Andrew DeAngelo sold his first bag of cannabis when he was 16 years old. And he got the stuff from his older brother Steve.
That was back in the ’90s, when the plant was still very much illegal and transactions occurred in shady parking lots and on sofas over water pipe hits. Much has changed, but the brothers are still selling cannabis. They just happen to sell it at the largest medical cannabis dispensary in California, Harborside Health Center, with dispensaries in Oakland and San Jose.
Oh yeah, and they were proud enough about the enterprise to be featured on the reality show Weed Wars, which reached a national audience on The Discovery Channel. As both businessmen and activists, the DeAngelo brothers have become two of the most-recognized faces in the industry.
“I could see a much happier and more productive life in cannabis, despite the dangers involved, which are not insignificant now and certainly weren’t in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I lived a dangerous lifestyle.”
But it all goes back to helping others enjoy the product they love.
“The essence of what I do hasn’t changed in all these years. We’re still cannabis distributors, advocates and activists, and we believe in the plant, and we love the plant,” said Andrew, 49, of Oakland. “We’ve learned a lot from the plant, and we keep learning from it. We’ve really let of our love of the plant guide us for the last 35 years.”
Black Market Busted
Andrew came to cannabis in high school, when he began using it to deal with pain from an injury. The cannabis, of course, came from Steve, who lad left home at the age of 15 to devote his life to the plant.
“A lot of the folks that got attacked by the federal government did not fight back. They just packed up and moved somewhere else. We did not decide to do that. We were the first dispensary that got a forfeiture letter who said, ‘Fuck you, we’re going to fight back.'”
It was love at first toke, and Andrew began dealing cannabis to pay his way through college, where he studied theater in hopes of becoming an actor. The idea of cannabis being legal someday wasn’t even on his radar.
“I could see a much happier and more productive life in cannabis, despite the dangers involved, which are not insignificant now and certainly weren’t in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I lived a dangerous lifestyle,” he said.
The dangers of his lifestyle were illustrated when Steve was arrested for cannabis in 2001 in Maryland. The brothers decided it was time to head west. California voters had legalized medical cannabis, and the brothers saw an opportunity to turn their growing skills to a legitimate use.
“We never liked being criminals. We never liked breaking the law. I hated hiding from the world. I hated hiding what I was doing, so as soon as we had the opportunity to come out of the shadows and into the light, we took advantage of that,” said Andrew.
A New Kind of Dispensary
The brothers spent the 2004-2005 timeframe learning about the California medical cannabis scene, hanging around the new buyers’ clubs and getting to know other activists. This new industry offered a way to make a living off the plant, as well as an avenue for social change.
“We’ve learned a lot from the plant, and we keep learning from it. We’ve really let of our love of the plant guide us for the last 35 years.”
The city of Oakland decided to grant a handful of dispensary licenses, and the DeAngelo brothers successfully applied for one. So, Harborside was born in the fall of 2006. The brothers envisioned a new kind of dispensary from what they had seen around the state.
“We were growing and making hash and selling medicine to these dispensaries . . . and we were not happy with the experience. It was either bulletproof glass and a gangster kind of feeling or a very kind of loosey-goosey activist vibe, where people were sitting around getting stoned, writing a lot of letters, doing a lot of activist work, and there wasn’t a lot of professionalism on the business side,” Andrew said.
Most dispensaries lacked lab testing, child-proof packaging or any kind of point-of-sale tracking system. Receipts were often written out by hand. Strain selection was limited.
Harborside would be the opposite—no bars on the windows or bulletproof glass. The dispensary would be well-lit, with display cases offering a wide variety of strains. And their facility was massive by the standards of the time.
Later, when a documentary film company proposed shooting a reality television show about them, they jumped at the chance.
The project became Weed Wars, which aired in 2011. Coincidentally enough, a few months after it aired, the Justice Department filed a civil forfeiture case against Harborside, which would become one of California’s longest legal battles over a cannabis dispensary.
Fighting Back with Courage
“A lot of the folks that got attacked by the federal government did not fight back,” said Andrew. “They just packed up and moved somewhere else. We did not decide to do that. We were the first dispensary that got a forfeiture letter who said, ‘Fuck you, we’re going to fight back.'”
“I love my life. I love our mission. I love our organization and what we do and I wake up every morning feeling very blessed.”
The Justice Department finally dropped the case in 2016, having succeeded only in catapulting the DeAngelo brothers to freedom fighter status in the eyes of the cannabis community. Even the city of Oakland was on their side.
Despite the frustrations, Andrew has no regrets about doing the television show. In fact, he credits shows like Weed Wars with helping to bring medical cannabis to 28 states.
“I loved it. It was really interesting to have that happen. For many years I tried to be on a TV show without a whole lot of success . . . The cannabis movement allowed that part of my passion and that part of my career to come full circle. It was great, and I hope we can do some more storytelling.”
The brothers remain active in the movement and plan to figure prominently in the drawing up of regulations in California for the medical cannabis and the new recreational cannabis industries. While he knows there is a lot of work ahead, he’s optimistic about the future of this industry now emerging from decades in the shadows.
“I love my life. I love our mission. I love our organization and what we do and I wake up every morning feeling very blessed,” Andrew said.