Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series that looks at the growing legal marijuana industry and its effect on the black community.
“At this point, I want to figure out how to be a drug dealer,” said award-winning filmmaker and best-selling author dream hampton at a gathering at Columbia University earlier this year. “I am from Detroit and haven’t been able to buy marijuana from a black person in more than four years.”
Michigan is one of 25 states in which marijuana is legal for medicinal use. But hampton’s remarks came in the midst of a discussion that centered on economic equity and the legal marijuana market. Two years ago, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, said in a public conversation that what we needed to examine and address was the fact that white men were now poised to get rich doing something black men had been going to prison for.
Hampton agrees and now, as a resident of California—the largest state yet to consider the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, under what’s known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Proposition 64—has become an activist not simply for removing the plant from the criminal-justice system but also for ensuring that all who have been economically marginalized are not closed out of this emerging aboveground marketplace.
The Root sat down to talk to hampton about her views on Proposition 64, economic freedom and why the work to legalize marijuana is part of the work to ensure racial justice.
The Root: Marijuana and all drugs are deeply stigmatized by people of all races and classes. But given that our drug laws were created not with science or public health in mind but specifically to control and contain the movement of black people and other people of color, I’m always taken aback when we co-sign them. How do you respond to the stigma around marijuana in the black community?
DH: On one hand, in the kind of black community I come from—poor and working-class—there was never a stigma against marijuana. Long before hip-hop encouraged so many to come out of what Snoop calls the "green closet," I'd understood marijuana, which was always fragrant in my home, to be a stress reliever. My mother was a waitress and my father a mechanic, so I imagine that this herb actually helped them to survive, to decompress.
Unfortunately, I took to drinking, not smoking, in high school. And being an adult, with lots of distance from my childhood, I'd testify before any group of anybodies that drinking is worse for us in every way. Which brings us to the respectability politics of the black middle class and the church—which seems to get their antiquated talking points from Nancy Reagan rather than science.
But personal preferences for marijuana, or even rightly categorizing it as an herb, not a drug, aside, what we must all understand is, the criminalization and prohibition of marijuana has only ever given the state another reason to violently engage our communities.
The effects of the criminalization of marijuana have been devastating to black and brown people, by every measure. I imagine that a century after this insane prohibition has been lifted, people will look back in wonder at how a flower that at best produces ease, and at worst munchies, was criminalized for so long. How we locked people up, kept them from going to school, separated families and a host of other real, not imagined, harms, all because of a plant that is less dangerous than alcohol, cigarettes or sugar.
TR: In Washington, D.C., when voters approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, many black parents worried that its passage could harm black children. You're the mother of a young black woman and you're deeply involved, and have been, with young black people for years. Do you have concerns specific to young African Americans if 64 passes?
DH: I have friends who buy all kinds of ridiculous aerosols and lock themselves in the bathroom to smoke weed. And almost all of their children began smoking super early and are hiding their smoking from their parents—because of the shame around smoking.
I think we need to talk about marijuana with our children the way we hopefully talk about sex, which is with advice about responsibility and safety, warnings about any dangers, and, of course, positive talk about pleasure.
Too often we conflate marijuana with other drugs, and then our fallback is the entrenched narrative we have about the impact those drugs had on our community—and here I mean crack. There was never a war on drugs, only a policy that allowed this nation to continue restricting the freedom of black people and other people of color. Drugs did not destroy our communities. Mass incarceration, the destruction of unions, the war on public schools and a generation of neoliberalism have been the real culprits in the attempt to destroy black people.
TR: Is there a single most important element of Proposition 64 that makes it a must-pass bill for you?
DH: I don't think California expected another state to be more progressive than them, so Colorado's adult-use legalization probably surprised them. They’re now playing catch-up, which is a good thing. Because decriminalization and medical use of marijuana was never sufficient. So I'm happy that Prop 64 is about full legalization.
But more importantly, Prop 64 will bring people home who are locked up for using or selling marijuana, which is, of course, huge. There is also some $50 million being reinvested in communities most harmed by the drug war.
But I don't love everything about Prop 64. I'll never love any contract with the state, and this proposal had to negotiate with and make concessions to law enforcement. But the most radical thing about Prop 64, in my mind, is something I’ve been publicly advocating for years—and that's the economic-equity angle. Prop 64 takes on this idea that people who once sold drugs before should be disallowed from participating in the aboveground industry. Imagine us saying that someone who ran moonshine in 1926 could forever more not own a liquor store or a restaurant. We’d think they were crazy.
Listen, as people fight for important things like $15 an hour, or better, we can expect for these corporations to find ways around it. We've already seen Wendy's announce they'll be cutting their workforce by a third, and soon you'll be telling an iPad if you want pickles on your burger. The point is that we'll soon see them [workers] disappear altogether as we push for high wages. But the aboveground marijuana industry is expanding, and there’s the possibility of ownership. So if we’re locked out of participating in a growth industry, that will be the true tragedy.
asha bandele is an award-winning author and journalist and a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Also in the High Society series: