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Steve DeAngelo, Cannabis Pioneer Advocate & Entrepreneur

Steve DeAngelo has been called “the father of the cannabis industry” and has done more to change cannabis than almost anyone else alive.

He founded Harborside dispensary, co-founded the Arcview Group investment firm, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) to advocate for the industry, and the Last Prisoner Project (LPP) to help those unjustly imprisoned for cannabis-related crimes.

He actually has some local ties. DeAngelo said his family is from Philadelphia and South Jersey, and he spent time in Cape May.

DeAngelo is identified by his trademark hat and braids. He explained that he admired the look of a Native American leader named Quanah Parker, the last war chief of the Comanche tribe that fought the U.S. army until it became clear there was no chance of victory. Then he led his people to settle them and extracted better conditions. He then became a prosperous farmer and businessman.

Quanah Parker

DeAngelo said the hat he wore are like the “hats I wear, but he never cut his braids. And I will never cut my braid either,” he said.

Steve DeAngelo and the Cannabis Industry

In 2006, he was awarded a medical cannabis license in the city of Oakland, CA. He sought to make Harborside the gold standard of a marijuana dispensary. With several dispensary locations throughout California, Harborside is publicly traded on the Canadian stock exchange. He then created Steep Hill laboratory to test cannabis after having issues with other labs.

Not long after, he co-founded Arcview Group with Troy Dayton, the first cannabis investment company. Steve DeAngelo said it is one of the top 10 Angel investor networks inside and outside of cannabis in the United States.

Long-time Advocate

He has been involved in cannabis since his teens.

“I’ve been a cannabis activist and entrepreneur since I encountered the plant at 13. I had a transformational experience that first time and wanted cannabis to be part of my life,” Steve DeAngelo said. “I made legalization of cannabis my mission at an early age.”

He was one of the leaders of Initiative 59 in the Washington, DC ballot referendum in 1998 to legalize medical marijuana referendum. DC passed it by 69 percent. However, Congress blocked its implementation. DeAngelo was deflated and felt the election had been stolen.

So, he uprooted and went west to California.

Steve DeAngelo said his proudest accomplishment was standing up to the federal government when it declared war on the medical marijuana industry in 2011 and terrorized dispensaries, their landlords, and their properties. This forced about a third of the California 1800 dispensaries out of business. He called it the “last stand of the federal government,” which was determined to halt cannabis reform.

“Unlike the previous 600, I decided to fight them and went to California tenant court and the federal court. The City of Oakland came to our defense, and they said it would result in a public health crisis.”

“Had we not done that and stood up, it would have emboldened the federal government. They might have tried to shut that down. It was the last stand of the prohibitionists, and we won,” DeAngelo said.

DeAngelo helped legalize adult-use cannabis in California via a ballot referendum in 2016. They previously failed to legalize cannabis in 2010.

Criminal Justice Reform Sought

With a few others, he founded the Last Prisoner Project, which seeks to end the imprisonment of every individual convicted of a cannabis-related crime. It is likely they get involved here soon in the fight for criminal justice with New Jersey’s high amount of cannabis arrests.

Its genesis came in 2017 after California had passed adult-use reform, and the industry was doing well preparing for its adult-use market to open. DeAngelo was on a business trip to Canada to raise money for the company. He went to Toronto and was in a conference room with businessmen in cannabis, reviewing numbers that looked good for the industry.

“The feeling was really good,” he said. Then Steve DeAngelo received a phone call.

“It was my friend Chuck calling from a correctional facility serving four years for 14 pounds of weed. Chuck was upset. It was the middle of winter, with four feet of snow on the ground, and his mother had no one to dig her out. And I walked back into the conference room feeling that despair. That room was really cheery. And I was struck by that disparity,” he said.

DeAngelo said he felt he had to do something to help his friend due to a moral imperative.

Launching The Last Prisoner Project

After barely a year of operations, they have recruited a full-time staff and launched several projects, including the prisoner to prosperity pipeline. Sponsored by the MSO Harvest, LPP developed a six-week curriculum designed to train them to be successful in the legal industry. Before COVID hit, they were getting ready to deploy the class in Oakland. It’s been delayed.

Another one of their major efforts is to increase the number of clemencies (or pardons) granted by state Governors. In the adult-use legal states, they have the authority to release all cannabis prisoners. However, they don’t, in part because of the difficult process of approving petitions. So, they’re working on a program to streamline the parameters.

“What used to be simple restorative justice means life and death,” DeAngelo said. He explained that in states where cannabis is legalized, prisoners are stuck and cannot social distance, use sanitizer, cannot control their food, air, or water.

“I spent weeks trying to control everything. And my friend Chuck couldn’t do anything,” he said.

The Future of Cannabis

“I hope in the not too distant future LPP can file more litigation and help those serving life without parole,” he said. Steve DeAngelo lamented the damage the War on Drugs has done to communities of color.

“The only reason I’m walking around today is because of the color of my skin… I would have been dead or in prison right now.”

DeAngelo said cannabis would be the most valuable product traded in the world in the future.

“It brings us closer to nature, helps resolve disputes, makes us more patient and loving, and it’s our best chance to save this world,” he said about cannabis’ power.

“Sometimes I feel like an old pioneer mountain man looking down on a valley, seeing a big bustling town that’s energetic and promising. Other times I look down on that valley, and it’s someplace I don’t really want to be,” Steve DeAngelo said. He lamented that the industry is overly taxed and regulated, which has frustrated cannabis from reaching its full potential.

“I’m really glad of the progress we made, but we have a long distance to go,” he said.

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