Not too many in Hollywood stood up for cannabis and hemp before it was cool, even fewer caught a charge, and then there is Woody Harrelson.
The tale of Harrelson and cannabis goes back decades. How long? This should put it into perspective. Harrelson was famously arrested for planting hemp seeds in Kentucky in 1996 after he called ahead to the sheriff to inform him about his intentions.
When you talk about anyone with legit activism credentials that predate legal medical cannabis in California, you have to show a certain amount of respect, and when that person is an A-list celebrity, it’s even more noteworthy. So noteworthy, The Emerald Cup has chosen to bestow its honored lifetime achievement award, renamed in honor of Willie Nelson, on Harrelson for its upcoming 2022 or 2023 Awards Show to be based in Los Angeles, CA. The year is not yet confirmed due to logistical issues pending at the time of this article. The Emerald Cup’s upcoming inaugural L.A. awards show will be held at the historic Montalban Theater in Hollywood on May 14th.
“Woody goes all the way back and it’s been an honor to have him as part of the community,” Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake noted, before making sure to give a nod to Harrelson’s wider sustainability efforts and work on behalf of the environment. “The work he’s done on so many fronts. He’s just a true stalwart of the community and who we are, even in the film, music, and television industry, everything.”
Blake also was excited to keep the lifetime achievement award recipient as someone with a deep cultural impact. For most of the early years, it was dedicated to the members of the community that had really helped move the chains for cannabis reform. But as the cup expanded, so did the view of the award. Harrelson will follow past recipients Willie Nelson, Tommy Chong, and Winona LaDuke.
We asked Blake if Harrelson helped set the bar on celebrity cannabis activism.
“He did,” Blake quickly replied. “He jumped right in when it wasn’t a popular thing. He wasn’t getting paid, people thought he was crazy, or eccentric with weird beliefs. He didn’t care. He was passionate because that’s what he believed in.”
Blake argued Harrelson’s talent arguably made his activism more survivable than others who might have risked stepping into the cannabis political debate – “He just wouldn’t be held back.”
Now as Harrelson preps for the achievement, he also prepares to open up his new West Hollywood dispensary, The Woods. Our talk would start with his view of watching the cannabis world evolve up into this moment, where he was ready to pull the trigger.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing because to be honest, I never thought that it would get to this stage,” Harrelson told L.A. Weekly. “I never thought you’d even have it to where it was legal, much less that you could go get it out of the shop. So it’s pretty exciting. I don’t really take much credit, but a lot of people did a lot of hard work to make it happen. I don’t know what the definition of freedom is in a free country, but I would assume that you should be free to do what you want, as long as you don’t hurt anybody else or their property. But apparently, the government feels different about that.”
From there, the conversation turned to the wider topic of victimless crime; Harrelson said the whole thing continually blows his mind when he sees it out in the world
“I was out in Idaho recently. Like the only state that from the beginning didn’t do any of the protocols, just totally kind of an independent state. And yet, they got this hardcore drug policy and I don’t understand how the citizens allow it?” Harrelson said.
But he said he understands why the government does it.
“There’d be way less war if it wasn’t so damn lucrative, especially as it applies to the war against non-corporate drugs,” Harrelson said.
As we moved into a wider conversation on the drug war turning 55 years old, we eventually got the criminal justice success of Proposition 64. With the perils of licensing, thousands of extra people a year not ending up in cages is the main success story to come out of election night 2016.
Harrelson used the subject of fewer people in cages to note he can sound critical but is happy to see where it’s going
“I gotta say, I mean, I can sometimes get a little negative in the sense of just what the government does with our tax dollars, it infuriates me. But I will say, now, it is way, way better than it was. So let’s hope it just keeps going that direction,” Harrelson said.
Things are far enough in that direction that Harrelson soon will be opening his dispensary, The Woods, in West Hollywood. For the first time anywhere, he explained to L.A. Weekly how he set down the path of entering the cannabis industry.
“Well, my partner Samba, he does ERBA and he used to be my neighbor. And I guess you would call him Devon Wheeler, but I call him Samba. And so he was my neighbor and we became really good friends playing water basketball,” Harrelson explained.
Harrelson said Wheeler is a phenomenal athlete and a great guy.
“And then he got into this doing ERBA and obviously, did extremely well with that,” Harrelson said. “We talked off and on about doing something, but it was never the right place or the right time. Just none of it quite worked until finally, we came over and we saw this place.”
Now Harrelson is the CEO of a soon-to-open dispensary, and Wheeler serves as a partner and COO. Joining the pair as partners are Jay Handal, who previously co-founded ERBA; Thomas Schoos will serve as creative director and a partner; and Bill Maher. Maher has been a partner in The Woods since day one. He and Harrelson are close friends and he’s excited to be involved.
The facility that caught their eye featured a layout that would allow them to do various kinds of businesses in the same place. Harrelson said this will let them have the dispensary, on-site consumption, and somewhere to base-camp the delivery part of the operation.
“It just had everything but also the most important thing is, it’s incredibly beautiful,” Harrelson said. “We have an amazing outdoor area with a koi pond.”
Aesthetics were paramount to the vibe Harrelson was shooting for, and now that he’s found it and been able to build it out further to the team’s vision, he’s stoked. “I’m really psyched about it, this is the first time I’m talking about it. I can’t really promise anything except that it’ll be the most beautiful dispensary you ever saw.”
But Harrelson doesn’t want people to come to have a look at the fish and never return. This is a business project, as much as a labor of love. To do that he’ll need the heat to compete in West Hollywood’s stacked market. Defining the quality of marijuana would be one of the funnier parts of our chat.
As soon as the conversation transitioned to the actual product, Harrelson was quick to point to the fact the war on drugs has pushed cannabis cultivation inside.
“The bulk of what people want is indoor chem weed,” Harrelson said, “Now, we’re gonna carry that at The Woods because I don’t want to, certainly in the beginning, alienate any potential customers. But my dream is to promote and to help people see the sensibility in sun-drenched herb, because I feel like you want that sun energy.”
Harrelson moved on to his frustrations with the way sungrown cannabis is being branded at the moment. He feels deeply for the farmers who produce the products he prefers for his personal smoke. “I think outdoor is really getting the short shrift these days because you can buy a pound for $300. It’s not paying off the same way the indoor is. I’d like to see a change. Outdoor organic is amazing. That’s where all of us should be putting our sights. The outdoor organic herb should be the creme de la creme. I mean, assuming it’s a good herb.”
One side element to Harrelson’s point is that the bigger outdoor farms get, the further away they get from the advanced permaculture and sustainability practices he would like to see. But life is also getting harder and harder for the small farmer.
We asked Harrelson if he ever has any concerns about the little guys making it through and surviving long enough so he can buy that pot from them to sell.
“Well yeah, that’s just it,” Harrelson replied. “I really feel like all of these guys get pushed out. It’s just like the way agriculture went from small farms to Big Ag. And of course, you know, that meant a lot of pesticides, etc. Well, it’s the same thing – it’s fertilizers, insecticides, and pesticides. It’s like a different thing when you’re doing these huge crops.”
From there, we went a bit more into Harrelson’s preferences. He noted he’s not totally against greenhouse pot with a pinch of supplemental lighting, but the sun has to be the backbone of the lighting for the operation. Full-term sungrown sativas are the closest thing to his heart.
“If the element of the sun is missing, which it is with indoor herb, I’m just not interested in that,” Harrelson said. “I’m sorry.”
Apart from his belief in soil and sun creating the best herb, Harrelson is troubled by the ecological footprint of indoor cannabis grows, but it’s still probably the chemicals that freak him out the most, rather than the power grid. “Just the general things that are coming from the petrochemical industry that you don’t want to be a part of what you’re smoking,” he said.
As we continue to move away from prohibition, Harrelson believes there will be a movement to move all cannabis production back outside.
“I’m thinking that we’re going to have a revolution on indoor herb because it’s really the drug war that made indoor the thing that everybody wanted,” Harrelson said. “Well, now we’ve just got to recondition ourselves with the sound logic that if the sun hasn’t touched your herb, it may not be as good, even if it blows the top of your head off.”
Harrelson said he’d rather have a lower THC with a feasible high.
The high THC debate is its own animal. Since people can only look at the numbers on the side of the jars; in many cases those numbers end up dictating what someone will buy as opposed to effect or experience. For many OGs in cannabis, this trend has been horrifying.
Harrelson weighed in on The Great THC Race.
“Well, I don’t know why you need 30% THC, by the way, to me 15% is just, it’s groovy,” Harrelson said. “I mean, if you just want to take one hit off a joint and lose your balance, what’s the point of that? Don’t you wanna smoke a few? Most smokers I know don’t want to just have one hit off a joint. Some of this pot is so strong. You wouldn’t want to have much more than one or two hits.”
Harrelson also is in the midst of helping judge The Emerald Cup this year. Tim Blake dropped 60 jars off to him the day before our talk. He and his buddy Jedi made it through four of them on the first night of testing.
The hardest part so far? Trying to pick favorites.
“I’m trying to figure it out. But I mean, so far, it’s like they all taste pretty damn good,” Harrelson said. “When it already gets down from hundreds to whatever, 50 or 60, you know you’re already in the ‘man, is it tasty.’ But, yeah, I got to keep my sensibilities about me.”
As the conversation moved back to the opening, Harrelson wasn’t sure if he would have ended up doing this without the encouragement of Wheeler. He can’t think of a particular “meant to be” moment from over the years where he knew it was time to turn his activism into something more tangible, just Wheeler saying “let’s do this.”
“I went through so many places with him, and we talked about it. You know, I’m really slow to move sometimes, I guess,” Harrelson said. “Year of The Ox, right?”
He kept at his pace and they eventually came across the current location. Once he saw it gutted before renovations and construction began, he knew they were off to the races.
“It’s been a long journey because it wasn’t a dispensary already and now we’re just taking it over; hell, I thought it didn’t look too bad in here when I first saw it. I thought I could probably take that out or change this, but no, they took out everything down to the floor,” Harrelson said.
Keep an eye out for an official opening date on The Woods, as it hasn’t been announced yet.
As our talk closed, we moved a bit away from cannabis and on to other projects Harrelson has been involved with lately. In particular, he was excited to reunite with Bobby Farrelly for Champions.
“It was a Spanish movie, one of the most popular movies ever in Spain, and yet nobody really saw it outside of that,” Harrelson said. “So we’ve made it and even if we get like, you know, seven-tenths of the way as good as theirs, I think people might like it.”
Harrelson also said to keep an eye out for White House Plumbers on HBO. The five-part series will dive into the Watergate scandal.