This article was written by Dominique Drakeford. Raised in Oakland and residing in Brooklyn, Dominique Drakeford is an environmental educator, creative director and community advocate who works in so many different spheres to inspire ecological, cultural, and social change. Her passion work has been about changing mainstream narratives on what sustainability looks like in practice while especially giving a voice to women of color. As an avid lover of fashion, Dom's Conscious Closet shares how eclectic sustainable street style is. Additionally, as a fashion-forward activist, she has written for numerous publications and partnered with over 20 global luxe sustainable fashion brands. Her blog, MelaninASS (Melanin And Sustainable Style) is a content-rich, vibrant and communal space that discusses the issues and celebrates the success of communities of color in sustainable fashion, green beauty and wellness spaces.
As an Oakland, California native one recreational activity amongst my cohorts was smoking weed. I never did become an avid smoker, though, primarily because of social politics. My understanding of how Black bodies in the cannabis community were discriminated against outweighed my thirst for adding that to my hippie resume. However, that didn’t curb my understanding for it’s health benefits as a natural remedy across mental, emotional, physical, creative and recreational avenues – especially as a Black body living in America. So let me share a bit of my perspective from a social and culturally sustainable lens.
Although the history of cannabis is spotty, it’s pretty well known that it originated in Asia & India where it was used for medical and spiritual purposes, traveled through Jamaica where it became a part of the Black religious consciousness movement known as “Rastafari,” and was eventually introduced to the US mainstream by way of Mexican immigrants during the Mexican Revolution. Cannabis has been intertwined with race and ethnicity for years as a means for impoverished and socially disenfranchised Afro-Jamaican, Black American and Latino communities to make money and heal through systematic oppression. From a sustainability lens, communities of color have inherently had a connection to the earth and have been using natural herbs since before it was an American trend, much like many of today’s wellness trends which have origins in communities of color.
One thing that’s important to put into context is that the Black freedom and liberation movements have been heavily focused on the intersectional issues of the prison-industrial complex, which is the nucleus of racism. Nixon and Reagan’s war on drugs (which initially focused on crack) was quickly used as a catalyst to systematically enforce economic racism by feeding the dehumanization of Black bodies and the profitability of prisons. Poverty was systematically created with red lining, defunding of educational systems, food deserts, etc - causing drug dealing to become a survival mechanism. Despite the fact that white people’s crack possession and use was statistically more than Black people, POC were profiled and sentenced to life sentences much more often. Long after the crack era, there were more than 1.5 million drug arrests in 2014, of which more than 80% were for possession only and almost half were for marijuana. According to the ACLU, cannabis use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for possession with a current prison population of almost 2.5 million (more than any other country). Most states today are still disproportionately handing out mandatory sentences to POC.
Black and Latino incarceration is America’s modern day form of slavery and cannabis has represented the criminalization of Black people for years. Because of this, when I see an article like Vogue’s recent How Cannabis is Fueling a New Fitness Movement with a photo of two white women doing yoga, I have to dismantle the facts that 1) cannabis has been a staple wellness medium for years and 2) Black and brown people are systematically incarcerated for possession of it. It speaks to the tremendous inequalities that define America which cannot be ignored. White venture capitalists are winning from this $6 billion industry while former felons (who for the most part are poor Black people trying to make a living) struggle to get a nibble of that pie.
Cannabis, much like many of today’s conscious trends, is rooted in ethnic sustainability. From my perspective growing up in Oakland and living in Brooklyn, it has been used as a recreational tool to subconsciously fight against the layers of stress that come with living in an urban community as well as a way to aid in creative ingenuity. Additionally, it has been used in pro-Black wellness and general health spaces for years. Unfortunately, cannabis has also systematically been used as an excuse for the incarceration of Black and brown bodies while simultaneously being enjoyed uninterrupted by white youth and exploited for profitability by white moguls.
In understanding the complexities around the cannabis movement, there needs to be an approach to activism around it instead of a mainstream, glorified, white washed pop culture narrative of how it’s now “cool” to be a pot smoker. People of all ethnicities have been using cannabis for years, but Black and brown people are undoubtedly the ones who have been disproportionately criminalized for it. The racial bias is absolutely nothing to breeze over and the racial disparities continue to negatively affect people of color in many ways, with many POC remaining in prison for possession or other cannabis-related crimes even in states where it is recreationally legal, like California.
The celebration of what I call “white weed” is irresponsible without giving credit and economic gain to Black and brown people who have suffered for years. Cannabis is such an important plant for society but some serious understanding needs to be applied to its context and regulations need to be put in place. I think it’s a start that Cynthia Nixon, the Sex In The City actress turned gubernatorial candidate, has suggested marijuana reform as a means to help Black communities that have been affected by the war on drugs. In a Forbes interview she says, “Now that cannabis is exploding as an industry, we have to make sure that those communities that have been harmed and devastated by marijuana arrests get the first shot at this industry. We [must] prioritize them in terms of licenses. It’s a form of reparations.” Her use of the vernacular of “reparations” is a bit inaccurate but the content of what she’s proposing is legitimate, necessary, and needs to be at the root of every discussion when talking about cannabis – but in a way that does not create a backlash of a white savior complex that will haunt POC down the road.
I am a huge advocate for women of color and strongly believe that they are the backbone of any social movement, despite the fact that they are usually underrepresented and perceived as taboo. There are a number of admirable women of color in the cannabis space and I want to highlight them here so that they can receive some of the recognition that they deserve:
- Whoopi Goldberg has an edible business with Maya Elisabeth called Om Edibles. The California-based medical cannabis company initial offerings include a signature line of medical cannabis products formulated to provide relief for women experiencing menstrual cramps and discomfort.
- Nisha Rebel - a filmmaker, activist and the granddaughter of Bob Marley - has been at the front lines of cannabis advocacy. In an interview with Broccoli Mag she shares the importance of WOC in this space, how ganja was the first way that Black men were able to make money in Jamaica, and how she has helped build small businesses in the industry. She’s fed a lot of children and aspires to do more work in Jamaica and Ghana involving the education and growing of ganja.
- Mennlay Golokeh Aggrey has legally been working in the cannabis industry for 13 years and has a multi-disciplinary background in journalism, digital marketing and botany. One of her clients is in fact Whoopi Goldberg, as she works to support and advocate for WOC in this space.
In addition to the Minority Cannabis Business Association there are several POC owned cannabis businesses that are helping to shape the industry including Hollingsworth Cannabis Company, Simply Pure, Supernova Women and Apothecarry. As a (light) occasional user and supporter of cannabis for medical, creative, and recreational purposes I try to keep in mind the importance of supporting WOC and POC in this industry. Rather than follow along with the whitewashing of yet another now-trendy wellness movement rooted in ethnic culture and heritage, I hope that newcomers to cannabis will remember it’s history and how it has and continues to affect POC.