Today is the day my mother’s body expired because it could no longer take the demands of dialysis to manage the serial killer so many black families face—that literal motherfucker diabetes. She left this earth Feb. 7, 2018, and in every moment since, my life has been a series of disbelief, denial, and levels of grief that hold a pain that only her voice can soothe. Memories of her are tools I use to hold my heart intact as it regularly shatters inside of my body. To bring some levity to an otherwise devastating time for me, and because black people are geniuses at laughing through some damn pain, I often come back to the memories of the ways my mama said fuck the state and the war on drugs: “Smoke your weed, baby,” she’d say.
As a young child trying to make sense of the world around me, home and school were two sites of education that offered conflicting information. My mother’s then long-term boyfriend, “Big Larry” was the local weed guy, and in the ‘80s, picking up weed from the “weed man” was a whole-ass scene. Sometimes people would come by just to pick up and other times it was a social space where folk hung out and sat in circles, talking. There was music, drinks, endless shit-talking over a card table of Spades, Tonk or Bid Whist, food, so much laughter and, of course, weed smoking.
My mother had a different ritual at home—on Saturdays she would wake me up to clean the house with the sounds of her vinyl and a blend of scents that included Ganesh Number 6 or 8 incense, Pine-Sol and weed. I was raised in a family where all of the adults—my grandfather, several aunts, cousins, and both of my uncles—smoked cigarettes. At school, we were taught about the harmful effects of cigarettes and the impact of secondhand smoke. Armed with this knowledge, I made sure to tell my mother that cigarettes would kill her—and me—every time she lit one of her Salem Light 100s in the hard box.
Hell, in my mind, I thought that weed was just like cigarettes. In my household, it wasn’t treated any differently because 98 percent of the adults who smoked cigarettes also smoked weed. The only difference for me was that I preferred the sweet, woodsy smell of marijuana over the thick and heavy smoke of nicotine, which triggered my asthma.
At school, I learned that my family structure was not nuclear (a mother, father, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a house with a picket fence) and, therefore, not “normal.” I understood that, because of this, what happened in our household was that much more precious to protect. This understanding became clearer to me when I learned about weed from D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education)—a program used as a tactic in schools to feed the insidious “War on Drugs” political agenda, further criminalizing families of color. The D.A.R.E. program message said that all drugs were bad and we should tell the adults in our lives how harmful drugs were to them—and to us as children—which, by-the-way was a big no-no in my family and a quick way to be chin-checked and/or popped in the mouth. D.A.R.E. went on to say that even though marijuana seemed harmless, it was a gateway to harsher drugs.
Once I completed the course, I made a pledge that I would never do drugs. As a reward, I received a certificate and a t-shirt. When I got home from school, weed was being smoked like any other day.
I was the type of little black girl who always wanted to apply at home what she learned at school. However, the conflict for me was that I absolutely hated cigarettes and loved the smell of weed. I didn’t mind that scent in my hair and clothes, and as much as school taught me weed was a “gateway drug,” I knew I loved it. So, one day, I got it in my mind to ask my mother about her sweet-smelling cigarette—the one that didn’t make my lungs tight and made her really happy and relaxed after she smoked it.
Picture me, in early summer 1987 in Indiana: a 7-year-old black girl riding shotgun in her mother’s 1974 Brown Ford Mustang, rocking a fierce Jheri curl, with my mother’s smile in my father’s face. As my mother smoked her sweet-smelling cigarette, I got up the nerve to just blurt out and ask: “Mommy, what kind of cigarette is that?”
She replied, “This is Mommy’s special cigarette, the kind that won’t hurt me.” I smiled, assured that D.A.R.E. was wrong and that “bad thing” they said my mother was doing couldn’t possibly be the same and went back to enjoying the sun, riding in the car.
For the longest time, I kept my D.A.R.E. pledge. Then one day, at 16 years old, at my cousin Bubbles’ apartment, I tried weed. Of course, I didn’t think I was high, so I kept puffing and puffing. All of a sudden, I found myself lying in the middle of her living room floor, flapping my arms like a bird. The feeling was unlike anything I had ever felt before. I was warm; my entire body felt light. I, like many other teens, was self-conscious about any number of things including thinking that I might resemble the scarecrow from The Wiz (Michael Jackson) when Dorothy (Diana Ross) first helped him off the pole. Most of the time, I felt clumsy or uncertain whenever I moved and smoking weed quickly took that awkwardness away. Finally, I felt free in my body.
As I was recognizing this new body consciousness there was the type of laughter radiating from my cousin and her friends that sounded like I was quickly losing a game of the “dozens.” Their cackles were followed by my hunger, which could only be cured with fried food. I will never forget how delicious that breaded pork tenderloin with French fries was—did I mention I was from Indiana, where pork is a food group? I had my first high meal, and the tone was set. The door was open, and I walked in.
Fast-forward to 2006, when I first visited Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Being in a country where there was such openness and normalcy around weed literally blew my mind. The quality of the weed was delicious. The different flavors and strains showed me the difference between an Indica, Sativa and hybrid strain, and what impact they had on my body.
I now consider myself a bit of a weed connoisseur. Friends come to me if they have questions or are looking for a particular quality of weed. I’ve lived in California, where medical and adult-use weed is legal; it’s my goal to visit every state and country where this is the case. I have had the opportunity to meet dynamic black folks involved in cannabis advocacy, education, and business, creating opportunities for more folks of color to have access to this $7 billion-dollar and growing sector. Since my days as a freebird, I have grown committed to telling the stories of black folks in cannabis.
Before my mother passed away last year, our relationship with my weed smoking had also come full circle. When I would go back to Indiana to care for her, she’d ask me: “Jasmine, have you taken your vitamin today?” If I hadn’t yet smoked and she noticed I was stressed, she’d say, “You need to handle that.” In retrospect, the tension that I had about weed was a product of the U.S. education system in the 1980s; now, in many states where cannabis is legal like California and Colorado, social service programs are benefitting from the income to the state in fees and sales.
I’m thankful my family taught me that the “evidence” stacked against their weed smoking was actually a big bag of fucking lies. This firsthand learning showed me how to be an independent thinker and that the state will stop at nothing to try to criminalize our minds and bodies. Thank goodness I had a mother who taught me how to live in my truth by her example. Now, the 7-year-old little Black girl with the Jheri curl is the 41-year-old grown black woman with the short and sometimes multi-colored afro who holds a critical eye to the “gubmint” and has a set of loving memories about my family and the ways they cared for me and themselves that makes my love for cannabis current and complete.
Jasmine Burnett is a proud 3rd generation Black midwestern writer and advocate based in Cleveland. She spent many years organizing for reproductive justice and now she’s a cultural explorer and purveyor of all things Black women, queer folks and cannabis.