THE BLOG
11/29/2016 11:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

California's Marijuana Pioneer Isn't Afraid of Donald Trump

About a month ago, on an unseasonably warm Wednesday evening in the courtyard of the Oakland Museum, partygoers in blazers and floor-length gowns mingled, sipping champagne and martinis. A DJ spun remixes on a neon-lit stage. A photographer snapped photos. Tiki torches and triple-decker towers of appetizers helped set the mood.

It looked like any fancy A-list event, save for the cloud of marijuana smoke hovering over a cordoned off area, the most crowded section of the party. Revelers passed joints back and forth, sucked on vape pens, and lined up for their turn at the dabbing bar (dabbing, a newly popularized way to consume marijuana, involves inhaling heated cannabis concentrates). It's a fitting way to celebrate the 10th birthday of the country's biggest dispensary.

Steve DeAngelo, wearing a teddy bear's smile and a fedora atop his signature silver braids, approached a podium to greet his guests. The crowd fell silent as he recounted the recent history of Harborside Health Center, a dispensary he founded a decade ago in an effort to create a mainstream model for cannabis retail.

"We are entering the era of modern cannabis," he tells the cheering crowd. "The revolution has only just begun!"

Since its founding, Harborside has been featured in documentaries and TV shows, played legal jiu jitsu with the federal government, and ballooned into a multi-million dollar company that serves tens of thousands of patients. DeAngelo was recently named one of the 7 most powerful people in the marijuana industry by Forbes magazine. Simply put, Harborside is the Green Standard.

And now it's more front-and-center than ever. Earlier this month, in the shadow of Donald Trump, marijuana enjoyed a sweeping victory across both the blue and red parts of the United States. Florida, Montana, North Dakota and Arkansas -- all heavily conservative-leaning states -- approved medical cannabis initiatives. California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine all legalize full-scale adult use. Arizona was the only state in which any sort of measure failed.

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De Angelo in front of his Oakland storefront.

But the future of cannabis still remains uncertain under a Trump presidency. Marijuana is still federally classified as a Schedule I substance, which means it's illegal under the premise that it has no medicinal value. Meanwhile, the president-elect has pledged to reverse socially progressive legislation from climate change to abortion rights.

De Angelo, however, is not worried. "I don't expect any further progress at the federal level, but also don't expect any attempt to roll back at the state level," he says. "On the campaign trail Trump has repeatedly said cannabis laws should be a state matter."

In the spirit of progress, DeAngelo recently decided it was time to give his legacy brand a facelift. In accordance with its 10th anniversary in October, Harborside revealed its brand-new look, complete with a sleek logo and storefront renovation. Last month, its makeover paid off when the company nabbed a 2016 Cannabist award for Best Retail Branding

"This is more than a logo change -- it is really a recognition that the cannabis industry is rapidly becoming a consumer-driven marketplace," John Yost, Harborside's Chief Marketing Officer, says. "To separate ourselves from this cluttered, competitive landscape and prepare for the future, we decided it was the right time to update."

I recently caught up with DeAngelo to hear more about the reasons behind the rebrand, his own consumption habits, the future of the erupting cannabis industry, and Harborside's evolution from a small Oakland shop to a marijuana megastore. Our [condensed and edited] conversation is below.

Harborside's new branding video.

California's Proposition 64 legalized recreational marijuana. What exactly does that look like for residents? I prefer you use the term "adult use." I don't think recreational captures the full range of how people use cannabis.

So what does the adult use law mean? As it stands now, adult Californians can possess up to one ounce of cannabis and grow up to six plants on their own property, it cannot be visible. That's what it does immediately.

And longer-term? We hope it will soon designate medical cannabis dispensaries to all adults before licenses can be issued. We expect licenses to come sometime in 2018, at the earliest. So your'e looking at a year and a half, or possibly longer, until adults have any access to a legal form of cannabis. This is ridiculous, because if it's legal but not for sale, you'll have to use the black market to get your cannabis.

How does the cannabis community feel about the new law? We're a really big community composed of a lot of different stakeholders. Millions of people who don't have to worry about going to jail are relieved. Communities of color are celebrating this as a huge unequivocal victory. Consumers are also looking forward to a reduction in prices, which we can expect to see with more competition in the marketplace. Investors are charged up and ready to bring millions and millions of dollars into state. But there's anxiety in the legacy cannabis community, especially among growers. Anyone who has been making a living off this plant during the amount of time it's been unregulated.

Why did you decide to dedicate your life to cannabis? I fell in love with the cannabis plant as a young teenager, and I've made its legalization my mission. Harborside was the latest in a long string of activist projects. I had been a cannabis entrepreneur about as long as I had been consuming it. Just before opening Harborside, I was running a company called Ecolution; an industrial hemp company.

When did you first open Harborside? October 2006 -- ten years ago. The idea was to provide a gold standard of cannabis retail. To prove to the world that cannabis retail could be done in such a way that could bring benefits and not harms.

What was your original mission? I wanted to reduce the stigma associated with cannabis. All the images of dispensaries up until that point were amateurish or scary. The idea was to reduce stigma and promote legal reform.

Do you think you've succeeded at that? To a large degree.When we first opened, there was only one medical cannabis state-- today over half the country has medical cannabis laws, and eight states have completely legalized. Harborside deserves some credit for that. We created an image for cannabis retail that was palatable to people. There's no accident there.

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A Harborside employee examines new products.

What are you working towards now? We've achieved much of our original mission, so our new mission expands the scope of our ambitions. Take the lessons that cannabis teaches us and build a world that lives by those values. Wellness, sustainability, embracing diversity, economic fairness, inclusivity. We hope to be able to articulate some of those lessons.

What lessons has cannabis taught you? Compassion and empathy. Cannabis has a very powerful ability to put me in touch with other people. I have a tendency to fall in love with my own visions and projects and goals. Sometimes I can't be as in touch with other human beings. Cannabis is really helpful in that way.

What was the thinking behind Harborside's original design? The idea was to create an environment that would be welcoming to anybody. We made sure that anyone who used cannabis could come into the space and feel welcome. We wanted that space to be open, to feel safe, to demonstrate that the days of stigma were over. To feel like a real retail environment.

How did you achieve that? The most dramatic example is the windows and the natural light in almost every room. We took all the walls down. Our dispensing area was visible to the rest of the world. All the other dispensaries featured barbed wire, bulletproof glass, big heavy fences, big beefy guards. They were intimidating. We didn't want to have anything to hide. "Out of the shadows and into the light" -- that was the moment our tagline was born.

What is your new look trying to convey? It's two looks brought together. The logo is a very clean, modern, bold and striking declaration that we're moving into this future of legal and legitimate cannabis. It's combined with hand drawings of a peace sign, a fist bump, and hearts to evoke our commitment to that human touch. To compassion, to putting the people who are in the building first always.

What prompted the rebrand? The world changes. Any brand that's successful needs to evolve periodically. In Harborside's case our world has changed dramatically in a decade, and we've been partly responsible for making those changes happen. There's this saying that the cannabis industry lives in dog years. Everything moves seven times as fast. Ten years in the cannabis industry is like 70 years in any other.

What are the drawbacks to the industry growing so much? We have a tremendous number of people coming into the cannabis industry whose personal experience with the plant is very limited. They're looking at it as an economic opportunity or as an intoxicant. They are going to market cannabis in a way that's consistent with their knowledge. But there are many more dimensions to the plant that those folks will be ill equipped to talk about.

Is it not an intoxicant? Cannabis can produce euphoria. But I don't view euphoria as intoxication. Everyone should have the ability to experience joy, euphoria, ecstasy. It's a normal and desirable part of the human experience.

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Harborside's sleek new interior.

What about laws that regulate driving under the influence? Wouldn't that make it an intoxicant? It's true that some strains of cannabis are psychoactive. People who use it need to be aware of the effect is has on them. Those using strains that are high in THC should use extra caution.

Who is the typical Harborside patient? There isn't one. If you take a look at the floor of Harborside at any given time you'll see a huge range of races, economic classes, ages, orientations. There's no typical consumer. The only thing that unites them is that most live within 50 miles of Oakland.

What's your favorite way to use cannabis? I ingest it in capsule form. I'll take 100 or 200 milligrams of THC in the morning. Generally towards the end of the day, I'll dab a turpine-rich solvent free extract. I like the hummingbird device to consume it. Occasionally if I'm traveling or in meetings I'll take a vape pen with me. We call those "get-you-bys" -- it's a backup device. They are easy to use in public but not quite as satisfying.

And your favorite product Harborside sells? In general, sun-grown cannabis. It tastes better and has a better effect. And it's way kinder on the environment. I get really happy when I see the sales of sun grown products going up.

Do you treat animals? We don't treat anybody. We dispense.

Do you dispense to animals? We do. It's called Treatwell. Of course, the person still needs a medical cannabis recommendation. If a patient comes in with a recommendation for themselves, they can purchase the medicine for their pet. There's no law that prohibits people from sharing cannabis with their pets.

One of your other projects, ArcView, invests in cannabis-related startups. Any that are particularly innovative to you? One of the most interesting is a company called Green Flower Media. It's an online educational platform that provides courses people can take. Live streams of events, some really exciting work with summits. Their presentations are streamed all over the world, where people can ask questions and engage on an interactive platform.

What are you still fighting for? This battle won't be over for me until the last cannabis prisoner walks free. I want to see an honored place for this plant all around the world. It's the most valuable plant on the planet. It should have a role in society that reflects that value.

Will you fight back if Trump becomes a threat to the industry? We have crossed the point of no return in California. Our lieutenant governor was one of the foremost outspoken advocates of Prop 64. The state is counting on hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue. If the feds want to come take another bite out of the Harborside apple, they will be more than welcome to meet us in court.