On January 16, 1865, the US government agreed to give land to formerly enslaved Black people.
It was an astonishing promise. 400,000 acres on the southeastern coast of the United States would be taken from confederates and redistributed to Black people.
Those reparations were given and then promptly taken away.
President Andrew Johnson revoked the order in the fall of 1865. Instead of the opportunity to build wealth, Black people were given Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration.
And now we watch in dismay as cannabis legalization fails to repair and restore the communities of color prohibition tore apart.
The regulated cannabis industry is already dominated by wealthy, white-owned corporations. But it is still taking form. There is still time to lay equity into the foundation.
The promise of 40 acres and a mule waits to be fulfilled. Cannabis corporations and policymakers have an abundance of opportunities to fulfill it.
Cannabis Corporations: Inclusion Requires Giving Something Up
Mary Pryor is used to being the only Black person in a room. She’s also used to unapologetically explaining why that’s a problem. As co-founder of Cannaclusive, Mary works with cannabis corporations to help them take proactive steps toward the inclusion of minority cannabis consumers.
For Mary, removing marketed symbols of oppression are not as indicative of progress as they are of the snail’s pace America has made toward inclusion.
“The removal of Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima should have already happened. It’s great that you just realized that in 2020. But what are you doing next?” she said.
According to Mary, reactive responses are not enough.
“You can say, okay, I’ve changed by removing Uncle Ben’s. Great. Are you investing in buying from Black farmers? Are you investing in buying rice from People of Color? What are you actually doing that’s proactive versus reactive?”
Mary encourages cannabis corporations with authentic interest in addressing structural racism to begin by focusing on three values: integrity, intention, and dedication.
“What’s the integrity behind your moves? If you don’t have any Black, Brown, or melanated, marginalized communities at your company, it’s going to be hard for you with your white brain to think about what that community wants,” she said.
“So you have two choices. One, you either start paying for Black and Brown time to tell you about what you need. Or two, you do the homework and find communities that you are not a part of in order to understand what those communities need.”
Once integrity has been established, corporations can turn to business strategy.
“What is your intention that you’re setting right now to drive equity and inclusion? What intentional things are you going to do that are actionable with actual measurable, tangible ROI that someone can hold you up to a month from now? Three months from now? A year from now?” Mary said.
“That involves understanding the data of consumers and the lack of support and inclusion you’ve had from creating a company that doesn’t understand those goals.”
Mary urges white business owners to become dedicated to confronting the ways that they benefit from structural racism.
“Are you willing to really adjust the things that your forefathers did that you benefit from? It’s not about accusing you of being a slave master, but slave masters gave you the leg up, period,” she said.
“What are you going to do in order to foster equity, knowing that your white privilege means that you have a chance? You need to give up something in order for someone else to have something.”
At the heart of it, that exchange is what it means to make reparations.
Use Cannabis Legislation to Transform the Criminal Justice System
Corvain Cooper is serving a life sentence for a non-violent cannabis felony.
A three-strikes law mandates life imprisonment once someone is convicted for a third felony regardless of the seriousness of the offense. So even though California drug reforms have reduced cannabis crimes to misdemeanors, Corvain’s sentence remains unchanged.
He is condemned to life for an act that today’s laws would penalize with a fine and maybe a year of prison time.
Corvain is 38-years-old. He is a father of two daughters. An author. An entrepreneur. While he is doing his best to use his voice and story to effect change on the outside, life imprisonment severely impedes his ability to contribute to his family and community. And he’s not the only one.
5,308 people are serving a life sentence for a drug offense according to a 2017 Sentencing Project report. Despite making up 13% of the population, Black people make up 63% of these life sentences.
As policy makers develop cannabis regulations, they must address laws that condemn Corvain and those like him to prison.
“I want you to judge Corvain Cooper for the man he is today. And that’s elevated in so many ways. I’ve read numerous books. I became a better dad. I became a better person. I became a better human being. I want to actually be able to make change,” Corvain said.
You may believe him. But the law doesn’t. It makes no space for the work he’s done on himself or the change he wants to make in the world.
“Mass incarceration is the direct descendent of American chattel slavery,” Kimberly Nelson, managing director at Marijuana Matters, explained about the connection criminal justice reform has to reparations.
Marijuana Matters works through the pillars of education, advocacy, and entrepreneurship to support communities most harmed by the war on drugs.
“We will approach entrepreneurship holistically,” she said. “Reparations is about repairing harm. What has been torn down through slavery, through mass incarceration, the trauma of it, the sense of self lost?”
“You don’t teach these things. You can’t teach a sense of confidence in abilities or a sense of self. It’s really about support. Conducting it in a way that is restorative. That may even possibly be trauma-informed. It’s about building the person as you build the entrepreneur.”
Policymakers historically struggle to care about the person, especially when the person is Black or Brown or queer or holding multiple marginalized identities.
Organizations like Cannaclusive and Marijuana Matters exist to show us that there is far more possible for the cannabis industry than what has been normalized.
Corporations and policymakers, it’s your turn.
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 and follow us on Instagram.
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.