In the Spirit of Juneteenth, Demand Social Equity from Cannabis Brands

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Sharing #BlackLivesMatter and Juneteenth posts is not the same as implementing social equity.

The political moment we are in has made it strategic for cannabis brands to say the right thing.

But doing the right thing will require them to give something up. That’s because white corporations have historically benefited from structural racism.

While wealthy white people have been given a leg up in the establishment of the regulated cannabis industry, hundreds of thousands of black people have — largely through cannabis arrests — been ensnared by a criminal justice system already rigged against them.

Corvain Cooper is one of those people.

Cannabis is Legal. Why is Corvain Cooper Serving a Life Sentence for It?

Corvain’s childhood wasn’t easy.

“My dad was selling drugs. My mom was on drugs at the time,” Corvain said.

“That was a part of the crack epidemic. It was crazy because my mom was my preschool teacher. My mom graduated from college. To see how hard the crack epidemic affected her life — it kind of shaped my life.”

In the 1990’s, Los Angeles was known as the crack capital of the world. Addiction to crack cocaine drove already vulnerable black communities to greater poverty. The government treated crack addiction like a crime instead of the public health crisis that it was. Even worse, CIA operatives flooded LA with cocaine, the raw material for crack, and used the profits to fund a government sponsored war in Nicaragua.

Criminalizing drug use in the 90’s did not curb it. Instead, it ratcheted up the incarceration rate of black Americans, exacerbating poverty, which in turn led to more crime.

“I only saw crime growing up,” Corvain said. “I idolized my dad. My dad was a successful person who sold drugs. He only went to jail one time and that was at the end of his career. I had everything growing up. He provided.”

Corvain ran into some trouble with the law between 1998 and 2012. He was convicted of a few low-level drug possession offenses and ended up serving about a year in state prison.

But by 2012, he was ready to turn a new leaf. Corvain began to work on making one of his childhood dreams a reality: opening a clothing line.

Then, in 2013, Corvain was getting ready to take one of his daughters to a sporting event when federal agents arrived at his home.

“When I got arrested, it killed me inside,” Corvain said. “For one, you got one of my daughters looking out the window while I’m getting arrested. And you have a daughter on the other side of town waiting to get picked up to go to our competition.”

Corvain received a life sentence without the possibility of parole for cannabis trafficking. The sentence is a product of a federal “three strikes” law. This law mandates a life sentence if a convicted person has two previous felonies, even if those convictions are for non-violent crimes.

Despite his imprisonment, Corvain continues to contribute to his family. He has two daughters, 14-year-old Cleer and almost 11-year-old Scotlyn.

“They’re both amazing. They’re both smart. That’s one thing that I really adore about them. They both get all A’s. I just can’t be more proud of them,” he said.

With the help of his support system,* Corvain was able to raise $5000 for each of his daughters this month. He also tries to send them money regularly.

“When they see a check with my name on it, it’s like, okay, my dad might not be here, but he’s still trying to be there financially to fill in the void,” he said. “I look at the pictures and tell them I miss them, and I love them. I try to talk to them every day possible.”

Corvain is a black, 38-year-old father. He is serving a life sentence for involvement in an industry that is now legal in most states. That is injustice. That is structural racism.

Despite the cruelty of his sentence and the numerous obstacles he has faced to overturning it, Corvain maintains enormous optimism and purpose.**

“I want to actually be able to make change,” he said. “I want to be Corvain Cooper VS the United States and help all the rest of the marijuana lifers get out of jail. I’m here for change and I’m not going to stop until I do it.”

Cannabis is an Opportunity for Black People to Build Generational Wealth

The Hollingsworth Cannabis Company (T.H.C. C.o.) is a black and family-owned and operated cannabis farm located in the state of Washington.

For Joy Hollingsworth, co-founder of T.H.C. C.o., success is determined by how the business lifts up the people around her.

“We saw cannabis as an opportunity to create generational wealth for ourselves, for others, for our friends, family, and the people surrounding us,” Joy said.

But the Hollingsworth family is an anomaly.

81% of cannabis business owners are white. Only 4.3% are black according to a 2017 Marijuana Business Daily survey.

Why does this disparity exist?

One reason is that the war on drugs targeted black communities. 30% of all drug-related arrests are of black Americans even though they only make up 12.5% of the substance using population.

Corvain Cooper is one of many fathers who will spend another Father’s Day in prison. That means that his daughters belong to an unwilling network of children who are growing up without their dads because of acts that wouldn’t even be considered crimes under today’s laws.

Legalizing cannabis has not removed the stigma for black people because historically, laws have not been applied to us fairly.

Slavery was abolished in 1863, but it wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas even heard about emancipation. And mass incarceration has resulted in the lawful enslavement of prison inmates, most of whom are black.

Black people were given the right to vote 150 years ago, but voting laws disproportionately impacting black people continue to keep us out of polling booths.

Cocaine was flooded into poor black neighborhoods by operatives who used the profits to fund a CIA-backed war.

Alongside the effects of systemic racism, the skepticism in many black communities remains.

Then there’s the funding problem.

“Not everybody has a lot of capital to start,” Joy said. “We know that wealth transfers generationally and a lot of these people that have raised funds had it in their family. You hear that a lot. ‘Oh, we just raised 2 million from friends and family.’ I’m like… what? We took my dad’s retirement and my grandmother’s money.”

The Hollingsworth family was able to pull together the resources, but the risk involved in that investment was steep. Many black families may not have those resources or be willing to risk them.

Black people have the highest poverty rate in the country. This is not by accident. The cumulative impacts of slavery, segregation, redlining, and the war on drugs have made it exceedingly difficult for black communities to build wealth.

As inspiring as the Hollingsworth family’s story is, it is not the norm. But if social equity standards centering black voices and investing in black communities were upheld by the cannabis industry, it could be.

The responsibility to make that happen falls on those with the greatest power. In the cannabis industry, that means predominantly white-owned, large corporations and wealthy investors.

Their consumers need to hold them accountable for doing the right thing. Not just saying it.

Pulling from Our History and Community for Strength

Despite her success, Joy Hollingsworth confronts microaggressions regularly.

“The stress that I have functioning in life as a black female because of all those stereotypes and barriers and hurdles are the same,” she said. “And the cannabis industry is extra white since a lot of us don’t have the opportunity to get into the industry.”

She draws strength from her ancestors.

“Knowing your history reveals your potential greatness,” Joy said.

“My grandmother came up in South Carolina and endured racism and sexism growing up in the South in the 1920s. I think about her coming from that. And then I think about my mother coming from the projects in New Orleans. And I think about her struggle and being in a body cast because she had scoliosis.”

Black Americans are descended from people who have built up communities and cultures that create transcendent hope.

That hope echoes in Corvain Cooper’s fight for freedom.

We come from great artists and architects, scholars and healers, philosophers and spiritual leaders, scientists and entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers, all of whom generated beauty in the face of racism’s ugliest violence.

This history fuels Joy on the hard days.

“If they made it — if they were able to present this opportunity for me on a level where I just took it and ran with it, and I’m standing on their shoulders, there’s no reason why I cannot accomplish what I want to.”

*A special thank you goes to Anthony Alegrete (@iamjump) for talking to Corvain for us.

**Corvain has written a series of 3 soon to be released books entitled ‘Look Into My Eyes.’ His books detail his life and share the story of how he ended up with life in prison for marijuana. Follow @corvaincooper on Instagram for more information.

Marijuana Matters is a non-profit centering those disadvantaged by the criminalization of marijuana. M2 identifies and eliminates barriers to economic opportunity in the regulated cannabis industry through advocacy, entrepreneurship, and education. Support our work.

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