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How Henry Rollins Became a Drug-Free Pot Advocate

Former Black Flag frontman on Trump, punks and why marijuana prohibition in America is a scam

"At a certain age I started thinking about marijuana and just what a scam it is," says Rollins. Credit: Kylie Else/Newspix/Getty

In the 30 years since former Black Flag singer Henry Rollins intentionally smoked weed, he says he has never grown curious to try pot again. There was a secondhand smoke incident a few years ago in Colorado, when he was filming the cannabis episode of 10 Things You Don't Know About for the History Channel – and while that made his sandwich taste very good, his indifference to personal use didn't change.

"I never did drugs, really," he told Rolling Stone during a recent interview in Eugene, Oregon, where he was appearing as the keynote speaker at the Oregon Marijuana Business Conference. "I tried acid a few times, smoked marijuana once. I just never liked any of it. I would've rather drank a liter of paint."

Since his youth in Washington, D.C., Rollins, now 56, has remained drug-free, even as his opinion on cannabis evolved – and while it might seem surprising, he has channeled his trademark anger into advocating for the legalization of marijuana.

"Its illegality is based in ignorance and bigotry and racism and financing the prison-industrial complex," he says.

At the recent Oregon conference, he told a standing-room-only crowd of industry professionals that it was up to them to right the wrongs of prohibition's past. "You are part of a revolution," he said. "We are overturning decades of prejudice, racism and misinformation. … You are a steward of civil rights."

The day before his speech, Rollins sat down with Rolling Stone to talk Donald Trump, punk, and why marijuana prohibition in America is a scam. 

You are famously drug-free. What got you into cannabis advocacy?
I come at it not exactly objectively, but I come at it as a civil rights issue, common sense, science-based, decency issue. It's not like I'm looking to make money. It's an issue that gets me going because it pertains to so many other issues in this country. And to me, the history of cannabis in America is kind of the history of America itself, because – at least from the Mexican Revolution to now – there's been a push against it. The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 – that's the one that started the schedules, and placed cannabis right there next to heroin. Come on! If that's not a scam, if that doesn't have an ulterior motive, I don't know what does. It stinks. 

What do you mean by a scam?
Marijuana gets brown and black and poor people thrown in jail, and when those people are in prison, someone makes a lot of money off of everything from toilet flushes to every meal. And that's all from the taxpayer. And you can stuff prisons with nonviolent criminals. With legalization, they are finding new ways to put people in jail for marijuana. A lot of teen busts. Don't think that these states all of a sudden are, 'Hey we're gonna be super cool, it's about time.'" They looked at how much money they make incarcerating against the profits they can make from regulating and taxing cannabis. And it looked like the cannabis wins out fiscally. But now they're double dipping. They wanna get all the cannabis money, but they wanna keep the prisons full.

How has your own perception of marijuana evolved over the years?
When I was going to private school, no one was smoking marijuana. Every once in a while you'd smell it, like in a park. [Sniff, sniff.] "Oh no, someone's smoking marijuana! Are we gonna be okay? Should we run? Are the cops coming?" You have this thing drilled into your head like, "Marijuana? We're all gonna die!" Or you go to see a rock concert like Zeppelin or whatever. You'd smell that kind of bad arena weed. But on the streets where I lived in Washington, D.C., you can smell it. You're like, "Wow, that's marijuana. Who's smoking it? There they are. Why, they look like just anybody, but they're dope fiends." So much of this rhetoric had been beaten into your head. I never had any interest in smoking it. It wasn't a fear. I'm just not that interested in stimulants, never have been. And anything I ever tried I never really enjoyed. And so I noticed over the years that when I started having interesting experiences with law enforcement when I was in Black Flag, they didn't like us. We're like these starving vegetarians who don't really break the law, and suddenly we're on the wrong side of the law. Cops hate us and they're calling us out by name. So I started looking at different aspects of crime and punishment and the meaning of justice in this country, and drugs played into that because I was in the punk rock world, where it was just up to here with drugs. And so I've always had an awareness of drugs in the world of crime and punishment, not necessarily the world of enjoyment. At a certain age I started thinking about marijuana and just what a scam it is.

You've talked before about wanting cannabis professionals to be good stewards and to keep in mind all the people who sacrificed to get to make legalization a reality. What do you want to drive them as they move forward making marijuana mainstream?
I want them to be driven by history. I want them to be driven by how many decades it took to get to where we are right now in 2017. Alex [Rogers, the producer of the Eugene conference] has been campaigning on the streets for decades, and people thought he was a nut with his dreadlocks, [saying], "Legalize it!" Now this is going to be a multi-billion dollar business by 2020. Now the states really have to give this a big think. They can't afford not to. But I think there is a meanness that comes with anyone who's selling anything and all they care about is money. They don't care about the people. In this new industry they can be part of something historically and culturally that's really cool. That's really rare. I don't know any other industry where you can turn things around in this way and do good. I just think it's a great opportunity. If I was in their shoes, I would be so aware of it and so looking to make good on that. That's what to me would be a priority. And would make me really excited about working in that industry.

Are you invested in any marijuana businesses?
No, no not at all. I don't want a single penny from pot.

Except for speaking about it.
Well, yeah, absolutely. But I'm not in their world. I'm not trying to pull a buck from the vending of. But I do have definite things that I want them to think about.

So you're attracted to the idea of influencing an emerging industry?
Definitely. I want them to hear what I have to say on it, yeah.

Hypothetically, if it were you, who would be your ideal customer and how would you try to sell to them?
Someone like my dad. I'm sure he thinks if you inhaled cannabis you would turn gay and the empire would crumble. I have no idea where he lives or how he's living, but what if he had arthritis? And cannabis could help reduce swelling and pain. Maybe it helps him sleep; maybe it helps him with his appetite. What I'm basically detailing is many of the upsides of the medical application of cannabis. What if the outreach was so science-y and so positive and so informational, breaking away from the stereotypes of Cheech and Chong and a couch potato ordering pizza? What if you reached out to your community in such a way that even my dad, who wouldn't be caught dead using cannabis, would think, "You know what, they roll it out so sensible. Damn it, man, my hands hurt on cold days. Maybe I should give it a shot." So my outreach would be demystifying it – on the de-stigmatizing of it. I see that as the future. PTSD, all kinds of aches and pains people go through as they get older. I'm only 56 and, man, I snap, crackle and pop. I threw my body around a lot. And I'm in pain all the time. Something's always hurting.

Then why don't you want to try it?
I don't wanna until the day I do wanna. And on the day I do, I don't wanna get a dealer; I don't wanna sneak around. I don't wanna have illegal stuff in my house. I just wanna go to the store and buy it. Groceries, cannabis, gas up the car and go home. I just want it to be part of my errands. For now, aspirin works fine.

What do you think might surprise a non-user about who the customers are for newly legalized medical and recreational cannabis?
We did a 10 Things You Didn't Know About on cannabis and hemp. So we were in Colorado for the Cannabis Cup, 2014. We spent some days in Colorado filming dispensaries, grow facilities. We shot inside this one dispensary, it's a [recreational use] store. It's not like a medical-only. And we were in there early 'cause we gotta film everything and light the room. And so I'm waiting outside for the crew to wrap up their gear, and I look at the line queuing up to go into the place when it opens at 9 a.m., and it was this beautiful snapshot of America. You got the elderly couple, you've got the student and his bike and his bike helmet, there's the businessman guy going through his BlackBerry. Look at all these people who use cannabis. All of them are standing there pleasantly waiting to go get cannabis for whatever purpose they're going to use it for. But what I'm saying is: there's your sustainability, where you're selling to these different demographics. And when I was young, there's no way you would think of a businessman in line to buy marijuana. I mean – it's for Cheech and Chong. It's for stoners. [Laughs] It's for those guys who don't know what day it is. Then you see it's for old folks, too. That it has all of these uses, that all kinds of people smoke it. And if I were gonna be looking to be in business and make a whole lot of money and have return customers, I'd be trying to sell to everybody.

What about other kinds of drugs, like alcohol? You've called out people who drink but don't support cannabis legalization.
I can't stand alcohol and I can't stand drugs. I just run away. In my line of work I meet a lot of drunks and they're so unpleasant, more often than not. They're just ugh, they're drunk. "You wanna be a man? Get a drink!" Okay. What? And there's something wrong with marijuana? "It's a gateway drug." To what? [Laughs] To alcohol? I mean, everything in this country's a gateway drug, so don't tell me that marijuana's bad when you're throwing alcohol at my head in every ad everywhere. You look at the ads: as soon as the rum bottle opens, it's women in bikinis and good times? It's a depressant, so don't tell me it's good times. Everyone's fighting and vomiting. And they need Uber to take them home 'cause they can't drive a car. I don't want to outlaw it, I just want no part in it. And to people who say, "Why don't you get your stimulation like a real American, with alcohol?" And marijuana's bad? Do you see any inconsistency or hypocrisy there? I sure do. Stop being such a hypocrite and overcome your bigotry.

You spent your life in the music industry. Are there any lessons from that arena that can inform fledgling cannabis business owners?
I don't know if I can make parallels. Where the major-label industry failed is what could happen to the cannabis industry, absolutely. Major labels took advantage of the audience. They gave them endless amounts of overpriced, mediocre music. And how do you get mediocre music? You are forcing the bands to ripen too quickly. What about art? There was a time where the art dictated the industry. And then somewhere around the time of MTV, the industry started dictating the art. Because the bottom line is, they're going for the money over art. Money over culture. Money over quality. And if you're going for money over care in the cannabis industry, you're gonna sell less than good product. You're not going to value your customers. They're just going to be consumers. I know bands who treat their audience like consumers. I treat my audience like they're sacred objects. Without them, I don't get to do anything. I live in that shadow of not wanting to fail them. I don't take myself seriously, but I take them really seriously. And that's what the cannabis industry could do if they value the humans who come in to buy this thing that is grown. That's where they could blow it: by loving the money more than the people who are giving them the money.

You were performing in Washington, D.C. the night Trump won the election. How did you find out?
I'd been on this tour for 11 months, this material's really solid. They're just like [sad sound]. I'm like, "Am I bombing? Why [is the audience] so bummed out?" And by the end of the show I'm like, "Okay well, goodnight." And everyone's like [pitiful clap], 'cause they're watching Hillary get creamed. And I was backstage and I'm hanging out with Ian MacKaye, of Fugazi, and his family. I grew up with those people. I said, "Why is everyone so glum?" They went, "Have you been online?" I'm like, "No, I've been onstage." They said, "Look." I'm like, wow. My knees went weak. And then I sat up till about 5:30 in the morning watching everything come to a grinding halt. And I watched Trump's quasi-acceptance speech. He was in disbelief. He was winded. It was like someone said "look over here" and [then] popped him in the solar plexus. He [had] no swagger. He looked like he was about to get hit by a wave. All of a sudden it hit him 100 percent. And he realized "I'm the president?" And then you see the choices he makes. He's basically letting Pence run the show as he goes in vacation to Mar-a-Lago every weekend.

And Pence is like the guy who would've been the executive producer of, like, Reefer Madness.
Yeah. Or Birth of a Nation.

You've noted that the legalization of marijuana is part of a larger cultural shift. Even under this administration, do you think cannabis is a marker of cultural progress?
I'm thinking that if you have more people who are open-minded about cannabis, they might be open-minded about everything else, like marriage equality. I think [decriminalization] is all part of a sea change in how we Americans deal with each other on a racial level, cultural level, orientation level, I think everything is changing. People like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, I think they get a lot of people to listen. And I think Lady Gaga says some really right on stuff. I mean, I don't know the music that well, but I love the interviews and she seems to be 100 percent really cool on the right stuff. And these are people who sell millions of records and they do pack a wallop when they speak. And I think going forward, racists and homophobes and misogynists, I think they're gonna start losing membership. [Laughs.] And I'd love to see that. Because people can be better. Cannabis is part of that. It's not all of it, but it's definitely part of it. It's part of forward movement and social evolution. We've come a long way from Reefer Madness.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.