It was April 1987 in Trenton, New Jersey. In an apartment on Hamilton Avenue, the rhythm section of the newly formed Rollins Band sparked up an afternoon joint as they wrapped up one of the group’s first jam sessions.
“I was so bored, so I said: ‘Let me try that,’ ” says Henry Rollins, one of America’s punk-rock pioneers and the longest-serving frontman of the group Black Flag.
“I don’t know how much I smoked, not much, but it didn’t take much. I couldn’t even put a glass of water down on the table.”
From then on, barring one time when he unintentionally got high during some cloudy interviews for a pot-focused episode of 10 Things You Didn’t Know, a History Channel show, Rollins has had no interest in smoking weed—or doing any other drugs, for that matter.
“I just sat there feeling extremely self-conscious and it just wasn’t fun. And that’s kind of been my experience with almost every stimulant I have ever tried,” he says over the phone to the Georgia Straight.
Channelling his trademark stage rage into a more digestible denunciation of the 21st-century drug war, Rollins hasn’t let his substance-free lifestyle stop him from becoming one of the cannabis community’s fiercest advocates.
He is the keynote speaker for the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC)—a two-day industry-focused event coming to Vancouver on June 24 and 25—and his message is not a far cry from his poetic and politically laden lyrics. But instead of a sweaty mosh pit of thrashing fans, his audience now is a room full of steamed suits and budding entrepreneurs.
The actor, author, and radio-show host, now 57, says he was aware when young of the stigma that accompanied a skunky waft of pot. He recounts early memories of his mother hurrying him—a third-grader observing the counterculture of the peace-loving 1960s—past the “dope fiends and hippies” smoking in parks in Washington, D.C.
It wasn’t until he was fully immersed in the punk-rock scene during U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, after joining Black Flag in 1981, that pot became politicized and he began questioning inaccuracies fuelling the propaganda of the era.
He says popular depictions of drug-addled rock stars placed him in the fight despite his being widely known for not actually partaking. Political attitudes haven’t really changed since those days, he adds, except that now some prosecutions for weed-related offences are facing full-blown civil-rights fights.
“It’s a constitutional issue,” he says. “Decriminalization [of cannabis] is pushing back against the rampant bigotry and levers that law enforcement has to keep…[putting] African-American males into the penal system.” He notes that drug-related convictions disproportionately target marginalized communities across North America.
“Discrimination and trauma lodges in people’s DNA and bone marrow. When America goes legal, all [of] your Jeff Sessions will have lost a major handle on their wheel.”
Dubbing this a time of “aggressive progressive change”, Rollins says his fight now lies in wrestling the pot community from the clutches of Big Pharma and chipping away at toxic misinformation prolonging legalization efforts.
“We have this century to get it right, and don’t you want to be one of the people they talk about in classrooms years from now, going: ‘They were part of the century that figured it out’?” he asks.
It was in 1988 that Leonard Cohen told Rollins his challenge would be surviving the balance between art and commerce. Although he says it took him a decade to really decode the icon’s warning, it is now a sentiment that he passes on in his speeches to the business-minded crowd at ICBC. (He has provided opening remarks for the conference several times in the past, including the most recent event in Berlin.)
“[Because of that] I immediately taught myself to forget I had any money and just kept living my life and doing my work,” he says.
“If all you want is money, then what are you doing dicking around with a bunch of [cannabis] plants?…We are supposed to be the good guys in all this, and if you are just going to be the money guy, you are not being the good guy. You are being a capitalist schmuck. We have no use for you.”
Having travelled to the Great White North many times, Rollins says he’s excited about the warming of Canada’s cultural and political attitudes toward pot.
“Canadians are so inherently good anyway…I think legalization in Canada will make a really cool country even better,” he says.