to pivot into some fun questions to wrap up the show. These are not so much cannabis-specific, but more just about you and the man behind the curtain. First off, Andrew, are there any books that have had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you could share with listeners?

Andrew: Oh, wow. So many. Well, the most recent one that I'm reading is a book called, well, I've already read it, but it's called Breath by James Nestor, and it's about breathing and breathing right and how that can actually add, not just years, but decades to your life if you learn how to breathe properly, which we don't in Western society.

I'm also reading a book, I'm a writer, I do a lot writing, as you mentioned, and so I'm reading a book called On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, which is a famous book about how to write nonfiction. I'm still putting in my 10,000 hours as a writer. There's a couple books that had a big impact on me that are not so much self-help books or business books.

Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, which is a science fiction book had a big impact on me. It really tells a science fiction story that articulates the value, psychedelic values, how we call them, or counter-culture values in this great story. That book had a big impact on me.

Then a lot of the typical books you hear about that have been influenced by, like Good to Grade and Creativity Incorporated, and all these business Bibles. The hard thing about hard things, that's another great book. That's all about how to have hard conversations and make hard decisions in the world of business. A lot of those books had big impact on me. I also come from the theater, so I love Shakespeare and even more modern writers like Sam Shepard and Tony Kushner had a big influence on me.

Sinead: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. That's a great list all around. Andrew, obviously we didn't get to touch on it too much, but for listeners that aren't aware, you have quite a decorated history in theater and you're in a lot of movies as well. This is a hard question and I understand if you need to take a few seconds to answer, but what would you say are three of your favorite movies?

Andrew: Wow. Well, let's see. I love The Godfather movie, the first one. That's one of my favorite movies. Malcolm X by Spike Lee, and Do the right thing by Spike Lee. Both of those movies had a big impact on me because I was coming up as a young actor when those movies came out. They had a big impact on me, especially Do the right thing, but Malcolm X did too.

David Lynch was a filmmaker that was also making some interesting stuff, like Fire Walk With Me and the whole TV show he had. He was a big deal then. I also like The Grass Is Greener by Fab 5 Freddy, which is the best cannabis prohibition history documentary that I think has ever been made. It really tells the story of why weed was made illegal in the first place, and does it through the lens of music, which is really cool.

Of all the movies on that list, I would say that the most important one for everyone that watches Grass Is Greener, because that really educates you in 90 minutes, you get the whole rundown of what went down with cannabis prohibition. It's a really well-done piece.

Sinead: That's great. Actually, I've been meaning to watch that for so long now. I'm going to have to watch that soon now that you've mentioned it. That sounds so good. Andrew, wrapping up here, how would you say listeners could get connected with you either if they're interested in helping out with the Last Prisoner Project or if they want to consult with you? How can they get in touch with you?

Andrew: Oh, yes, of course. Well, thank you for asking. lastprisonerproject.org is the website. That's the very best way to learn all about the different ways you can help us get active. If you work for a cannabis company, you're a cannabis company, help our programs to collaborate and raise money together. We have programs that allow companies to not have to give us money upfront, but give us money as things go, as products sell and we get a portion of the proceeds. A couple of other programs we have also so people can learn about Last Prisoner Project there.

For me, I'm andrewdangelo.com or andrew@andrewdangelo.com is my email. You can get ahold of me through my website and learn all about me there too and what I do as a consultant. Those are the best ways to get a hold of me right now.

Sinead: All right. Well, thank you so much again, Andrew, for this conversation. It's been such a fascinating interview. I really appreciate you coming on the show. Really look forward to seeing what you do over the next few years. Just thank you so much again. This has been great.

Andrew: Well, thank you for having me. It's been really fun.

[music]

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