Ngaio Bealum has been a comedian and a cannabis activist for almost 30 years. He recently toured Europe as MC of the International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC), diving headfirst into the cannabis scenes of Barcelona and Amsterdam. We sat down with the “Dank Diplomat,” as he’s known, in both cities to talk about his career and his childhood, growing your own weed and the differences between Europe and the US cannabis culture and legislation.
Born in Sacramento, California in 1968, Ngaio Bealum is a man of many talents. He’s a comedian, a writer, a juggler, a chef — check out his Netflix series Cooking On High — and a cannabis activist. The first part of our interview takes place at Spannabis in Barcelona, Europe’s biggest cannabis trade show. To get away from the noise, we parked ourselves on a stretch of grass at the edge of the venue among other visitors enjoying the Spanish sun and weed.
“I feel like this Spanish weed is very strong,” Bealum says. “I feel way higher. I’d say the weed in Oregon and California — which I consider to be the best in the world — is maybe a bit more flavorful, but the THC content is slightly lower. I’ve been an Emerald Cup judge for a few years and they test the entries. Nineteen percent THC seems to be the sweet spot. Here in Barcelona, it’s more like 22 percent, although I haven’t seen any test reports.”
BigBudsMag: How did you get involved with the ICBC conferences?
Ngaio Bealum: I’ve been the MC since the very beginning. I’ve known [founder and CEO] Alex Rogers since we were both young cannabis activists in San Francisco at the end of the ’80s, early ’90s. People like [author and advocate] Debby Goldsberry and Ed Rosenthal showed me love right away when I started to get into cannabis activism. It’s crazy to see how far it has grown since then; I remember friends sitting in jail for weed.
BBM: What do you think of Spannabis? Is it very different from US cannabis fairs and trade shows?
NB: It’s very similar, especially when you think of Spain as maybe following in the footsteps of America. My friend [medical marijuana activist] Todd McCormick threw the first big cannabis trade show in Los Angeles about 10 years ago and it was very similar in that there was no weed smoking inside, there was no sales. You could get seeds, they were just selling gear and talking about seeds and things. Just like Spannabis, where they’re selling seeds and gear. And I understand that no one is selling weed. Weed is illegal [in Spain]. But I can definitely see in a few years, as cannabis becomes more and more legal and decriminalized in Spain, that you do get a spot where it’s like a farmers market, where you can go buy whatever cannabis you want at the event.
BBM: This already happens in the US, doesn’t it?
NB: Oh yeah, I worked at the High Times Cup and other events where you can definitely just walk by the booths. In Sacramento, we throw these things called sessions — they do a lot of these in California. If you’re a medical cannabis patient — and it’s still easy to get your medical cannabis recommendation — you can go to these farmers market-type of events, where everybody has little booths and tables.
BBM: There’s no adult-use version?
NB: Not yet. It’s been hard to regulate, so it’s just now coming into play. Really cannabis has only been technically legal for little over a year, so all these regulations and things are brand new. And the States still think of weed as yellowcake uranium and not just weed. It’s kind of funny: You can throw an Oktoberfest and have drunken people running through the streets all the time, but if you want to throw a 420 fest — oh, no! People might smoke weed!
BBM: You’ve presented ICBC conferences in Berlin, Barcelona and different cities in the US. Do you see a lot of differences in the program and the kind of people they attract?
NB: Well, cannabis culture is cannabis culture, right? It’s always nice when you’re with people who like weed. So, you already have a big thing in common, something to talk about, to create relationships and networks with. What has surprised me is how many different countries are very interested. Not just in cannabis, but in the business — like, big cannabis business. I forget, because coming from California, there’s a few farms of a decent size, but cannabis has been illegal for so long, so everybody is relatively decentralized. You got too big, that’s how you got busted, right? So, it’s small farms, indoor farms, an acre or two or three somewhere.
But now these guys come in — you see this especially with the CBD and hemp — and they want to grow thousands of hectares, millions of acres of hemp and cannabis. I’m all for it, but it was shocking to see the scale and scope. I forget how big agrobusiness is sometimes. And then you start to worry about some of the larger, maybe not-so-well-meaning capitalist multinational, multibillion-dollar corporations wanting to corner the market. Because the cannabis culture is plucky and resourceful, I don’t think they could ever really take full control of it. But it’s definitely something to keep an eye on, to look out for. To make sure cannabis is always treated the right way, that we always have love and respect for this plant.
BBM: Especially now that some companies are lobbying against home growing?
NB: Yeah. And remember this, when people start trying to regulate home grows and things like this: Lawmakers are not regulating illegal cannabis, they’re regulating legal cannabis. So, you can tell somebody they can’t grow six plants, but they’re going to grow six plants. … People [have] been growing marijuana for decades now. What makes you think they’re automatically going to stop because you’ve said, “OK, you can buy it at a store, but you can’t grow your own’? You can make beer at home. You can make wine at home. You can have a fucking distillery at your house. Those things explode, man! So, I get why you might not want somebody blasting BHO [butane hash oil] wax in their apartment. People have blown up apartments and hotel rooms, because they’re idiots. But if somebody wants to grow three or four or five or six plants in their backyard, next to the tomatoes, I don’t see why this is an issue. It is not. And it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to go to the store. I grow some plants in the backyard all the time, but I still go to the dispensary. That’s just how it goes, man, people like to do that shit. When you grow tomatoes, you’re still going to go buy tomatoes from the store.
BBM: What kind of grower are you?
NB: I use the benevolent neglect system to grow my weed. I just put it out there, let it do what it does, try to keep it watered and in good dirt, away from bugs. That’s about it. I’m on the road a lot, so I can’t really sit down and nerd it up.
BBM: But you’re happy with the results?
NB: Oh, yeah. And it’s great to have a big bag of weed for Christmastime. You can hand it out, like tomatoes or whatever. It’s had a good chance to cure, everybody likes to smoke a little more weed, it’s the holidays. And outdoor plants grow BIG. You end up with a lot of cannabis, you can do a lot of cooking, make olive oil. It’s a pain in the ass to cure, if you have a relatively small house and a few 10-foot cannabis plants. I have a shed this year that I’ve got to clean out and make some space in.
We continue our conversation a few days later in Amsterdam at the Cannabis College in the famed red-light district of De Wallen. Established in 1998, the college is the direct result of activist group Green Prisoners Release, founded to protect Les and Cheryl Mooring, an American couple that had fled to Amsterdam after being convicted for growing cannabis on their property in Arkansas. The Cannabis College is a free information center, with live plants growing in the basement. It’s a great starting point if you want to explore the local Dutch cannabis scene.
A group of American visitors recognize Bealum and tell him how much they enjoy his Netflix series and Twitter account (@ngaio420). He takes the time for selfies and a chat: “Is this your first time in Amsterdam? Oh, you’ll dig it, man, you’ll dig it!” I ask him about his first impressions of Amsterdam.
NB: Well, I haven’t been here in 20 years. This is my third time. I like that the streets smell like weed a little bit, it reminds me of home in California. In Barcelona, there’s weed everywhere, but you never smell it. I love the smell of weed. I know it’s not great for some people, but I like it, so it makes me feel comfortable. I feel like the prices of weed are way higher than they were. You used to be able to get it cheaper compared to California or some of the other states. Now, it’s about the same price, almost [everywhere] around the world. There’s a few Euro variations, but everything is 10 to 20 euros, 12 to 22 dollars, which is what we pay in California for a good gram. I mean, Oregon is always going to be the cheapest.
BBM: Why is this the case?
NB: Oregon was not very strict on the license limits, which I think is awesome. You shouldn’t make it hard for people to get into the business. Not everybody who was an underground outlaw grower was getting rich — some people were doing it just to pay their bills, keep their kids in school and have a nice life. So, not everybody has $500,000 to invest in a very small business. I appreciate that. The thing is, everybody grew a lot of weed. Everyone was successful. So, now an ounce or 28 grams goes for maybe 35 euros, $40. It’s amazing. I know people who really like it, a lot of my friends who smoke a lot of weed think it’s great, because it’s saving them a lot of money. But I also know a lot of growers, and it puts a lot of pressure on them. You now have to grow more than you ever grew to keep up with these prices, which is going to force prices down further. You have to find a way to create a niche for yourself, where you can charge a little more for premium, like a nice wine. And that’s another thing, some of that Oregon weed has kind of disappeared and ended up in other places. There’s a lot of states, man! And it’s a lot harder to find weed in Nebraska, where it’s still illegal, and in Texas and Georgia.
BBM: If you compare the cannabis clubs in Barcelona to the coffee shops in Amsterdam, what differences do you see?
NB: I haven’t been to too many coffee shops outside of the main zone here in Amsterdam yet. I like the very local feel, because in Barcelona you have to know someone, you have to be invited or at least kind of talk your way into some spots. Which seems to keep it more friendly; everybody feels like everybody’s cool. In Amsterdam, it’s very touristy, there’s a lot of tourists. But hey, I’m here as a cannabis tourist myself, so I can’t really talk shit. In Barcelona, the clubs are definitely more like social clubs, you play some games, there’s a pool table, some pingpong. One I went to was almost like a coworker office, lots of people on laptops getting work done. While here, cats are coming in to get super high and they pass out. It’s party time! Which is cool, man. Shit, you’re 23 years old, do your thing. But I would maybe like to see a little more variety in the style of coffee shops here in Amsterdam. But they’re all great. I haven’t been to one where I was like, ‘Oh no, this one sucks.’
BBM: Your résumé is quite impressive. There’s the juggling, the presenting, the cooking, the comedy… What would you say is your main thing?
NB: That’s a good question. I’d probably say comedy. That’s the thing I’ve been doing the hardest and practice the most. Being a writer about cannabis and other things has taken up a lot of space lately, which is great. I’m still surprised that people are excited to read my work. And then I still juggle and I like to cook and eat good. But activist is probably always second order: juggler slash activist, comedian slash activist, writer slash activist. I’m always looking to remind people to try to make things better.
BBM: Also on your résumé: Raised by hippie parents.
NB: Well, not quite. Raised in a hippie city by activist Black Panther parents. I went to the Oakland Community School, the Black Panthers school, when I was a young man, and a lot of Afrocentric schools. It taught me a lot about the systems of power and how to stand up for yourself, how to do your own thing. And not be afraid to be an activist or to go hard.
BBM: Is your own parenting style different from the way your parents raised you?
NB: I’m probably a little more lenient than my parents were about certain things. And definitely in terms of raising a boy, you don’t have to be so patriarchal, right? The idea of manhood as being unemotional and super tough all the time, that has changed. Which is great for everybody.
BBM: The Black Panthers were quite tough.
NB: Well yeah, but being tough doesn’t necessarily mean being mean or being stoic, right?
BBM: What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?
NB: When I was seven, I wanted to be a translator for the UN. But it’s hard to find people to speak Russian to you in the San Francisco public school system. Not so hard now, but back then it was. I also wanted to be a mad scientist for a time. And then either a conductor for a small orchestra or a high school music teacher. Those were the plans. And then I became an activist and a comic. Turns out I’m really funny. As mad scientists go, I’m a really good comedian.
BBM: The cannabis industry is changing fast. Does that impact you as an activist?
NB: We still need activists; we will never not need activists. The world is probably going to have problems after you and I are long gone. The least we can do is try to help, try to fix some of it. I’ve been a cannabis activist almost 30 years, so I remember when Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, we thought he would legalize weed. Maybe in his second term, 1996. Everybody was so optimistic. But here we are in 2019, and it’s still not completely legal. But 33 states have medical cannabis, it’s legal in 10 states, more states are putting legalizing on the table. We don’t even have to vote; the politicians are doing it themselves. All the Democratic presidential candidates are for legalization. It’s taken a long time, but it has become a popular issue. You can now run on a pro-weed ticket and think you’re going to get extra votes. You can drive from San Diego to Vancouver smoking weed the whole damn — well, don’t smoke weed while you drive, but you can find legal weed the whole damn time. That’s a lot, we’ve done a lot. We’ve come a long way.
BBM: And finally, you have a new album out. Tell us about it.
NB: I do! It’s available on all the iTunes and the Spotifys and the whatnots. It’s called Weedier & Sexier and it’s a sequel to my album Weed & Sex. The next album will probably be Weediest & Sexiest. And then I will probably be too old for at least one of those things. Well, probably not. Just smaller amounts. You’ve got to pace yourself!
Watch Bealum’s cannabis culinary cooking competition Cooking on High on Netflix now.