My documentary ‘SMOKE: Marijuana + Black America’ tracks the recent cannabis boom — and how racism has already crept in
As the producer for the 2014 documentary Time is Illmatic, I’ve interviewed Nas more times than I can count. By this point, we’ve developed an easy rapport and settled comfortably in the zone between industry connection and working friendship. I’m used to him being subdued and reserved when he comes on set and takes a seat. But the last time, there was an added distance — this one socially mandated. Hand sanitizer, elbow bumps.
It’s March 2020, just days before the coasts enact a historic shutdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Masks are not yet ever-present, but the fear of the virus fills the space between us all — the camera operators, the sound mixers, the production assistants, as well as me and Nas. This is the last interview I will conduct for SMOKE: Marijuana + Black America, a documentary for BET that explores cannabis legalization with an eye on criminal justice, professional sports, and industry.
As the film’s director and the crew’s resident non-weedhead, one of the first decisions I made was to ask Nas to come on to the film as a narrator and executive producer. He agreed. So here we are.
“My pops is a musician. He played jazz, he played African, he played everything. You know that life back then, weed was the norm,” he tells me, from at least six feet away. “There were days when I saw him balling out; there were days he was just chilling writing music or listening to music or just watching television. Through it all, whether he was home trying to figure it out or coming home with a pocket full of hundreds, there was weed involved, so I never saw it as a bad thing.”
“It’s great now we can consume in our state, but it’s still not federally recognized, and there is a lot of work to do,” says B-Real of Cypress Hill fame, from his Dr. Greenthumb’s dispensary in Sylmar, California.
Before this interview, we had already journeyed deep into the world of cannabis super (s)heroes: advocates, policy wonks, entrepreneurs, genius growers, and weed enthusiasts. We had crisscrossed the country to speak to people who were deep in the struggle for justice. It was a heady experience that landed me in the center of marijuana growing facilities with people like notorious ’80s drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross — who has a license to sell cannabis in California, thanks to some advocacy work that led to people with criminal records being allowed to work in the industry.
I’d spent time with the Cooper family, whose son/uncle/father/brother Corvain had been locked away due to outdated marijuana laws. We’d aimed our camera, which always feels intrusive, as a 12-year-old girl pleaded for her father to be set free from his life sentence for marijuana-related charges. It’s a heartbreaking ordeal that can’t easily be dismissed by the do-the-crime-do-the-time set, especially when the plant that got her father arrested is sold through dispensaries all around her.
But Americans are ahead of politicians when it comes to decriminalization, and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Corvain Cooper and many others like him will find some relief. Likewise, nearly 70% believe legalization is the right way to go.
However, the complex issues surrounding the business of weed and race are often overlooked. Despite projections that estimate the cannabis industry growing beyond $30 billion by 2025, only 4% of dispensaries are Black-owned.
“It’s great now we can consume in our state, but it’s still not federally recognized, and there is a lot of work to do,” says B-Real of Cypress Hill fame, sitting in Dr. Greenthumb’s, the dispensary he owns in Sylmar, California. “If you’re dealing with hedge fund guys or investment groups or any type of corporate funding, they’re not giving Blacks or Latinos any sort of opportunity there.”
Much of SMOKE deals with the cannabis business and how Black and Brown owners are being sidelined in favor of bigger — and Whiter — companies. I met with Wanda James and her husband Scott Durrah, the first Black marijuana dispensary owners in the country, who set up shop in Colorado way back. But they soon realized that there is ingrained racism in the cannabis industry — they got raided even while their business was squeaky clean. And while companies with big pockets are moving into the legal space, snuffing out any chance for Black people to grow in the industry, James and Durrah are fighting for a fair share for Black and Brown cannabis owners. They are also fighting for the taxes to go to repair the communities that were harmed by marijuana policy. And they’ve got allies in D.C.
Sen. Cory Booker puffs himself up in his old wooden government office chair. He is part fuming mad and part focused warrior. But, as any good New Jerseyan knows, this is Sen. Booker’s default posture when engaging in issues, like marijuana justice, that demand passion. He’s given to theatrics.
And in this case, like always, he descends upon the topic from the high road. “Marijuana may seem like a recreational drug to you, but it’s life or death for millions of Americans,” he tells me during an interview in his Senate office. “I’m sorry, this is not jokes and laughs and getting high and eating brownies. We must end this prohibition. And make sure we do it in a way that makes up for the sins of our past.”
Booker’s words grow heavier each day we move closer to full legalization. When President Donald J. Trump was overthrown in the 2020 election, the country didn’t burn down to the ground like many expected, but it did go up in smoke. Citizens in five states, including my home state of New Jersey, voted to legalize marijuana by ballot measures. These new votes increase the number of legal states (adult and/or medicinal use) to 36, which feels like a cause for celebration.
But before you light one up and hold it to the sky, there’s a lot to consider as we enter this new world of weed freedom. There are still many locked away or lost access to college loans or jobs for marijuana. How do we undo what we’ve done?
Aside from the reforms in criminal justice, we have to also consider where the money will go. As Freeway himself told me, standing amid a sea of his marijuana plants. “This industry is going to be bigger than tobacco and alcohol put together. This industry could be one of the biggest economic transfers of wealth since oil.”
“America has changed to it because America needs the money,” Nas says, after describing how he felt criminalized for partaking. “When it comes to Black people in America, we have to take advantage of what’s happening in the weed business… And they need to free everybody that’s locked up for marijuana today.”