The godfather of the legal cannabis industry talks about what’s on the horizon and his new business venture in the Coachella market.

Hang Time with Steve DeAngelo

Story Hudson Lindenberger

From a young age, Steve DeAngelo had an affinity for activism. “Some of my earliest memories are of Freedom Riders staying in my parents’ house and my family feeding them,” he says. That desire for change led him to dedicate his life to overturning the draconian laws that governed the consumption of cannabis and to educate the masses to its wellness benefits. 

“The specter of a stoned nation losing its competitive edge to a culture of self-indulgent hedonism was successfully deployed by our opponents to justify re-criminalization, urine testing, denial of student and housing aid, and draconian sentences. The personal choice to get high was transformed by our opponents into a threat against all society,” he says. 

DeAngelo is an icon in the industry as the cofounder of Harborside, one of the first licensed dispensaries in the nation; Steep Hill Laboratory, the first fully dedicated cannabis laboratory; the Arc View Group, the first cannabis investment firm; and the National Cannabis Industry Association, the first trade association for cannabis. 

While all this has been happening, DeAngelo has also been overseeing the growth of Harborside, which has the largest share of the California market. Its latest move is an expansion into the Coachella market with the first drive-through dispensary in Southern California. As his company grows, he has eyes on a national expansion and a growing platform to educate anyone and everyone about the positives associated with cannabis. For the last 18 months, he has crisscrossed the planet evangelizing his message and developing relationships that will hopefully one day help erase the stigma associated with cannabis use. We caught up with him in Mexico. 

You seem to spread a different message about cannabis than most. 

I reject the dichotomy of medical or recreational cannabis. I don’t think that either of those categories fully describe why people use it. People use it for the wellness it gives them—relief from medical issues, mental problems, daily rigors—and overall it promotes better living. There are many, many reasons why people use cannabis. 

How has that message evolved over the years?

In the early days, we didn’t know any of the history of science surrounding it. We did know that it helped us be the people we wanted to be. Back then, we used the arguments we had. We stood on the grounds of individual rights and freedom, that cannabis prohibition was not right, that they could not tell us what we could put into our bodies. That argument worked for a while. But under Reagan, everything went backward. We got moving forward again by spreading the message about all the previously hidden industrial and medicinal prospects that it offered, following the lead of Jack Herer, the author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Educating the populace about the positive effects cannabis offers paved the way for the progress we’ve made. 

What makes California such a fertile place for the industry?

Well, for one, California is a tilt zone. It’s a place where all the loose nuts that can’t land anywhere else end up. The state has a population that is uniquely open to change. People have been consuming cannabis here in larger amounts, for a longer period of time, than anywhere else in the world. That has created a vibrant culture around cannabis and a much more accepting populace that is open to it. Look at Northern California. You have small towns with organic groceries, packed bookstores, yoga studios, a welcoming community with schools built by donations from growers. There is a unique culture there that surrounds it, and you can find that feeling throughout most of the state. 

Where do you see the industry headed?

In the next two or three years, I think you are going to see some major movement happening at the federal level. The plan I like the best now is Bernie Sanders’. It’s clear and concise, but most of the candidates have some plan for the full legalization at the federal level. If any Democrat wins, except Biden, something big is going to change. I think there is even a chance heading into the election that Trump and the Republicans could make a play if they get desperate enough. One way or another, we are going to see some fairly significant change on a federal level. What we have seen is that the pace of change has rapidly accelerated. I don’t see that slowing at all. 

I have been traveling all over the world since January 1, 2018, and there are countries everywhere reforming their laws. South Korea, a spot that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, just changed its [laws]. There is a global cannabis renaissance happening right now. That is the most exciting thing to me. 

We are seeing cannabis displacing other products. I just saw a study that shows alcohol sales in states that have reformed their laws drop quite significantly (11 percent to 9 percent). Opioid prescriptions drop too. We know that Medicaid reimbursements go down in legal states. It’s disrupting industries and gaining momentum daily. 

What is needed to continue the change?

In most parts of the world, the need for basic education about cannabis is needed. Most people don’t have a full understanding of the biochemistry and therapeutic benefits it offers our bodies. CBD is helping spread the message, but it’s mostly a creature of prohibition. What’s driving people to it is that it’s the only cannabinoid they can have access to legally. 

Why open the new store in Desert Hot Springs? Why a drive-through?

The Coachella Valley is one of the major epicenters of the cannabis industry in California, even the world, I would say. We see that the Valley is turning into a cannabis tourism location. People are planning trips just for that, so we think, what better way to introduce them to the Harborside experience? As for the drive-through, why shouldn’t our consumers get the same level of service they are offered in other businesses? When people come in for the Coachella Festival, they can easily get their product. And on hot days, they can stay in their cars. We want to offer them convenience. 

Do you see any big changes coming?

There are going to be multiple shakeups in the industry. When you are growing at the rate we are, it’s impossible not to have disruptions. There are going to be peaks and valleys. We just saw that on the Canadian Public Exchange. A year ago, we saw incredible valuations and today we are seeing companies suffering a huge loss of value. That’s stressful, but it’s not going to stop the growth of the industry.

Look at the issues facing the contaminated vape pens. This is the first major product-related crisis facing the industry. People are wondering if this will kill the vape pen business. Is the government going to ban them? How are we going to get through this? Well, whatever happens, we will survive. If they are banned, then we will just start selling more hand-held vaporizers that consumers can put their own product into. The Canadian Exchange will rebound. Business will keep growing. There is huge growth potential, and the world has no choice really but to embrace it. Everywhere I go, people want to have access to cannabis. 

Any last words? 

The cannabis tribe is open-minded, tolerant, and peaceful. We respect diversity, we abhor racism, we don’t give a shit about conformity, we honor individual freedom, and we walk peacefully on Mother Earth. That’s who we are around the world. We need more of that, so why stop it? 

Harborside and its drive-through dispensary are now open at 66205 Paul Rd. in Desert Hot Springs.

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