For years, Steve DeAngelo, an entrepreneur who got his start in the legalization movement hosting smoke-ins in front of the White House, thought that big business, big pharma and big tobacco would damage the cannabis industry. He had plenty of company.
But today, DeAngelo sees a future where cannabis and big business help each other. In fact, he thinks such a collaboration may be the thing that helps move the industry to the next level of acceptance and legalization.
"One of the things I have been concerned about from the beginning is that I knew as we made cannabis legal that established corporate interests would eventually try to get involved," said DeAngelo. "That was something I used to view as an unmitigated evil. But, as I have grown older, there is nothing mainstream in the United States of America until it goes into the mainstream of commerce. We are not going to get the changes that we want in law and social attitudes until cannabis gains accepted space in the mainstream commercial system." DeAngelo, spoke at a High NY, a Meetup group for marijuana entrepreneurs, on December 17th.
DeAngelo is the cofounder and CEO of Harborside Health Center, the country's largest medical cannabis dispensary with $30 million a year in sales, three locations, and a network of 225,000 patients. Harborside, which is set up as a non-profit, paid $3.5 million in taxes to the city of Oakland last year, making it the city's second-largest taxpayer.
DeAngelo's change of heart about the marriage between big business and legacy cannabis players might seem like blasphemy to some, but he sees it as a necessity.
"I think it needs to happen. It's a good thing, but it will be a challenging thing for people coming out of the cannabis community because there will be displacement, and that's tragic," DeAngelo says.
But it's still needed. He believes big business can help accomplish things activists and entrepreneurs haven't been able to, especially federal legalization and the establishment of cannabis-business-friendly changes to banking regulations. But there is also a fear that corporate America could degrade the values and the ethics of the cannabis community--with its focus on holistic wellness, organic farming practices, product quality and the rights of patients.
Early signs of corporate entry into the cannabis market aren't promising: Marinol, an FDA-approved pill containing man-made THC that is used for AIDS and cancer patients for appetite loss and nausea, is said to be less effective than the real thing, according to a report by Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst at nonprofit lobbying organization NORML.
But DeAngelo isn't proposing that founders jump at the chance to sell to big business. "We need to make sure that we make corporate America more cannabis-like instead of making cannabis more corporate," he says.
The bigger question is how he intends to do that, and why, exactly, corporate America would want to partner with legacy cannabis entrepreneurs when they undoubtedly are positioned to move briskly into the market as soon as legalization goes federal.