While Black America’s complicated relationship with marijuana continues to evolve, a future where legalization and decriminalization is becoming increasingly probable. Getting there will take an increased commitment to new legislation, creating diverse entrepreneurial opportunities and fostering genuine restorative justice, none of which is impossible.
In his new BET documentary Smoke: Marijuana + Black America, director Erik Parker crafts a new perspective on how the plant has impacted the Black community overall starting with its history, federal and state politics and how people who are interested in creating businesses around cannabis are moving forward.
“When the plant is criminalized, in essence it criminalizes a community,” Parker told BET.com, “The laws have been used against Black and Brown communities disproportionately. We look at that when it comes to criminalization, but we also looked at it in terms of cannabis businesses and opportunities that are coming as a result of legalization. A lot of these cannabis entrepreneurs are fighting for equity and having a fair share and getting a fair shake when it comes to the cannabis industry.”
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In interviews done from January through March 2020, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the documentary speaks to politicians, musicians, sports stars and cannabis entrepreneurs including Wanda James, who owns a Colorado dispensary. You’ll also hear from “Freeway” Ricky Ross, who had been imprisoned for his involvement in the crack cocaine trade, but is now creating a new fortune in the legalized marijuana business and there’s also former NBA star Al Harrington-turned cannabis investor.
It was important to include the perspective of policymakers like Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, Rep. Barbara Lee and Cook County, Ill. prosecutor Kim Foxx who all speak about the unfairly negative impact that marijuana, classified in most states as an illegal drug, has had on American communities of color in particular. Others, including hip-hop legend B-Real of Cypress Hill; WNBA star Cheyenne Parker; and C.J. Wallace, son of hip-hop icon the Notorious B.I.G., also join the conversation, which is hosted by rap legend, Nas.
In addition, the documentary tells the story of people like Corvain Cooper, a father serving a life prison sentence for selling marijuana in an area where dispensaries are actually legal, and sheds light on why now is the time to confront the intersection of race, cannabis and the criminal justice system.
“Each one of those realms, including medicinal, the cannabis business, and commerce to criminal justice, has very complex and nuanced issues surrounding it,” said Parker. “For example, if you’re talking about legalization...what happens to what they call the black market when it becomes legal? What happens to those people?
“There are some people who want to decriminalize but don’t want to legalize because their argument would be that big business is going to come in and just take over like with tobacco.”
The fear exists that large corporations could come in and take hefty advantages in legalization, displacing would-be entrepreneurs from marginalized communities without ever putting anything back. According to Piece of Mind Cannabis, a marijuana business and advocacy organization, average startup costs for opening a dispensary can range from $150,000 to more than $2 million.
“There are people who want to pump the brakes when it comes to legalization, not because they don’t think it should be legal, but they want to make sure that when it’s legal, it’s actually handled justly and fairly for all,” said Parker.
Smoke is just the latest in a series of documentaries from Parker. He’s also responsible for films including Nas: Time Is Illmatic; L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later; Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America; and Death Row Stories. But this one, he says, includes a unique intersectionality from all the others.
“The first documentary I did with Nas, it was about music, but even in that documentary...it wasn’t just about his music,” Parker explained. “It was about the culture and the social conditions that created the music. I’ve tried to continue that with all the work that I’ve done, tried to make sure there are different layers and points of view, and different entry points into a story that keeps people thinking and nimble in their thoughts about one issue that they may not have thought about.”
Smoke: Marijuana + Black America premieres Wednesday, November 18 at 10 p.m. ET on BET.