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Talking Shop with Robert Calkin: A Q&A with a Longtime Cannabis Advocate

Robert Calkin, a noted marijuana activist and educator, has spent more than 30 years advocating for the cannabis community. In 1988 he co-founded the American Hemp Council along with cannabis icons Chris Conrad and Jack Herer. He also started one of the country's first cannabis delivery services, Green Dot Delivery, and established the Cannabis Career Institute, which provides industry-related business training. Since 2008 Calkin has been teaching classes at Oaksterdam University, helping hundreds of budding cannabis entrepreneurs start their own ventures. His 2009 book, "Starting Your Own Medical Marijuana Delivery Service: The Mobile Caregiver's Handbook," has become an industry standard.

Leafly recently sat down with Calkin to talk about his past, hear his thoughts on the transition of cannabis into the mainstream, and discuss what's next.

Robert Calkin
Robert Calkin, cannabis activist and educator

Leafly: Tell us about your past. What was it like pioneering in a semi-legal industry?

Robert Calkin: I started using cannabis in 1976, and I was organizing attendees on the National Mall for a smoke-in within two years. My dad was a speech writer, so I had some access to the political process and was more in-tune than most people my age. In 1984, we marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House and we were thinking, you know, "Anytime now, it’s going to be legal. Use your own moral compass."

I moved from D.C. to Hollywood in 1987. I was in a band called Rude Awakening and I wanted to get signed with a major record label, but in the meantime I needed a job. I started the first branded marijuana delivery service called Green Dot Delivery, and I also joined a group called the Business Alliance for Commerce in Hemp. Chris Conrad was in the group — he was most famous as an expert witness for testifying on the uses of cannabis — but Jack Herer was also a founding member. All we could do was hang out and try to raise money for those who had legal problems with cannabis. The American Hemp Council would often advocate for these people, but we didn’t have a lot of hope. Meanwhile, I used my delivery service to try to meet a lot of people in the music industry – celebrities, producers – and it worked. I was literally the only service in California for nearly 20 years. I never faced a shutdown, and I was lucky to have no criminal background.

In 2006, I started looking around and seeing new delivery services popping up. But how was it happening? I went to Oaksterdam University to see if they had classes on how to start your own legal delivery services, but there was nothing. No guidelines, no groups, no wording in the California rules. Delivery services, as we refer to them, is really a misnomer. It’s just a private patient group whose members bring each other cannabis. What I’ve been advocating eventually became the bible for the industry. I wrote the book ["Starting Your Own Medical Marijuana Delivery Service: The Mobile Caregiver’s Handbook"] during classes at Oaksterdam. I began teaching, and when people came in not knowing what to do, I’ve now got a checklist, a step-by-step guide. I started the Cannabis Career Institute, which was the first cannabis business seminar series, in 2009.

L: When did you start noticing that attitudes towards mainstream marijuana were changing?

RC: When I first started, people would hang up on us, call their attorney; people were afraid to sign their name to support marijuana. Now there’s been a radical shift in attitudes. Before, people would sign up in advance to be teachers, promote instructors, or become a canna-celeb, but no one wanted their name on it! Now they’re crawling over each other to get their name attached to this. Five years ago, people were sticking their head in a hole; they were not ready for this. People didn’t start getting open and honest about marijuana until 2012.

L: If you could create the ideal cannabis market, what would it look like?

RC: I’d like to see a market where anybody can participate, even the little guy. Entrepreneurialism is what makes our country great. I want to help people create their own businesses, for those who don’t want to answer to the Man, or take a standard 9-to-5 job — who want to do their own thing. It’s a huge transition out of the underground and into the mainstream, and it’s hard to get into those insulated circles that have already been established. Old school is the new school, and if we can keep corporate interests from stepping on toes, there’s still room for that old-school mentality.

I have a strong opinion about delivery services and a personal stake in it, obviously. Nobody thinks delivery is the first priority to be included in regulations, but truly, the whole project started to help the homebound and disabled, the patients who can’t necessarily drive or get out of bed easily. This is the kind of one-on-one patient care that can’t happen at dispensaries. You have someone assigned to you to help and get you what you need, and it should encourage you to continue using these services. Anyone can call to order a pizza. This is definitely NOT the same. There’s a lot more care involved.

L: What’s next for you?

RC: I’m actually working with CannaWorks in a clinical trial with Dr. Gerry Bedor. We’re working on a paper about elixirs and how they activate CB3 receptors in the gut lining and your stomach.

L: One last question. What’s your favorite strain?

RC: You know, I have a partiality to Headband these days, but for nostalgia’s sake, I love a good Acapulco Gold or Panama Red. Give me one of those and I’ll be a happy camper.

Check out some of our other interviews with cannabis industry influencers:

Canada's Green Rush: An Interview With Jodie Emery, the "Pot Princess of Vancouver"

More Than Black and White: An Interview with Critical Drug Policy Scholar Dominic Corva