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Meet a major player in California's cannabis industry

Marijuana is legal for medical use under California law, but sale and possession are still federal crimes. Raids on growers and dispensaries – and a general climate of uncertainty – are increasingly creating problems for the industry.

Last week, the company that processes most dispesary credit card transactions nationally announced that starting in July, it would no longer do so. This means businesses will now have to conduct most of their business in cash.

Here in the Bay Area, Downtown Oakland is such a noted center of cannabis activism that a section of the city is known as “Oaksterdam.” Oakland’s largest dispensary is a few miles away from downtown, on the Embarcadero.

Harborside Health Centerclaims to be the largest of such clubs in the state, with over a hundred thousand members.

The Center was the subject of a short-lived HBO reality series called “Weed Wars,”which focused on the day-to-day activities at Harborside.

The slogan of Harborside Health Center is “Out of the shadows, into the light.” It's a philosophy that Executive Director Steve DeAngelo takes seriously, but it originated with his building designer when she suggested putting windows in the dispensary's sales area. At first he resisted the idea; no one had ever done this before.

“But I said, 'Well, wait a minute. Why not do that? I’m not doing anything illegal,'” he says. “I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing.”

And he never has been. DeAngelo has been a marijuana activist since he was 16 years old. He helped plan the first Hemp Museum, and organized a traveling Hemp Tour. He also worked with author Jack Herer in the publication of his book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes. This book is still cited by pro-hemp and pro-marijuana groups, over a quarter of a century after its publication.

DeAngelo's activism began while he was still in junior high school. He remembers taking over the school gym in 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War.We held that gymnasium for a whole day,” he remembers. “ And I think it made a very effective statement about the war.”

He saw many of the social causes that interested him – democracy, individual liberty, compassion, equality of health care, civil rights – as all being part of cannabis activism.

While living in his home town of Washington, DC, DeAngelo was deeply involved in the 1998 political campaign to legalize medical cannabis there. The initiative passed, but was overturned by the US Congress. By this time, California's first medical marijuana law was already in place, so he moved to California, where he co-founded Harborside Health Centerafter receiving a cannabis dispensary license from the City of Oakland in the fall of 2006.

So far Harborside has avoided any problems with the DEA, but they have attracted the interest of the IRS, which says they owe a couple of million dollars in back taxes and penalties. The dispensary counters that the IRS is not allowing them to deduct legitimate operating expenses, such as costs of employee health care and payroll.

Another dispute involving DeAngelo is the debate between advocates of recreational and medical marijuana. He says there's no difference; it’s the same plant, so treat it as such.

“I believe that cannabis can inspirepeople to make creations, which can be part of a recreational activity,” he says. “But it’s not the cannabis itself which is recreational. The cannabis is playing a wellness function, which enhances or enables recreation.”

Like many advocates, DeAngelo can cite a long list of positive aspects of cannabis. One of the benefits of cannabis for regular users, he says, is the act of forgiveness, and understanding, “so cannabis can be a powerful tool to conflict resolution – anything from business disputes to lovers’ quarrels.”

This forgiving attitude will no doubt prove useful to Steve DeAngelo, as the legal wrangling associated with his industry continues.

Listen to the audio story above to hear more cannabis news from Steven Short.