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‘Salt in a racist wound’: Why it’s never just ‘smoking weed for fun’ for black people, but ‘smoking weed and breaking the law’

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Sister Kate is not actually a nun. She’s not even a Catholic.

Christine Meeusen forged the Sister Kate identity during the height of the Occupy movement, when she would show up to protests dressed in a black robe and a white habit. The image of a nun – or rather, a woman dressed like a nun – became a focus for local news coverage of the demonstrations, and eventually earned her the moniker Sister Occupy.

Originally from Milwaukee, Wisc., Meeusen moved to California in 2009 with her brother to start a medical marijuana dispensary. Following the demise of the Occupy movement, Meeusen capitalized on her recognizable faux-Catholic character by rebranding her existing business into the Sisters of the Valley, a group of women who operate a weed farm in the Central Valley of California. They sell $60,000 worth of marijuana every month and ship their product to customers around the world

Last April, The Sisters were profiled by CNN in a feature shot by photographers Shaughn Crawford and John DuBois, who labelled the sisters as “really interesting women, and we so enjoyed getting to hang with them.” From there, they became media darlings. They were the subject of an LA Times feature video. The Daily Beast called Sister Kate a “pot-loving feminist.” And VICE produced a story on the Sisters with the headline “Heaven on Earth: A Day with California’s Weed Nuns.”

As Canada and several regions in the United States move closer to cannabis legalization – Canada is set to become the first G7 country to legalize marijuana at a national level, while medicinal marijuana is legal in 28 states and recreational use is lawful in eight – there seems to be a steady stream of reporting on ordinary citizens finding ingenious ways to profit from the booming marijuana trade – from a “nerdy teen” who became a $38 million pot kingpin featured in the New York Post to the “Tim Hortons of cannabis” profiled in the National Post.  

Reading through a cross-section of these stories, it doesn’t take much effort to find a specific portion of the population not represented. There are almost no minorities profiting from the legal sale of marijuana.

As VICE News recently reported, nearly all of the 45 federally licensed marijuana producers in Canada are run by white males. Of the 20 licensed producers who provided information about the diversity of their businesses, VICE found only six minorities in executive positions. The same issue exists in the United States. According to an investigative report from Buzzfeed, out of 3,600 legal marijuana dispensaries in the U.S., only one per cent is black-owned.

It’s an odd conundrum considering how drug use among black people is portrayed in popular culture and how policing in both U.S. and Canada has had a history of targeting minorities for marijuana possession and sale. According to Stats Canada, arrest rates for selling cannabis in northern Canadian communities, where Indigenous populations are more prevalent, are eight times higher than in the south. Meanwhile, across the border, African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

The disproportionate number of arrests in the U.S. isn’t by coincidence either. The War on Drugs, as Richard Nixon’s former domestic policy aide John Ehrlichman admitted to CNN, was a war on blacks: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

On the surface, it would seem that blacks and other minorities are jailed more for drug offences because they commit more of the crimes. It’s as simple as: you do the crime, you do the time. The fault in such reasoning is in using the conclusion to justify the premise. The argument for “black criminality” is working from bottom to top rather than the inverse.

Almost every study on the issue comes to the same findings: cannabis usage between black and white people is mostly equal. Yet the arrest and conviction numbers don’t mirror this. Instead, it reflects a racist stereotype that criminality runs rampant through the black community.

In Canada, we see the results of this in Toronto’s infamous carding practice which routinely and randomly stops citizens – a disproportionate amount of whom are black and brown young men – to record their personal information. 

While it’s easy to point fingers at this brand of policing and label it as racist, it’s merely the flowering of a plant that is deeply rooted in our culture.

Consider the difference in how we react to marijuana references between hip hop stars and classic rockers. When rappers like Future, Wiz Khalifa or Snoop Dogg express their love for weed, ABC News calls it “an alarming trend.” Because “rap artists are role models for the nation’s youth, especially in urban areas. Many of these young people are already at risk and need to get positive messages from the media.”

A week ago, The Tragically Hip announced a partnership with a medical marijuana company that prompted fans to share funny names of potential band-related cannabis products: “Tragically Hemp;” “Chronically Hip;” “Budcaygeon;” and “Weed Kings.” If anything, the band’s association with weed further cemented their blue collar Canadiana. Never mind that the proposed Cannabis Act unveiled by the federal government in April outlaws “any promotion, packaging and labelling of cannabis that could be appealing to young persons” or that the proposed law also prohibits “a testimonial or endorsement, however displayed or communicated.”

Even prior to increased legalization, someone like Willie Nelson had his drug use glamorized and accepted as an adorable aspect of his persona. At the 2013 MTV Europe Music Awards, pop star Miley Cyrus lit a joint on stage while accepting an award and said “I think weed is the best drug on earth.” And yet, the critical reaction to this was a collective eye-roll, amid suggestions that the act was little more than a publicity stunt. A whiff of marijuana smoke at a Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney concert might have the same olfactory properties as the clouds at an A$AP Rocky show, but that one is deemed much more pungent than the others.

Even in movies, black people only have a few entries in the fun stoner hijinks genre compared to an abundance of white stoner comedies. The Friday series stands out, as well as How High. The next prominent entry is probably Dave Chappelle’s performance in Half Baked, the cast of which is mostly white. That’s nowhere near the list of white stoner movies that would take thousands of column inches to list, including: Pineapple Express, Dazed and Confused, The Big Lebowski, Grandma’s Boy, Dude, Where’s My Car, Knocked Up, This Is The End, Ted, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

Drug usage by black people in movies isn’t rare, it’s just that most of the time it’s used not as a comedic or light-hearted device but rather as a criminal act. The lack of films associating black drug use with comedy reflects a similar trend to what we see in popular music: black people aren’t allowed to have fun with marijuana use in the same manner as everyone else. It’s never just smoking weed for fun. It’s smoking weed and breaking the law.

One particular scene in The Godfather captures this attitude toward blacks and drugs perfectly. When Don Corleone calls a meeting of the Five Families to stop a war from breaking out – a tension caused by the Don refusing to allow the drug business to take hold in New York – Don Zaluchi provides a solution on how to restrict its damage. He says, “I don’t want it near schools! I don’t want it sold to children! That’s an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloureds. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”

It could be argued that black culture does have its fair share of widely accepted associations with marijuana. Such claims point to Bob Marley or the aforementioned Snoop Dogg – although, it’s worth noting that even Snoop Dogg requires a collaboration with a white person (Martha Stewart) to bring his drug use to the mainstream.

However, for every Bob Marley, whose marijuana usage and promotion is acknowledged as being part of his creative process, there are many Rich Homie Quans, facing 30 years in jail for possession. For the few, it’s a case of them being the exceptions since the general glut of black artists are still dealing with the absurd link that even recreational marijuana usage is evidence of a criminal nature.

As a result, the negative association between black people and marijuana restricts them from joining in on the industry’s boom. In the United States, this link is much more direct due to the federal law banning drug felons from having an active role in a marijuana business. While this ruling has the potential to affect all races, it’s inordinately discriminatory against black people when – as we’ve already established – they’re the ones four times more likely to be arrested for possession.

In Canada, the costs of a federal license and the regular difficulties for former convicts to find employment act as a similar barrier. Former Toronto police chief and Liberal MP Bill Blair recognizes the dangers of arrest legacies due to the disparity in police enforcement of the current laws. Speaking to the Senate Liberal Caucus in 2016, he said: “One of the great injustices in this country,” is the disparate and disproportionate police enforcement of marijuana laws and, “the impact that it has on minority communities, aboriginal communities and those in our most vulnerable neighbourhoods.”

The marijuana business is now showing that while the law may change, the brand on a “criminal” doesn’t fade away. It’s a stamp that prevents the individual from being a functioning member of the community. It ostracizes them, even after they have paid their due. It prevents them from even working in the business of the drug that saw them arrested. Those most profoundly affected by the illegality of the drug remain negatively associated with its past prohibition, while those who escaped scrutiny and judgment of its criminality are now predominantly benefitting from its sudden legality. It’s more salt in a racist wound.

Weed is big business and it’s being glamorized almost everyday, yet the ones who suffered the most when the drug was still demonized are barred from joining in. This, of course, is not to say that it’s wrong that weed is being decriminalized, or that people like the Sisters of the Valley are doing anything particularly wrong. If marijuana usage is going to be viewed as a benign and harmless thing by the laws that govern us, by all means, go forth and enjoy – and profit from its business in any way that’s allowed.

However, there’s something happening here that’s somewhat reminiscent of the opioid addiction crisis. Now that opioid usage and its consequences have reached a fever pitch, both the United States and Canada – in terms of everything from policing to media coverage – have shown an overwhelming sense of sympathy for its victims. The open-arms approach is in painful contrast to the crack epidemic in America which garnered widespread condemnation, harsher drug laws and a dismissal of both the sellers and abusers as the worst of humanity. Not surprisingly, opioids are affecting whites at a higher rate, while crack was seen mostly as a black problem.

Certainly, there’s a sense of social progress that comes from the less iron-fisted approach  to the opioid crisis and the decriminalization of marijuana; as though we’re a more enlightened people. We understand that a tough approach ends up hurting people and our countries more. But there’s still a double standard at play.

And inevitably there’s still some bitterness that comes with being black and seeing such lionizing of weed savants. I know that there are people like me who were in jail, and who have lost the privilege of being part of society, for the same thing that people like Sister Kate are now being celebrated.

While some might view this as merely an issue of timing, our ongoing reactions to and portrayals of black drug usage in culture suggest the real issue remains one of race. As a result, each story, each puff of smoke at a concert and each stoner comedy feels more like a taunt than the harmless bit of fun it’s no doubt meant to be.

The great irony here is that while we might consider a group of faux-nuns selling marijuana or the urge to smoke cannabis to be a bad habit, it’s a failure to recognize our prejudice – inherent and systemic – that’s proving to be our worst inclination.

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