The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
It’s no secret that cannabis is big business. Black people are mostly excluded from the multibillion-dollar legal industry, yet are disproportionately represented in prisons for cannabis-related offenses. This speaks to the need to have a conversation about how the notion of race leads to unfair sentencing while it also impacts eco-justice, and do something about it.
“The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars. What’s more, it is carried out with staggering racial bias. Despite being a priority for police departments nationwide, the War on Marijuana has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and diverted resources that could be better invested in our communities.” - The War on Marijuana in Black and White, ACLU
States like California, Washington, Nevada, and Colorado have led the way for cannabis access. Today, 43 states have either legalized or decriminalized it for medical or recreational purposes. Drake, Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Damian Marley, Mike Tyson, Biggie’s son C.J. Wallace, and other notable Black owners are participating in the industry. Wallace sees cannabis as a social justice issue. “Many people don’t know my dad was arrested for a cannabis conviction before he died,” he said in a previous interview. “So had he lived, he would have been dealing with the criminal justice system like so many other Black men.”
The catch is that unless someone is a high net-worth individual, the barriers to entry in the cannabis industry are many, and prevent most Black people from majorly participating. This fits a pattern in American history where other races are able to profit from new industries and programs while the majority of Blacks are left out. The G.I. Bill and the Tech boom are two examples.
If this is going to change, two things need to happen. The federal government needs to legalize cannabis like our northern neighbors in Canada. State governments should consider expunging the criminal records of people incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses.
This should be followed up by providing funding and training for Black entrepreneurs interested in joining the “green rush.” From there, Black-owned farms, dispensaries, and brands would be able to offer jobs for newly liberated individuals looking to rejoin the workforce. It seems ironically fair that a cannabis conviction could be used as experience for a job in the cannabis industry.
Fight the Power
While cannabis is an important area for Black people to consider looking for opportunities, it’s not the only way to go green. The food justice conversation needs to discuss the loss of Black farmland over the generations. We also need to talk about the proliferation of food deserts in Black communities. Finally, recurring health problems linked to malnutrition, like heart disease and diabetes, are over-indexing in Black communities.
In an earlier career incarnation, I worked with schools and youth centers in Oakland, CA. Part of my job was introducing urban farming to different campuses across the city. I worked at a school with a group of Black and POC elementary students, and they took to growing fruits and veggies right away. We learned about composting, cultivating, cover crops, and seasonal harvests with lessons that included working in the garden and cooking using produce picked on site.
About 20 blocks down MacArthur Blvd, I worked at a high school and youth center for young adults. I noticed with the older age groups that they instantly connected farming with slavery, and thus wanted no part of growing food or eating the fresh produce we harvested. That sentiment was shared by adults, as well. While it’s understandable, such an attitude ultimately works against those in need.
Research shows that Black and Latinx neighborhoods are more likely to be in so-called “food deserts” that make getting fresh produce difficult. These are areas without access to large grocery stores. Instead, residents have to rely on convenience stores for groceries, yet fast food is abundant. Introducing small-plot farming methods in the inner city is a good way to help educate young people about nutrition early on. It also helps alleviate the shortage of healthy food options due to the food desertification of the hood.
Feed the People
Like the cannabis industry, urban farming is another area where African Americans are marginalized. This is especially true for leadership positions.
In some ways, the structure of organizations in the space resemble slavery and sharecropping. It’s like Issa’s job in the first three seasons of “Insecure,” only outside. Whites are in charge and own the land in most cases, and if Black people are involved, they are likely working in the field. Black land ownership is key because of this, even if it’s someone’s front or back yard. During World War II, urban farming helped feed millions and the same can be true today if we begin to organize, and support Black-owned and operated urban farming initiatives.
To say that Black people have had a strange relationship with agriculture in America is an understatement. From the cotton, tobacco, coffee, indigo, hemp, and sugar cane plantations to the 40 acres that were promised to our freed ancestors, but were never delivered upon, the struggle for Black liberation is tied to the very land that has produced such bounty and wealth to its owners, largely at the expense of the hands that work it.
This strange relationship has put the current Black population of America in a precarious position. One where cannabis laws have been used to criminalize Black people while our communities are estranged from farming and the natural lessons it teaches, providing nourishment for the body and mind.
The issue at hand tends to take a backseat to more pressing concerns like police violence and the broken criminal justice system. For this reason, Black liberation requires us to rethink our role in land ownership and growing, selling, and consuming cannabis and other agricultural products and make it a higher priority.
Free the People
Black people invented many of the concepts used in agriculture, so it shouldn’t be that tending a garden is most often associated with slavery and not as part of our brilliant African heritage from the Nile Valley civilization and beyond. West African rice farmers were some of the most skilled craftspeople, passing down their methods and traditions for generations before European slave ships appeared on the coasts. These captured agricultural specialists played a major part in saving early Americans from starvation more than once.
Our connection to the land, both literally and figuratively, has been lost due to white supremacy and post-traumatic slavery syndrome. Investing in urban gardening is one of the ways Black people can begin to reclaim our connection with nature and her gifts. Many jobs can be created with the goal of improving our collective health.
Cannabis and all its curative properties need to be included in the bigger picture. Much like how fresh fruits and vegetables nourish the body, the substance can sustain the mind and spirit. Its benefits include stress relief and alleviating physical pain, which are both ways to help cope with the generational trauma endured by Black people. Legally selling cannabis is a tremendous way to shift African Americans from consumers to producers in a system that has used cannabis to incarcerate so many.
While these may seem like separate issues, they are all rooted in how Black Americans experience environmental racism. If we rethink our approach to owning land and entrepreneurship in the green space, there are many opportunities that could be taken advantage of that are currently being overlooked. The result is preventable economic and physical suffering.
Policymakers won’t pay attention to the racial gap in the green movement unless enough people mobilize and demand they take notice. While we continue to push for police reform and other ways to obtain justice for our people, let’s not forget about how drug laws and environmental racism impact our communities. For our brothers and sisters on lockdown because of racially motivated charges, free ‘em all! It’s time for Black people to go green, whether we’re talking legal weed or apple trees.