Steve DeAngelo: Amid Great Turmoil, a Rallying Cry for the Medical Cannabis Industry

By Steve DeAngelo

My phone started buzzing as soon as I plugged it in on the morning of April 2, 2012. Message after message lit up my screen.

Text message: “Oaksterdam University being raided by federal agents!”

Voice mail: “Steve, the Feds are raiding Oaksterdam—we need you down here right away”.

I threw on some clothes, quickly scraped my face and sped across town to Oaksterdam. There were already a few dozen fellow protestors there, trying their best to surround an equal number of federal agents from the IRS, DEA and U.S. Marshals Service. I heard their chants even before I saw them – “DEA Go Away, DEA Go Away,” “Our State, Our Laws, Our Medicine”— speaking truth to the armed power of the grim-faced Feds.

The crowd swelled as word of the raid leaked out into their Monday morning routines. Outrage built when we learned Oaksterdam founder and longtime activist Richard Lee had been detained by federal agents, along with several university staff members. Shocked and furious patients bravely confronted the now-outnumbered federal storm troopers: “Whose streets?—OUR streets!,” “Whose laws?—OUR laws!”

The emotional pitch of the assembled protestors steadily climbed as the feds went about dismantling the cannabis community’s leading educational institution. Cries of “Shame, Shame!” filled the air as a truck from a local locksmith company pulled up, ready to assist federal agents in seizing the assets of Oaksterdam University. Photos were quickly tweeted out to the community, guaranteeing that the organization will never see another dollar of business from the medical cannabis community.

Oakland’s elected officials began to show up and express their support for Rich Lee and Oaksterdam U. First and foremost was Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, longtime champion of patient rights, who was quickly surrounded by questioning reporters. “If the federal government has extra law enforcement resources to spare…there are a lot of guns on the streets of Oakland– and we would love their help getting rid of them,” she said.

No sooner had Kaplan spoken those words then a friend tugged my sleeve, “Hey Steve, have you heard about the shooting? Seven people just died at a school down by the airport.”

There I stood, watching dozens of federal agents spending hours carting box after box of student records out of Oaksterdam University, while at the very same moment – on the other side of Oakland, at a different university – seven more innocents lost their lives to gun violence. My jaw dropped in disbelief, and tears filled my eyes.

For months, ever since California’s four U.S. attorneys announced a renewed campaign against medical cannabis, I and other movement leaders have warned that the federal government should focus on real crime instead of medical cannabis. Now we see what happens when those warnings are not heeded.

Bad policy decisions have real-world consequences.

The events of April 2 in Oakland have demonstrated that the misallocation of law enforcement resources all too often has tragic results. We will of course never know whether the April 2 shootings could have been prevented had the federal government spent the same resources suppressing guns as they have suppressing medical cannabis.

But it is beyond question that had they done so, there would be substantially fewer guns on the streets of Oakland and other American cities—and fewer acts of violence involving them. How sad is it that the federal government deems suppressing voter-approved medical cannabis more important than saving lives?

When U.S. attorneys nationwide launched their resurgent campaign against medical cannabis—breaking Obama’s campaign promise into a million little pieces — they claimed they were going after criminals and profiteers. But with each action they have taken in California, they have betrayed their own words.

One of their earliest targets was Lynette Shaw and the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana—the very first licensed dispensary in the state. Then came Matt Cohen and his Northstone Organics collective, who worked with the sheriff of Mendocino County to develop and implement a system of regulated cultivation of medical cannabis. All their plants were ripped up, Matt’s family was held at gunpoint, and the work and dreams of years were destroyed in just a few short moments.

On the federal rampage went, forcing the closure of Divinity Tree and the relocation of Berkeley Patients Group. My own Harborside Health Center was hit with a $2.5 million IRS back tax bill, and now we see Rich Lee and Oaksterdam University targeted for destruction.

The list of federal victims reads like an honor role of the medical cannabis movement. The very best and brightest activists and social entrepreneurs have been targeted for federal enforcement, while hundreds of questionable operators remain unmolested.

The U.S. attorney have misled us from the very beginning of the resurgent federal campaign, and continue to do so every day it continues. The absurdity of the prosecutors’ insistence that they are not targeting individual patients—even as they go about destroying patient access to medicine and silencing patient leaders—is exceeded only by the disgust their actions engender in the hearts of those who still have a sense of decency.

The feds clearly intend to strike fear into the heart of our movement. To crush our spirit and break our will. To force us back into the shadows. To force us back into criminality.

But they have it figured wrong.

Our spirit has not been crushed – it has been renewed. Our will has not been broken—it has been strengthened. And though we may feel fear, we will meet it with courage. We will persevere, and we will continue.

For we know one thing is certain: We shall see the day when nobody is ever again arrested or put in prison for cannabis.

Until then, we will have the honor of fighting this good fight, of standing up for the weakest among us, of easing suffering and ending injustice.

See you on the barricades!

Steve DeAngelo is executive director and founder of Oakland-based Harborside Health Center, which ranks as the largest dispensary in the United States with annual revenues or more than $22 million.

The views expressed in this column reflect the opinions of the writer and not necessarily those of Medical Marijuana Business Daily.