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Owner Of World's Largest Dispensary: Cannabis 'Isn't Optional'

Steve DeAngelo has been a cannabis industry icon and and pro-legalization advocate for almost four decades. He runs the Harbourside Health Center, the world's largest medical cannabis dispensary. He's the president of The ArcView Group, an angel investment network that has helped raise $50 million for more than 80 cannabis startups. And now he's written a book: The Cannabis Manifesto.

Civilized Publisher Derek Riedle recently sat down with DeAngelo for one of our Civilized Conversations - regular chats with entrepreneurs, politicians, and entertainers. At DeAngel's dispensary in Oakland, they talked about his long career as an activist and businessman, his passion for legalization, and more. Listen to the interview and read the transcript below.

In the book you talk about how you "fell in love" with cannabis.

It was like a deja vu experience the first time I saw it and smelled it: I recognized the plant at first sight. I'd heard of cannabis before I encountered it, and I'd been told, 'Well, it's something you get high on.' But when I actually experienced it for the first time, I had this incredible experience: I was walking through a park that I had walked through every day of my life. But I started noticing all these things I'd never noticed before.

I can feel the sun on my neck. I can see the same sun filtering through the leaves of the trees. I can hear the crunch of the dried leaves underneath my feet, and the gurgling of the creek. I start feeling that I'm part of all of these things that are interconnected - this web of life. Looking back, I recognize it as my first genuine spiritual experience. I was 13 years old, and it was incredibly valuable. I just knew on an almost cellular level: there was nothing wrong with this plant. That it was a good thing, not a bad thing.

In the legalization debate there is a lot of emphasis about the dangers of making it easier for kids to get ahold of cannabis. Given that you tried it yourself for the first time as a teenager, what's your view on keeping it away from young people?

I think that young people should be introduced to cannabis the same way they're introduced to alcohol in responsible households. Kids need role models. They need to see people doing things responsibly. One of the terrible things with prohibition is that millions of parents that are totally responsible cannabis users hide their use from their kids. They go in the garage or in the backyard, or they have a secret code-language because they don't want to give their kids mixed messages. They don't want their kids to have to lie and hide things.

What ends up happening is that the only role models left for our children are stupid stoner movies. And that's not really how we want to teach kids how to consume cannabis. In my household growing up, I got to the point where I was curious about wine. My dad put a few drops of wine in a glass, and then he filled it up with water. He let me taste it, and I gradually got accustomed to it. And I saw that he would have one glass, or maybe two glasses with dinner, and that became the norm for me. I grew up and I didn't develop a problem with drinking. I think that's the way most kids who have a healthy relationship with alcohol find their way to it. I think the same thing with cannabis. It's something that should be primarily in the control of families.

There aren't a lot of positive role models in the cannabis community that are mass-consumable in pop culture. I look around and see people portrayed as stoners or potheads or lazy slackers. In reality, that's the opposite of what a lot of this community is.

You look at people like Peter Lewis, Richard Branson, and Carl Sagan. Some of the best minds of the past decades have been people who not only consumed cannabis, but consumed cannabis on a very regular basis - and credit it for some of their success. If you are a high-achieving person - whether you're an athlete, or you're a business executive, or you're a performer - cannabis can be incredibly helpful and incredibly healing. It can enhance your healing process. It can enhance your creativity. It can enhance your sense of spontaneity. It can be incredibly helpful in contrast to alcohol, which is the socially sanctioned alternative. Most people, unless they're walking around sloppy drunk all the time, aren't accused of being dumb because they have a couple of glasses of wine at dinner.

Why is this a civil rights issue?

It's a civil rights issue because cannabis is - like all healing botanicals - something human beings have a right to access. One of the things that drives me crazy about cannabis today is the "R-word" - recreational. People talk about the recreational use of cannabis, which is absurd. Cannabinoids also produced in plants, and by the human body endogenously. Many of the chemicals in the plant are similar chemicals. And the endocannabinoid system, which manages these compounds, is the largest neurotransmitter system in the human body. It's located in all of our organs: our skin, our connective tissue. Virtually everywhere.

When you're talking about a substance that has such a complex, profound interaction with the human physiology and mind, to categorize it as an elective leisure pursuit is crazy. The danger is if it's 'recreational,' it's optional. If it's optional, it's a choice. If it's a choice, you don't need to have it.

I look at it differently. This is not optional.

It interacts with the largest neurotransmitter system in our body. Every human - every living creature on the planet with the exception of insects - has an endocannabinoid system. This is a major part of human physiology. We have a right to every healing botanical that this planet has given us, including cannabis.

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