The Cannabis Industry and the Black Lives Matter Uprising

Since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis police force, the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement—itself galvanized six years ago by the slaying of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, MO—has come to animate what can now only be called a national uprising. No part of the country has been untouched. Large solidarity demonstrations have also been held overseas.

As in any such situation, unpredictable forces have been unleashed—as witnessed by the broken glass and looted storefronts in cities coast to coast. 

Dispensaries Looted

Cannabis dispensaries across California have been hit by looters. The East Bay Express reports that “most of the dispensaries in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland seem to have been hit.” Two outlets of the upscale national chain MedMen were among several dispensaries struck in Los Angeles.

The Cannabis Now retail store in Los Angeles was also among those hit. Cannabis Now founder and CEO Eugenio Garcia said in a statement that the looters struck last weekend—hours after a large and peaceful protest was held at the same intersection as the shop, where La Cienega Blvd. meets 3rd St., near West Hollywood. “I was threatened and assaulted and our building was ransacked for hours,” Garcia relates. “Almost everything was stolen and destroyed. As an entrepreneur this is heartbreaking.”

PHOTO Cannabis Now

Adding to the sting, the ransacking came days after the shop had re-opened after having been closed since early March due to COVID-19. “It was wonderful to have so many neighbors stop by and tell us how happy they were to see us open,” Garcia says. “Our store is currently closed again, but we will do our best to rebuild and offer a safe place for the community to come together.”

Oakland’s flagship cannabis dispensary, Harborside, which made headlines when it went public last year, has been “robbed repeatedly” over the past weeks of unrest, according to the company’s chairman emeritus, Steve DeAngelo. “We were one of dozens of California cannabis dispensaries that have been targeted,” DeAngelo tells Cannabis Now. He says the break-ins were the work not of protesters but “professional thieves who saw an opportunity.”  

Eugenio Garcia, in his statement on the sacking of the Cannabis Now store, had this message for the protesters:

“We stand with you. For a decade it has been our mission at Cannabis Now to help build an all-inclusive community surrounding the cannabis plant. Black and Latino communities are specifically targeted and incarcerated due to cannabis prohibition. Racial injustice has prevailed for far longer…

We encourage you to peacefully protest, to vote and to let your voice be heard. While you are doing that, please lift up and support the small businesses in your community who have been affected.”

War on Drugs Helped Bring Us to This Point  

What makes for the special situation of cannabis businesses at this historical juncture is that the War on Drugs—including cannabis prohibition—has been a major ticket-holder in the matrix of oppression faced by Black America. 

Harborside’s Steve DeAngelo, with personal roots as an activist long before he became an entrepreneur, especially emphasizes the social responsibilities of the cannabis community.

“I’ve always believed and continue to believe that cannabis movement needs to make racial justice an integral part of all that we do,” DeAngelo says. “We have a debt of history we need to honor and need to pay. This industry would not exist without the efforts of generations of African Americans—who were the first people to bring cannabis to North America. It’s passage from Black jazz musicians to white fans was one of the vectors to rest of America. Cannabis is a gift of the African American community to the rest of the country.” 

This history has played out in some agonizingly paradoxical ways. DeAngelo cites the case of Michael Thompson, a 68-year-old African American man who has been serving a 60-year term for selling cannabis in Michigan since 1996—in a state where it is now legal. A campaign for his release has recently been launched, in light of the danger COVID-19 poses to prisoners. Says DeAngelo: “There are 40,000 people in this country in same category of doing time for something no longer illegal in many states.” 

DeAngelo also invokes the case of Corvain Cooper, a Black man from Los Angeles who is serving a life term under the federal “three strikes” law—convicted in 2013 in a supposed conspiracy to ship cannabis out of state. His family appealed his life term, arguing that changes to California law meant that his prior convictions (all for nonviolent offenses) were no longer felonies. But the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the case. A clemency campaign for him has now been launched. He was recently transfered to a prison in Louisiana, so his family can no longer afford to visit him. In a particularly telling irony, the site of the Louisiana clothes boutique he had opened shortly before his arrest is today a cannabis dispensary.

“Can you imagine how they feel?” DeAngelo asks. “An extraordinarily rich industry is being built, and not only can you not participate but you’re still locked up. And with COVID in the prisons, you’re potentially facing a death sentence.”  

Last year, DeAngelo launched the Last Prisoner Project, a non-profit group working for, in his words, “the release of every cannabis prisoner on the planet, and helping provide the resources for them to rebuild their lives.” First, this means petitioning for “compassionate release,” DeAngelo says. “The government has the power at the stroke of a pen to grant clemency, but it’s a political risk. We’re currently having conversations with governors’ offices in legal states.” These clemency petitions are being undertaken in partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Meanwhile, DeAngelo says the Last Prisoner Project “is making funds available to pay for phone calls and medical care which are prohibitively expansive for many prisoners. We’re also aiding prisoners on release to find employment—especially in the legal cannabis industry.” 

“The cannabis industry has a responsibility to strive for racial justice, both in operational and advocacy points of view,” DeAngelo sums up. “Both the COVID and policing crises make clear how urgent this is. I don’t think it’s any more urgent now than it was a week ago, but that urgency is becoming clearer now.” 

I don’t think it’s any more urgent now than it was a week ago, but that urgency is becoming clearer now.” 

– Steve DeAngelo

Maritza Perez, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said this in a June 1 statement in response to Trump mobilizing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Customs & Border Protection (CBP) to target protesters: “For far too long, the drug war has been used as a tactic to target, harass, assault, criminalize, and incarcerate communities of color, resulting in a social, economic, and cultural stranglehold around our necks… People of color have a right to be angry and a right to be heard. We cannot meet pleas for liberation with more state-sponsored violence. Until we defund agencies like the DEA and CBP, and remove federal incentives for local police departments, Black and Brown people will forever be gasping for air.” 

The Soul of the Cannabis Community

The War on Drugs has been identified, most prominently by writer Michelle Alexander, as a “new Jim Crow” that is again incarcerating, disenfranchising—and killing—Black people in the United States. It can be argued that, whatever new propaganda guise is now employed, the actual social function of the War on Drugs has been the same as that of legal segregation and Klan terror of an earlier era. And as indicated by the case of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man killed while jogging near his Georgia home in February, the outright vigilante terror of the Klan era also lives on.  

We now see the narco-stigma being employed against George Floyd, with the assertion that he had been using meth—as if that makes any difference to the moral equation whatsoever. Often in the past, cannabis has been the substance at issue in the posthumous stigmatization of victims of police terror.

And many of the police killings of unarmed Black youth that we’ve seen in recent years across the country have been linked, one way or another, to cannabis. Most notorious was the case of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, who was shot dead in his own home in the Bronx in 2012. He was killed by an NYPD officer who had followed him into the apartment after supposedly witnessing him engaged in a street deal. He was shot while attempting to flush his stash of cannabis down the toilet. The officer who killed him never faced charges

As recently as this March, an egregious incident of police abuse in Brooklyn went viral on the internet and re-ignited public anger over racist marijuana enforcement in New York City.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we must recognize peaceful protesters and opportunistic theives as opposites ends of a spectrum—some of the looting (at least) has presumably been carried out by the simply angry and desperate. We should also keep in mind that from Minneapolis to Las Vegas, there have been signs that some of the violence has been provocation by far-right white nationalists bent on provoking a civil war.

PHOTO Harrison Haines

It’s a paradoxical testament to the gains of cannabis “normalization” that dispensaries are seen as just another capitalist enterprise—and therefore fair game for social rage, when it erupts. Where cannabis enterprises are seen as complicit with gentrification, the rage may even be targeted at such businesses. And this rage may be compounded by the bitter irony of white entrepreneurs disproportionately getting rich off legal cannabis, while Black users remain disproportionately criminalized. Official policies of “cannabis equity” in California (at least) represent an effort to address this contradiction—but the contradiction still persists.

The soul of the country’s cannabis community is being tested by this crisis. Cannabis massively reached white America—the critical step of its “normalization” in a white-dominated society—as a part of the cultural ferment of the 1960s, which also included the anti-war and civil rights movements. It is painfully clear that it is still necessary to fight for the things the civil rights movement fought for two generations ago. The degree to which the cannabis community will be a part of this fight will reveal the degree to which the values of that era have truly been nurtured—or whether the weed is today just another capitalist commodity in a system that consumes and exploits Black lives.

TELL US, how do you feel about the cannabis industry’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement?

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