The Top 20 Most Influential People in the Medical Cannabis Industry

By Anna Lambias

Top 20 lists— like most lists with the word “Top” or “Best” or “Most” in the title—are inherently tricky affairs, and this one is no exception. It’s admittedly subjective: Who’s to say that the high-powered executive director sitting atop a well-oiled PR machine is any more committed or important to the 420 cause than the unsung activist laboring away on a newsletter at 12:01 a.m. on a Friday night? Moreover, the list is bound to be incomplete – meaning that it’ll no doubt upset a few people. All we can say ask of our readers is that if that we’ve missed some very deserving people here, be patient—we’ll get to them eventually.

That said, each and every person on our 2009 Top 20 list was chosen for his or her passionate service to California’s cannabis culture. Some represent the present and future of medical marijuana. Others built with their bare hands the foundations upon which our industry stands. All are deserving of our heartfelt thanks, and that’s why present them to you now.

STATE ASSEMBLYMAN TOM AMMIANO

On February 23, Ammiano (D-San Francisco) announced the Marijuana Control, Regulation and Education act (AB 390), the first bill to propose the legalization and regulation of the sale, use and taxing of marijuana in California. If passed, the bill has the potential to produce more than $1 billion in annual revenue for our struggling state, as well as ease the overcrowding of our prisons and redirect law enforcement efforts to more serious crimes. The gregarious politician’s bill is scheduled to be heard in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety in early 2010.

TOMMY CHONG

A much-beloved actor, director, writer and musician, Chong helped make marijuana famous as the latter half of Cheech & Chong. The comedy duo produced seven gold comedy albums, including 1974 Grammy-winner Los Cochinos, and seven films, including Up In Smoke, which was the top-grossing film of 1978. Despite having pleaded guilty (in exchange for non-prosecution of his wife and son) to selling bongs across state lines in 2003 and serving nine months in a federal prison, he remains a passionate advocate and public face for cannabis legalization, both through his continued work in entertainment and his position on the NORML advisory board.

DALE CLARE

In addition to her role as executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University, where she spearheads expansion projects, develops new courses and teaches the Medical 101 and Legal Rights 102 classes for all four campuses, Clare educates the public and other industry professionals as director of public relations and patient advocacy for the Medical Cannabis Assn. Committed to improving patient safety through the development of standardized quality-assurance practices and testing methods, she also helped establish the Medical Cannabis Safety Council, where she serves as chairperson of the Education & Research Committee.

RICHARD COWAN

Former president of the Young Republicans at Yale University (where he received his B.A. in economics) and former director of NORML, Cowan is an unapologetic advocate coming at medical cannabis reform from every angle. Currently based out of Palm Springs, he edits MarijuanaNews.com and heads up the Dispensary Defense Group. He’s also Chief Financial Officer of Cannabis Science Inc. (a publically-owned pharmaceutical cannabis company seeking FDA approval of a cannabis lozenge) and a partner in General Marijuana, a venture capital boutique specializing in legal marijuana investments.

JOE ELFORD

A graduate of Yale Law School, Elford helped appeal the DEA’s denial of the latest petition to reschedule marijuana and helped defend author and horticulturist Ed Rosenthal in his criminal prosecution by the federal government. Based in the Bay Area, Elford now fights for the people as chief counsel of Americans for Safe Access, where he has compelled the California Highway Patrol to revise its policy regarding medical marijuana seizures from qualified patients, challenged the indiscriminate firing of patients by private employers and trained public defenders throughout the state on how to defend patients in need.

DALE GIERINGER

With a Ph.D. in DEA drug regulation from Stanford, Oakland-based Gieringer is a man who knows what he’s talking about. He’s offered his expertise before legislatures, co-wrote the Marijuana Medical Handbook and published numerous articles on everything from marijuana and driving safety to smoke harm reduction, drug testing and the economics of cannabis legalization. Having served as the state coordinator of California NORML since 1987, he helped write Proposition 215 and is also vice-chairman of the national NORML board of directors, director of the California Drug Policy Forum and treasurer of the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance.

DEBBIE GOLDSBERRY

The first activist “CelebStoner,” Goldsberry not only co-founded the Cannabis Action Network and the Medical Cannabis Safety Council, but also started and co-directs the Berkeley Patients Group—a licensed cannabis dispensary that provides free medicine to 8,500 Bay Area members. By opting to be a good neighbor in the community instead of succumbing to the get-rich-quick temptation, the BPG is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Berkeley City Council unanimously voted to proclaim October 31, 2009, as “Berkeley Patients Group Day,” calling the dispensary a “national model.”

JACK HERER

A near-cult icon thanks to his seminal tome, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, an authoritative history of the cannabis plant’s myriad uses and the prohibition against it, Herer has sold more than 600,000 books and had a Cannabis Cup-winning sativa-dominant strain named after him. Sadly, due to a heart attack and resulting anoxic brain injury at the 2009 Hempstalk in Portland, the much-beloved “Emperor of Hemp” is currently at a rehab facility in Eugene, Ore., where he is recovering.

ROB KAMPIA

Despite serving three months in prison for growing his own marijuana for personal use while at Penn State University, Kampia was elected Penn’s student body president and graduated with honors. He moved to Washington, D.C., and co-founded the Marijuana Policy Project. As the organization’s executive director, he oversees extensive lobbying, sponsorship of ballot initiatives and a widespread media campaign—all focused on repealing prohibition and removing criminal penalties for marijuana use, with a particular emphasis on making medical cannabis available to patients.

RICHARD LEE

As a professor of horticulture and president/founder of Oakland-based Oaksterdam University, the first cannabis college in the United States, Lee is ensuring that people receive the highest quality training for jobs in the cannabis industry. With campuses in Los Angeles, North Bay and Ann Arbor, Mich., and possessing a faculty comprising some of the most recognized names in the California cannabis legalization movement, Lee’s Oaksterdam has not only earned respect from the industry, but is contributing to the revitalization of host cities and our nation’s economic growth.

BRUCE MARGOLIN

No criminal defense attorney in the United States has successfully defended more marijuana cases both big and small than Margolin. A cannabis activist who’s been named the Century City Bar Association’s “Criminal Defense Attorney of the Year,” he’s served as co-chairman of the ethics committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In addition to protecting the rights of thousands of marijuana defendants and fighting to change laws that unfairly target and punish drug crimes, he’s served as director of the Los Angeles chapter of NORML for more than 30 years.

RYAN MICHAELS

A rising star in the medical-cannabis community, Michaels co-founded (with Angela Smith) the advocacy group Yes We Cannabis and is advisory member to the board of the nonprofit Patient Advocacy Network. His street cred runs deep for someone only 27—he was the Inland Empire coordinator for Americans for Safe Access in 2005, manager of Healing Nations Collective in Corona from 2006-07, and political consultant for Democrat Nick Leibham’s during his campaign run for California’s 50th congressional district. This year, he established Inland Empire Patients Group in Bloomington, one of San Bernardino County’s first legitimate collectives; and co-founded Medical Cannabis Experts, a partnership of advocates that works to collect and disseminate knowledge on medical-marijuana issues.

ETHAN NADELMANN

As executive director/founder of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the leading U.S. organization promoting alternatives to the War on Drugs, Nadelmann is the point man for drug policy reform efforts. A graduate of Harvard and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a former professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton, he speaks out against both national and international cannabis prohibition everywhere, from The Colbert Report to the pages of Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. He co-wrote Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations.

DENNIS PERON

A Vietnam vet and charismatic medical marijuana, LGBT and AIDS activist, as well as a former Grassroots Party candidate for president and Republican primary candidate for California governor, Peron is a legendary figure in San Francisco politics. His first two cannabis-related city ballot measures, Proposition W in 1978 and Proposition P in 1991, were both landslide victories, and he followed them up by co-founding the first public medical-marijuana dispensary, then known as the Cannabis Buyers Club, and co-writing Proposition 215.

ED ROSENTHAL

In his 35-plus years as an expert horticulturist and author, Rosenthal has written or edited more than a dozen best-selling books about cannabis cultivation and social policy. Among his works are the Marijuana Grower’s Guide, Marijuana Garden Saver, Closet Cultivator and The Big Book of Bud series, which have cumulatively sold more than 2 million copies. Skyrocketed to national prominence by his federal conviction for cultivating marijuana, he now owns the Quick Trading Company (a publishing house) in Piedmont, and continues to both educate growers via his “Ask Ed” advice column and advocate for others, like Oklahoma drug-war victim Will Foster.

STEPH SHERER

Confronting the war on medical marijuana in California as a patient herself, Sherer stepped up to the DEA’s challenge by founding Oakland-based Americans for Safe Access in 2002. As the group’s executive director, she has worked in partnership with local, state and national legislators to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic uses and research ever since. Nationally recognized for her activism in all matters of global justice, she has received several community awards, including the San Diego Peacemaker of the Year, and serves as a guest lecturer at the UC Berkeley and George Washington University in D.C.

ALLEN ST. PIERRE

Executive director of both Washington D.C.-based NORML and its sister organization, the NORML Foundation, St. Pierre works tirelessly to ensure the quest to reform state and federal marijuana laws remains forefront in the public eye. Among other advocacy activities, he’s been a guest on more than 1,000 radio shows and hundreds of nationally televised news programs, and has been cited in countless local, national and international news publications, from the The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and London Times, to the Economist, Newsweek and Time.

NORM STAMPER

A former chief of the Seattle Police Department who now serves on the advisory boards for both NORML and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Stamper has become a passionate proponent of decriminalizing all drugs. His book, Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing, notes that the war costs the U.S. more than $69 billion each year. In October, he took his message to Australia, participating in 80 events in four states in three-and-a-half-weeks, all to promote the need to replace prohibition with a regulatory model.

KEITH STROUP

He has held the position of executive director for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, but it’s safe to say that there would be no such thing as NORML if it wasn’t for Stroup, the organization’s founder and current legal counsel. In addition to serving as NORML’s executive director from 1970 to 1979 (during which 11 states decriminalized minor marijuana offenses), and again from 1994 through 2004, he was the 1992 recipient of the Richard J. Dennis Drugpeace Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform, presented by the Drug Policy Foundation.

LANNY SWERDLOW

Both an activist and a registered nurse, Swerdlow is a medical educator at the Riverside THCF (The Hemp & Cannabis Foundation) Medical Clinic, which disseminates expert information about the state’s cannabis programs and laws and provides medical-cannabis referrals to qualified patients. He also reaches out to the masses as director of the Marijuana Anti-Prohibition Project, and host of “Marijuana: Compassion & Common Sense,” a radio show heard every Monday at 6 p.m. on KCAA 1050 AM and on the Internet at www.kcaaradio.com.

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