ICBC’s Keynote Speaker Henry Rollins: Cannabis over Incarceration “Fuller Schools, Emptier Prisons”

ICBC’s Keynote Speaker Henry Rollins:

Cannabis over Incarceration

“Fuller Schools, Emptier Prisons”

By Haley Nagasaki




Henry tells me he’s looking forward to visiting Vancouver as he recounts the four other International Cannabis Business Conferences he’s headlined; two in Oregon, one in San Francisco, and the latest in Berlin, Germany.

While this is his first time attending the Vancouver division of this convention, he expresses how he genuinely enjoys working with ICBC’s Executive Producer Alex Rogers, who invites him to speak at various international conferences every few months.

HR: While I don’t use cannabis, I do advocate for its decriminalization and its legalization.

In America, everything is political, and the criminalization of cannabis is just a really easy way to throw people, especially African American males, in prison for non-violent crime. It’s how you get someone into the system, and hopefully they’re there forever, as a repeat customer. It’s an industrial complex, a whole other economy; and it thrives!

You need people in those beds or else there’s nothing for me to hurl my tax dollars at. And so I want fuller schools and emptier prisons, and I think legalization and the decriminalization of cannabis is a way towards that, which is why I started keynoting these conventions”.

Although another crucial concern that Henry addresses in his boilerplate speech on the ICBC panel is the importance of the medicinal side of the industry.

HR: You’re going to get rich, he says. Chances are this is going to be very good to you, but don’t let it ruin you!

 I watched money ruin the major label industry where people turned into salesmen, and they forgot that they’re selling music; selling good things to good people. Instead they just became vendors of stuff.

So I say, I want you people to never lose sight of the medical aspect of this. In my mind, your target customer isn’t the recreational user, because you’re going to get them. You already have them. I want you to be concentrating on the old lady who, thanks to cannabis, can knit again, or a guy like my dad.

To the right of my father, you know, it’s Joseph Stalin and Fox News… who thinks homosexuality and cannabis-use is the end of the empire. I want your outreach to be so good and so effective that he’s coming to you for a cannabinoid chewable that helps him with lower back pain. These companies are literally changing culture.

Cannabis, at least in North America, it’s as much about civil rights and equality as it is about fun and painlessness. I mean it comes tied to so many heads getting caved in; so much corruption, so much needless violence and bigotry, to somehow not acknowledge that in the way you vend, well then you’re not helping – because if you’re just some schmuck who makes money, then you might as well be Monsanto or a tobacco salesman.

I think tobacco is lethal stuff. I think it’s awful. I’m not into criminalizing it or making it illegal, but don’t tell me about how bad cannabis is when you’re slinging tobacco by the ton

HN: Alcohol too, I mean these are the things that are encouraged by society.

HR: I don’t think there’s any upside to tobacco. And tobacco and alcohol, at least in western society, it’s meant to keep the working person kind of neutralized so they don’t rise up. The CEO makes 3000 times more than that guy makes, as he ruins his body. You know you go to the pub after work and get neutralized, then go home and crack your wife across the face, then get to sleep. That is how the western world has been grinding away for centuries.

I think cannabis throws a monkey wrench into big Pharma, big agriculture…

HN: And other industries like textile and forestry.

HR: Yeah, years ago I had a show on the history channel for a couple seasons, and I had to pitch History Channel, A&E, on ideas for a one-hour show. I would throw ideas at them, and for the most part I was laughed out of the room. But they bought my idea on the short history of hemp and cannabis in America, which forced me to read stacks of paper, and interview lots of experts. But you see how much they beat up on hemp… 

You know and my dumb president just re-upped on coal and petroleum. He’s doubling down on the difficulty with petroleum, and you’re reminded once again about how the old money has a hold of the western economy, and hemp and cannabis are a huge part of that.

So these entrepreneurs, in my opinion are part of the change. I think they need to be political as much as they are entrepreneurial. To me, it’s a 50/50 endeavor where they have to go in it with an ideology that eclipses the money, because the money is almost a given. That’s where my motivation is, because I certainly don’t use the product.

HN: Can I ask why?

HR: Not interested. I smoked a joint in April of 1987 on Hamilton Avenue in Trenton, New Jersey. Band practice was over, and my band mates were stoners, and it always smelled so nice, so I said, “Let me have some of that”, “You?!” “Yeah, I’m that bored”. And you know I was not immune to the effects; I was stoned!

They said “What do you think?” and I said, “Nah, not for me. How long does it last?” “You got like another twenty minutes”. So I just sat there, in a state of non-enjoyment. But I was never against it, I smelled weed in every vehicle I was in on the road from 1986 to 2006, I mean it was inescapable.

I think my body chemistry is such that any stimulant skews me towards depression. Four times in my life I got drunk, like in tenth grade. It never was fun; it was just like “wow, I feel sad”. It’s not like I’m trying to slap a joint out of someone’s hand, believe me, if I liked it I’d use it. But body chemistry changes, so you never know.

HN: Do you think legalization in Canada will affect the US?

HR: I think it will perhaps inspire a lot of your northern border states to come on board. You know how much my country loves money. I think – this is part of my boilerplate speech, where if I’m speaking in a state that’s gone legal, I go, “you know look”, don’t think that higher ups in your state have any love for you having legal cannabis. They ran the numbers, and they found that they make more money legalizing, taxing, and regulating cannabis than they do locking up a black nineteen year old guy, and charging you $85/month for the guy’s bed and cheese sandwiches.

They don’t love cannabis, they love the money. So the government… they’re not your friend, they’re looking to double their money. They love the incarceration, but right now cannabis is sexier than incarceration.

Say there’s an arm wrestling match in a place like Louisiana, your red states, I think these local governments… their arm will be weakened by the stronger arm of commerce. And with a lot of your border states, you know, young people, they might go north for the fun weekend. Maybe their states will go “wait a minute, why are we letting Canada… why is everyone driving up to Kelowna?”

I want it to be legal in America; I think the medical upside is great. Right now it’s just an excuse to throw black people in jail, and it’s the only way I think civil rights will advance is when you deprive the white power structure of ways to incarcerate.

HN: I keep thinking about – did you watch that documentary film the 13th, where after slavery ended, they needed a loophole in how to inhibit the freedom of these African Americans. So if they’re deemed criminal, then you can incarcerate them?

HR: Oh the 13th Amendment. Yes that film started almost as much trouble as it ended: the birth of a nation, and the war on cannabis. American apartheid. The 14th amendment of 1868 to strengthen and ensure the validity of the 13th, which gave you equal protection into the laws of citizenship.  

America’s always looking for ways to beat up on the brown, the woman, and the gay. I mean those are our favourite food groups to wail on. For me, like I said, it’s a political civil rights issue.

I spoke with Henry about the different projects he’s been working on over the last six months, from filming a television pilot in Vancouver, to a movie in Luxembourg with Juliette Lewis and Stephen McHattie. After the holidays he went on tour, then flew to Australia to film a documentary on “overturning ideas of male macho culture”, a crisis that is now leading to an up-spike in male suicide in Australia.

HR: Mercedes Benz gave me a budget. Essentially we had interviews with men and women about suicide. It was very intense. I finished that, and came back and did a bunch of shows for a Showtime special. I wrapped out of that a couple weeks ago, and now I’m deep into the fourth draft of a book I’m trying to get to the proofreading stage by the end of the month. So I’m busy, but I’m not at a different airport every five days.

HN: I like how diverse your work is. It must keep things very interesting for you.

HR: Well I come from the working world of minimum wage in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then I got into the entertainment business from Punk Rock. I learned early on that I have no inherent skills, unless being enthusiastic and reckless is a skill. And so I just say “Yes” to stuff.

Years ago Crispin Glover the actor, he’s a buddy of mine, he begged me to try acting. He said, “Just as a favour, try it. Because you already have it, what we train for, you already are it; you’re just a nut. So just, don’t say no”. Within three months I was in a film. Then someone goes, “You like documentaries, you want to shoot one?” I go “Yeah!” You know I don’t know how many documentaries I’ve done just because I’ve said yes. But I’m happy to leave tomorrow to go do it.

If someone said, “Hey, you want to go shoot this thing in Zimbabwe, and leave tomorrow”, I’d say, “Yeah, I’ve already got my shots!” I mean just give me a Visa. I don’t care, because I don’t miss anybody or anything. I’ll get on any damn plane. So I’m always ready to leave for half a year, you know?

I don’t have much going on but output, so that allowed me to do a lot of different stuff, but never being all that good at anything. I mean nobody’s hiring me for my singing voice, but I made a bunch of records. Sold a lot of them too. So there’s obviously something there.

I think its more enthusiasm; I think a lot of people see themselves in me, like “What a screw up… Yeah, my man!” and so they’re like “He’s not that good, neither am I… He’s my guy!” My resume looks like five other busy people. There’s so much going on because I just say yes to stuff. I’m 57, to still be getting a job at this age, probably the smart thing to do is just say yes most of the time, because this all comes to an end; there’s a use-by date in my line of work.

In the summer of ’84, I was 23, and I was surrounded by talented people. Between tours everyone’s a taxi driver or a waiter. I saw this, and thought, well I’m the only untalented one in this gang and everyone’s broke, so I better get plans B, C, D, E, F, and G to survive – because music is never going to keep me afloat. And ironically, it did very well for me.

I was in Black Flag from ‘81 to ’86, when the band broke up, and I had my own band by spring of next year. I hit the ground running; I basically went back to work before I congealed. I just knew that if I didn’t come up with something now there’d be nothing left for me a year later. And so Black Flag broke up in July or August of ’86, and by October I had completed my first solo record. Then by April I had a band, and by May I was on tour. 

In the independent world, where people move on quickly, that was about as slow as that turn around could have been. That’s one thing I got right, the band broke up and I appropriately panicked. I wrote two songs that afternoon and they were both on my first solo record. I put them on tape within two months of that phone call.

So I was 23 and I made this promise to myself, like “Okay I’m starting to do these talking shows and they’re going pretty well; I’m going to get better at those. I’m doing some writing, people like the writing, so I’m going to get better at that. I’m just going to start saying yes to stuff because I’m going to starve to death out here, and I’m not going back to the straight world. Like no way am I going back to punching a time clock, because I will lose my mind in the straight world.”

HN: It’s good you kept saying “yes”, living the intuitive life leading you from one project to the next.

HR: And it makes you better at the other: doing a documentary makes you better at doing a radio show, and acting makes you better on stage. You can take something from any one discipline and put it in the other pot to improve the stew.

Also just that rate of activity, and having to wear so many different hats, eventually you just become good at wearing hats. When you take the next job, and you play the guitar, then they hand you a banjo or a mandolin, and you’re like, “Oh wait a minute. Oh I know this”. And next someone says, “Hey executive produce this”.

I wrote one screenplay in my life, and it got made into a movie, Gutterdämmerung; so I’m 1 for 1.

Of all Henry’s many talents, I especially enjoy his writing, his poetry, and his spoken word. In an interview excerpt I found particularly interesting, he discusses creativity and writing:

 I’m a shipbuilder. I don’t want to sail in them. I want you to sail in them. I’m just happy that they leave the harbor so I can have an empty workplace. And the glee of getting the component parts and starting from scratch starts all over again, and we build the next ark.  

That anyone will read them, that’d be cool. But I’m not making them to get read; I’m making them to get them out of me. You gotta do something with your life. You can watch TV. You can inhale cocaine. Or you can sit down and write, or sing, or jump up and down. Whatever it is; it’s all just choices”.

Writing has proven to be an appropriate outlet for Henry because, “you can have authority over your own writing… and you will find in your life that some of the only true freedom you’ll ever get is your imagination, your thoughts, and what you can put on the paper”.

About a year ago, Henry wrote an article for LAWEEKLY called “If You’re Just Looking to Get Rich From Legal Weed, You’re Part of the Problem”. This composition came after the ICBC conference in San Francisco. He writes:

“I told the audience, several hundred strong, that if they were just capitalists looking for the next thing to make a profit from, they were part of the problem… During the Q&A, someone literally took the words out of my mouth and suggested that vendors should be like microbreweries, where quality is the priority. I remarked that many of them were likely going to become quite wealthy but that wealth was worthless if it just made you mean”.

On a final note during our exclusive Agora interview, Henry reiterates that the fact that he doesn’t use cannabis actually makes him an asset to Alex Rogers, “because I’m the funny irony”, he says.

HR: I like the reason I’m into it. I’m coming from a good place; you know from the political, the civil rights angle. But I do always leave the door open. I mean look; my body hurts so you never know. I may resort to a cannabinoid for a more pain-free existence.   

I think cannabis is going to be a game-changer as soon as you can sell it to mom and pop. I always tell the audience, consider yourself microbreweries because there’s always the crap Budweiser, but then there’s the good stuff.

Then you’ll have a legion of connoisseurs because you’re such a liked person in your community, and the entire family uses it for different reasons. You’ll make money off all of them, but you will be a benevolent part of your community.

Henry’s involvement with ICBC will likely continue into the future, presenting alongside other speakers, most of who represent the entrepreneurial side of the spectrum, “Which is how you make your money”.

Yet this is what makes Henry’s involvement so compelling and unique, because “I’m the hearts and minds guy”, he says.

Thank you, Henry!