Why African Americans are largely absent from the medical marijuana movement

No blacks with green

When I was at the breakfast for Tommy Chong a couple of weeks ago, I talked with another African-American at the event. Actually, he was the only brother at this gathering of activists and dispensary owners aside from me.

As we spoke, I noted that brothers are few and far between when it comes to marijuana activism. His comment was: "And you know why."

Indeed I do. Brothers are afraid to stick their necks out on this issue because when the powers that be decide to start chopping heads off, they know which heads are going to roll first. Given the history of the war on drugs and the fact that African-Americans get arrested for marijuana at more than three times the rate of whites, it makes sense to be paranoid.

When I later asked if he wanted to be interviewed for this column he said, "I'm still flying under the radar right now."

On the down low. Creepin'. Slipping through the shadows.

It's a familiar place. That's how a lot of brothers have learned to operate in the marijuana culture. Or around anything else for that matter. When police pull you over for a traffic stop and end up dragging you out of your car, beating you mercilessly, and planting cocaine in your car, as Floyd Dent says Inkster police did to him recently, you might think twice about giving them extra reason to mess with you.

Let's just say that blacks have not been at the forefront of the marijuana revolution. There have been few prominent blacks in the marijuana movement nationally. Maj. Neill Franklin, a retired police officer and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is one. Franklin was on the team that convinced the national NAACP to oppose the war on drugs a few years ago. But Franklin is a rare one.

Beyond activism, we're also not participating in the "green rush" of business opportunities that have popped up. Instead of trying to fight dispensaries, as some community groups have been doing, they should be trying to foster some folks in the community to own some of these, in addition to grow supply stores or testing facilities or packaging plants. That would go a whole lot further in protecting the community than trying to keep them out.

"I know some guys that work in dispensaries but they're not the owners of facilities," says Joe White, a black Detroiter who sits on the board of the Michigan Chapter of NORML. White has lobbied at the state Capitol on marijuana issues, but now he's focusing on educational outreach in Detroit.

"People in the city need to sit down and talk about this," says White. "That includes church leaders. Rev. Alonzo Bell agrees that this is something that needs to be discussed in the African-American community regarding marijuana. Things just need to be talked about, and we need to clear the air on this discussion."

Statistics show that among all ethnicities, the older you get the less support there is for loosening marijuana laws. When I attended a meeting of the Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition (which seeks rules restricting dispensaries) a couple of months ago, I guessed that the average age of the attendees was about 70. It could have been a little lower but they were clearly alarmed about marijuana stores in the neighborhoods.

"The group that's most resistant to any of these marijuana issues is the African-American senior population," says White. "There were a couple of studies done on that. The African-American senior population is fighting against it when issues come up. Most of it is a lack of knowledge, fear, misguided information, and so forth. Fear sometimes drives us backward instead of forward."

It's hard to blame them when they've seen their city and their neighborhoods ravaged and believe drugs are to blame for why that happened. But at this point marijuana won't be stopped. There are three different petition drives to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Michigan, and Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) intends to submit a legalization bill to the legislature this year. Polls show a majority of Michiganders support recreational legalization. Legalization could very well come to Michigan very soon, and when that happens the financial floodgates will be flung open.

In 2014 Colorado had medical and recreational marijuana sales of $700 million. Michigan's population is close to twice that of Colorado so it's easy guess that sales would quickly go over the billion-dollar mark. Any industry that comes in and makes that big a mark on the economy is huge. And that doesn't include what could happen with industrial hemp, although it will take a while for the impact of that to be felt.

It's coming. There is so much money to be made that even if the petition drives are unsuccessful, some major corporate entity will woo enough legislators to make it happen. Marketing executives have already profiled marijuana users and everything else they like: clothes, shoes, beer, dining choices, sports activities, vacation spots. They're ready to go. If legalization somehow doesn't come to Michigan by next year, it could very well happen in any of several other states, including Ohio.

So African-Americans need to get over their fears — whether it's the fear getting arrested or the fear of the scourge of marijuana. There is a coming new industry and unless some folks start investing more than the cost of a bag at the local dispensary, we will again be left behind.

Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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