NORML Interviews Debby Goldsberry

Friday, March 18, 2011

Debbie Goldsberry
March is Women’s History Month and one of my personal heroes, Debby Goldsberry, is a pioneer of cannabis reform in our country. She was the recipient of the NORML Pauline Sabin award in 2005 and helped co-found Berkeley Patients Group as well as some of the top reform organizations nationally. Enjoy and celebrate this exclusive feature brought to you by my HIGH TIMES Activism Blog.

You helped found the successful Berkeley Patients Group in 2000, what other projects have you got cooking?

Right now, I am largely focused on helping to implement the medical cannabis ordinances passed in Oakland and Berkeley in the fall of 2011. Each city is planning to issue more dispensary permits, and they are trying to issue manufacturing permits for medical cannabis cultivation. The federal government is pushing back hard, even threatening to arrest the Oakland City Council. So, there is work to be done in each of these cities to get permits issued. Medical cannabis needs to be produced in a safe manner, and these two cities plan to set a standard for others to follow nationwide.

I’ve also been working closely with the NORML Women’s Alliance (NWA) on the Steering Committee to amplify the voices of women in the drug policy reform movement, specifically regarding parents and families.

Cannabis Action Network (CAN), where we are setting the stage for further development and evolution are developing the CAN History Project, which will record counterculture history from the 1980’s until 1996 when Prop 215 passed. A lot of history needs to be preserved and shared. Also, knowledge gained through tough times and the fun times over the last 20 years in fighting against the drug war will be documented.

Since Proposition 215 or the (Compassionate Use Act of 1996) passed, 15 states and Washington D.C. have had varying degrees of success and failure with their medical marijuana programs. Which states do you believe have the most compassionately crafted laws?

Well, I don’t think anyone’s done it perfectly yet. None of them are effectively dealing with the supply problem. Many patients still can’t get their medicine, there is an over proliferation of dispensaries which creates a backlash – in Michigan, Colorado and in Los Angeles specifically (there are pockets of perfection in the Bay Area). In Maine, each dispensary must supply all of their own medicine from only one facility. Recently, large greenhouses in Maine suffered roof collapses from snow. Imagine that one problem like this wiping out the entire supply of medicine for the patients there. It would take months to get back up and running. Locally is where most of the hope is found. When a city works with stakeholders, good regulations develop. Sometimes the states don’t do a great job, but locally, good plans can come to pass. We want to work on regulations more here in California and hope other state governments will follow our successes. Until then, we’re sort of in a holding pattern until things get more precise and functioning properly at our local level.

Many heroes like Dr. Tod Mikuriya, Jack Herer, and Brownie Mary are no longer with us and we are still fighting for access to medical marijuana in most states. Are there activists that honor the memory of these activists who inspire you? Who are they?

Dr. Tod Mikuriya was an early inspiration. He helped bring me to the Bay Area. He helped me to inspire other medical marijuana activists with his compassion and intelligence. One of my close friends, a woman named Cypress, was a volunteer booth coordinator for CA NORML. She fell ill with breast cancer and it metastasized so fast. To see someone suffer through their terminal phase of cancer and how medical marijuana could help them stay inspired and dedicated was a turning point for me. This was pre-1996 and Prop 215 had not passed. She was always so worried about getting busted. It was just not fair that she could be helped by this medicine and yet still had to worry so much. That inspired me to want to help more people, stand up and fight this great injustice to patients.

Virginia Resner worked a lot to end mandatory minimums and was tireless in her work. She really ought to be recognized here.

Jack Herer will always inspire me. Even today, I can still hear him drilling into our heads, “Fuel! Fiber! Food!”  Also, “Teach Teachers!” None of this would’ve happened without him. Everyone knows his work. He was a pioneer and will forever remain a hero.

There are so many people who make me feel proud. Doug McVay, Ben Masel and a host of other people. Another one is Stephen D’Angelo (Harborside Health Center). People don’t realize that he has been an activist in the trenches since he was 13. He’s incredible!

Todd McCormick showed us how to do all this with grace and dignity. How when someone knocks us down, we’ve got to get back up again and again. He is a real inspiration to us all.

You’ve been part of so many of the cannabis movement's strongest advocacy groups. Can you give us a truncated list of all the organizations you've headed, founded, partnered, contributed and from which you’ve received awards? When a person searches your name, the list is a million results long!

I am the director of Cannabis Action Network (CAN), co-founded Americans for Safe Access (ASA), co-founded Berkeley Patients Group (BPG) and was the Director for 11 years, and also co-founded the Medical Cannabis Safety Council (MCSC). CAN inspired the creation of both MPP and SSDP, both stellar drug policy organizations.

I was also bestowed Freedom Fighter of the Month in HIGH TIMES Magazine twice and was the first activist CelebStoner on Also, I was honored with the Pauline Sabin award from NORML in 2005.

Locally, one of my proudest moments would be when Berkeley made October 31, 2010 the Berkeley Patients Group Day on our 11th anniversary. The city basically put up a giant proclamation for BPG and designated it a day of celebration. It was a wonderful honor and we even received a plaque from city council!

Elvy Musikka is yet another activist who moves me. She came with us on the Hemp Tours in the 90’s all over the country and helped organizers immensely. She helped kick off the modern cannabis reform movement. Anywhere we went, she would appear on the front page of every paper at the height of the drug war holding her federal government sanctioned medicine.

We need to give shout-outs to the people who suffered and inspired us. Again, this is why the CAN history project is so necessary. We need to remember and honor those whose voices will live on forever even if we can no longer hear them. We must empower people to be the best organizers they can be.

You’re on several committees with the NORML Women's Alliance and have contributed an immense amount of knowledge and ideas to our amazing group of activists. How do you feel women can contribute to the turning of the tide?

I think that the voices of women and mothers especially have been quieter in years past because we’ve had our children to protect. The War on Drugs put families in the center of the crossfire. Women are having their voices heard louder and clearer these days. The fear factor might still be present but is diminishing every day. We are speaking louder than our adversaries. I really appreciate all the women who are working on this project and including so many other reform organizations in the process. Keep speaking your truths and face the challenges without wavering is my advice!

What are some internal adversities you see the movement capable of overcoming?

The most important thing we have to do is self-regulate the medical marijuana industry. The government doesn’t have the information or the experience we have. We must speak with one voice to develop standards for nomenclature, contamination screening, potency monitoring, safe handling, and testing lab standards. My belief is that we can come together in unity to be self-regulating. If we are lucky, the government will see that they won’t have to create regulations. They have in us all they need already built in.

A lot of industries are self-regulated. Emergency rooms, skydiving, electricity, and pharmaceuticals are self-regulated. Non-profits self-certify these regulations and license and inspect facilities and organizations. We are surely poised to become self-regulated in the same category as many other of those industries. That is our biggest challenge, to speak with one voice. We don’t have to go to the government if we do it well enough ourselves. The ER room group already has our name: The Joint Commission! That’s not fair. We have to take it back.

You’ve been a mother for almost a decade now. How has motherhood influenced your activism?

I was an activist long before becoming a mother. I became a mother when I was 37. I waited that long because I was a frontline reform activist. It was scary because kids were being taken from their parents who were arrested for simple possession. After I became a stronger advocate and wanted to be a mother, my voice needed to be loud so I could get extra protection. Other co-directors (who did not have children) did not have the same fears and concerns. It a was horrible time for me (during the Bush administration). It’s amazing how the Obama administration and their policies have changed that.

Have you encountered any discrimination from other parents regarding your deep involvement with cannabis law reform?

I can hardly ever tell what people think about the issue. Sometimes I wonder if my child is going to be discriminated against. I have seen my friends who have kids go through that. Those who are outspoken have been looked upon negatively. That hasn’t happened to me much locally. I was recently on the front page of a local paper because of the Oakland manufacturing law situation. I feel like some of the parents are looking at me funny now. I try to keep my parenting and activism separate but it’s difficult if not impossible.

Ideally, what does legalization look like in 25 years?

Wow! Having started 25 years ago, I know what that timeframe is like! Cannabis will be fully regulated and licensed all across the US. We’ll have a system that treats cannabis just like a regular plant. It’s a lot of time but I think it will happen by then.

What is your proudest moment so far regarding your work?

I’ve tried to avoid getting too proud but being part of the Silent Seven who refused to testify against Ed Rosenthal in court was very important to me. I was happy and honored to be a part of that. When the city of Berkeley decided to give BPG their own day, that was really gratifying too. Also, having managed to keep BPG going for 11 years has been a source of pride for everyone involved.

What advice do you have for new activists?

Follow your passion. There is so much work to be done. Do exactly what you feel moved to do to make a difference! The needs for cannabis reform are so varied and we need a lot of talent. There is a place for everyone.

What are your top news sources/favorite websites?

Locally, the Oakland Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle are my go-to sources. I generally read most New York papers. I might be addicted to the British tabloid The Daily Mail because they break a lot of stories. I can’t really determine why though (laughs). They’re funny and informative kind of like the NY Post.

For medical marijuana news, I really like the Americans for Safe Access list serve. And of course, HIGH TIMES and Celebstoner!

Story and photo by Diane Fornbacher/