Could Cannabis be a Catalyst for Change? Opal Tometi of Black Lives Matter on Equity in the Industry

Written by Danielle Guercio
Photography by Denzel Thompson

It’s the hot-as-hell sunlight that bakes the mountainside, along with its distinctly cold absence after it sets behind the ridges of Mendocino County, CA that makes this corner of the world so accommodating to the cultivation of cannabis and wine grapes.

These two aromatic plants snake up hillsides all through the region, but further down the supply chain, they bring with them the very sunlight that sustained them.

This abundance of sun has brought people to cultivate California’s bucolic landscapes for decades, and it’s where you can find the Flow Cannabis Institute (FCI), Flow Kana’s research campus. The 80-acre site is a former winery turned cannabis packaging and distribution facility, and tourism destination.

The FCI is positioned to triangulate smaller craft farmers, and provide them with the resources needed to see their flower reach dispensaries all over the state.

With a mission of maintaining farmer integrity, Flow Kana has bitten off a huge responsibility—and the whole country is watching to see if this model is viable.

As such, the FCI campus provided an appropriate platform for the first Cannabis as a Catalyst for Change event.

The gathering brought together almost every facet of the sustainability conversation, from human rights activists to biodynamic farming experts. Discussions were deliberately set-up to empower attendees, giving them valuable tools to carry with them to their individual cannabis communities.

Most striking were the words of Opal Tometi, co-founder of the Sydney Peace Prize winning activist network, Black Lives Matter. Work in human rights can often be overlooked in the cannabis space, with philanthropy and lip service taking the place of the type of direct action that Tometi and others advocate for.

It’s not hard to see why cannabis legalization is an imperative when you take its fallout into full account. At the conference, Tometi was crystal clear to the mostly-white audience of entrenched cannabis pros.

“The difference in the rate and the use of weed between white and Black people and other people of color really, in this country, is negligible,” Tometi added. “Yet the difference in the rate of arrests, prosecutions and convictions is enormous.”

The Drug Policy Alliance reports that in the U.S., the “The percentage of people arrested for drug law violations who are Black or Latino [is] 46.9% (despite making up just 31.5% of the U.S. population).” —Drug Policy Alliance

This disparity has a watershed effect, Tometi told conference-goers, “It’s hard for communities of color to access the same types of job opportunities in this industry. Oftentimes because of their criminal record, they’re not able to access these job opportunities,” she continued. “They’re not able to access job programs. They aren’t able to engage in the same economy that led them to be behind bars.“

This is a stark reality for so many Americans, and it comes with emotional pain, economic stress, and worse, “Young people, are being raised without their family members. Families are having to pay exorbitant fees to make sure that their loved ones can call them, right? There are all sorts of ways in which this incarceration, or this hyper-incarceration of people of color is impacting our lives,” Tometi said.

We caught up with Tometi to discuss her speech, and what the next year of cannabis could look like.

“Sharing [at] the Cannabis as a Catalyst for Change gathering felt like a responsibility to me,” Tometi tells The Emerald. “We have a group of thoughtful and caring business leaders attempting to navigate emerging terrain and it was my hope that I could influence them to engage in more just practices.“

Using their privilege and platform is the only way to move away from what Tometi describes as, “the usual reckless, exploitative business models,” and instead, “implement practices, protocols and agreements to set everyone up for success.”

Now is the time to make these changes, she says. “In 2020, I would like to see equity be the norm. Not a sideline conversation but a thread in every discussion. Equity cannot be a one-off thing. It deserves to be the distinguishing factor of the cannabis industry.”

This process has been slow going; existing social equity programs have barely moved the needle; and too many advocates are giving valuable advice that needs to be heeded.

“I would love for companies to take their cues from brilliant minds such as Willie Mack, Mary Pryor, Karim Webb and others who are thought leaders and doers,” Tometi notes. “Lastly, I believe that every major cannabis brand should be real partners in leading the charge against decriminalization and should champion policy change that will be of benefit to all.”

Tometi’s perspective is of vital importance; a healthy, robust, cannabis industry could provide much-needed economic infusion to those who’ve been not just passed over, but brutally taxed for ‘legacy’ operations by lopsided enforcement.

We cannot continue to pave over the injustice that metastasized during prohibition.

Sustainability without the shoring up of our human communities is a fruitless approach, we can’t steward the earth without lifting up all humans. Biodynamic farms are important to cannabis’ future, but not as important as everyone who has contributed to its preservation through an 80-year storm.

Emerald contributor since March 2012

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