Q&A with Cannabis Journalist Ellen Komp
Editor’s note: Grasslands’ weekly Cannabis Journalist Q&A blog series—introducing us to some of the most important and dedicated journalists on the beat—is curated, reported and written by Oakland-based journalist Ellen Holland, former Senior Editor of Cannabis Now magazine, San Francisco Chronicle freelancer and Chief Editor of multiple Ed Rosenthal books, including The Big Book of Buds Greatest Hits and This Bud’s For You.
Ellen Komp is a singular force when it comes to keeping biographical cannabis history alive.
A longtime cannabis and hemp advocate, Komp authored a book that tells the stories of 50 famous females associated with the plant, titled Tokin’ Women: A 4,000-Year Herstory. The book, which is under her nom de plume Nola Evangelista, is the result of two blogs Komp started, Very Important Potheads and Tokin Woman, that are dedicated to changing the face of cannabis though telling the stories of famous cannabis connoisseurs.
Now likely best known for her advocacy work as the deputy director of California NORML, Komp got her start as a journalist writing art and music reviews for the Simi Valley Enterprise, then the LA Weekly and LA Reader, in the late 1980s. At the time she also worked in book and magazine publishing and copyedited Drugs in America by Vince Bugliosi. In 1992, Komp started writing press releases for legendary hemp activist Jack Herer and then editing and contributing to his seminal work, The Emperor Wears No Clothes. That same year she was elected to the California NORML board of directors.
Through the years Komp’s actions in cannabis advocacy and journalism have intertwined as she uses her voice to inform and push for change. With her many accomplishments, it’s hard to say just where her work has the most impact. Komp co-founded The 215 Reporter, the first journal covering California’s medical marijuana law and its aftermath. She has also served on boards advising drug and alcohol services, planned conferences and rallies, and developed a website to assist attorneys in medical marijuana defenses for the DPA Office of Legal Affairs in Oakland. With such a deep and rich connection to cannabis activism, it's no surprise that High Times recognized her as Freedom Fighter of the Month in December 2003.
Based in Berkeley, California, Komp has written for numerous cannabis publications including High Times, Leafly and Cannabis Now.
Your writing often focuses on cannabis history. Why do you think it's critical to continue sharing these narratives?
“And herstory too! Because it’s been hidden, and it's powerful. I got active in 1991 when I learned about our hempen history, which I was surprised and incensed to discover I was never taught. (Heck, I even recently discovered Ben Franklin’s kite string was made of hemp.) One section of Jack Herer’s historical book The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy names famous marijuana smokers, like Louis Armstrong. I've found that mentioning famous potheads that people admire opens their eyes and minds in a way that reciting facts doesn’t.”
How do you approach your research when you write an article?
“It varies. If I get a tip that someone is a VIP or Tokin’ Woman, I first Google (of course) and look for articles from reputable sources where they’re quoted. I read their biographies and autobiographies, and poems or novels they’ve written, first looking for the marijuana mentions and then reading further to get a better idea of who they are / were, and their historical setting or importance. As much as possible, I use primary sources, like letters they wrote. I try to look out for ‘conformational bias’ on my part. I have a group of fellow cannabis history wonks and skeptics, like Michael and Michelle Aldrich, who I run things by for their input. I’d love to devote more time to running down people to interview, but unfortunately writing isn’t my day job (and my work at Cal NORML never ends). For relaxation, I watch movies and TV shows, and jump for joy when I see someone smoking pot (especially if she’s a woman). If I’m inspired, I’ll write a review.”
Who are some of your favorite tokin’ women?
“You, my dear. But seriously… It’s hard to say because often so little is known about them and their relationship to cannabis. Maybe Isabelle Eberhardt, who moved from Europe to Algeria at the age of 20 and embraced Islam and kif smoking, picking up a sword to join a revolt against French colonialism in 1898. Or Iris Tree, a British bohemian, poet, and actress who appeared in a cameo as herself in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Or Bessie Smith, the blues singer who was ‘a living symbol of personal freedom,’ and Janis Joplin’s idol.”
What are the critical issues that the cannabis industry faces today?
“The continued discrimination in employment, housing and medical care. The corporate takeover of cannabis and the inequities of licensure. I don’t really think we’ll see a change in these things without a much bigger social change, but I’ve always seen marijuana legalization as a part of a broader progressive movement.”
Find cannabis journalist Ellen Komp on Twitter @tokinwoman
About Ellen Holland
Ellen Holland has spent years writing, editing and commissioning cannabis news as the former senior editor of Cannabis Now Magazine. She edits books focused on marijuana cultivation and strains and has been featured as a panelist at events such as SXSW and the New West Business Summit. Interviewed on KPFA, the first listener-supported non-commercial radio station in the U.S., Holland has also contributed to publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and Alternet.