Can Cannabis Legalization Help Us Get Our 40 Acres and a Mule?

I met Kassandra Frederique two years ago at a Women’s Grow meeting in New York. She sat on a diversity in cannabis panel, and, to be completely honest, her passion reverberated throughout the space–unapologetically.

Leveraging cannabis legalization to serve as a form of reparations? I wanted to know more.

As the New York State Director of the National Drug Policy Alliance, Frederique directs legislative advocacy and movement building respective to marijuana legalization and other criminal justice issues that stem at the intersection of the Drug War and state violence. This includes all issues surrounding the opioid overdose crisis in New York that mirrors much of what’s happening across the country.

Frederique and I sat down to talk about her thoughts on how communities can use cannabis legalization to better conditions. Once again, education remains at the forefront.

What resulted was the need to have more conversations about contextualizing the Drug War to push a change in mindset, how and why communities of color may choose to participate in this industry, and the ever important need to get involved in an issue that continues to challenge black and brown faces today.

Interestingly enough, Frederique’s foray into drug policy and marijuana legalization was not intentional, but by chance.

I was studying to be a social worker and part of the social work curriculum was to have a placement. In my second year, I was placed at the Drug Policy Alliance,” she states.

“I got into marijuana reform through police reform work in New York, which focused a lot on stop and frisk with NYPD. We used the marijuana arrests conversation to set up a platform to get into conversations about wider policing.”

At the time, New York served as the marijuana arrest capital of the world. Frederique ran the daily operations for the NY statewide campaign to end racially biased marijuana arrests—which resulted in the number of marijuana arrests being cut in half.

Still, to Frederique, legalization left out large portions of the communities that she works with and on behalf of.

“It was one of those things where, with legalization, you have a choice–work on legalization or not. It literally is one of the best ways for us to have a larger conversation about the ways law enforcement interacts with communities of color.”

As we continue to talk, the idea of facilitating these larger conversations becomes a central theme.  One way Frederique and the National Drug Policy Alliance creates opportunities for these conversations is via the campaign for reparative justice.

With the campaign for reparative justice–it’s really just a recognition of where the country is in talking about how drugs impact people’s lives; and the drug policy and governmental response that’s rooted in evidence-based bias. I think a lot of that comes from how we’re dealing with the heroin and opioid crisis.”

Recently, the Drug Policy Alliance released a report, endorsed by over 30 organizations, that lays out a roadmap for how U.S. jurisdictions can move toward decriminalizing drug use.

Still, the lag in these conversations are evident.

“It can be incredibly frustrating and hurtful for communities. I’m talking about communities that have been devastated by state violence and drug war laws–who were not offered treatment, who were only offered arrests, swat teams and incarceration,” says Frederique.

“So when we come to a conversation around the campaign for reparative justice, we’re simply saying ‘It is what it is that everyone is having this conversation, it is what it is that it took a change in complexion for us to get to this place, but it is not enough to just acknowledge that that has happened. We need to have a conversation to address what has occurred and how can we reinvest in the deception that lays in its wake,” she continued.


Reinvestment in Communities

Of course, the immediate follow-up question is how?

How do we reinvest in communities that have been massively affected by drug policies?

How do we include those who have records from a plant that is now legal?

“You have places like Oakland, Boston, and Maryland that are having these larger conversations about how to make sure that people of color are in the industry, about how people of color are not barred from entering. That’s all connected to making sure that we can reinvest and repair the communities that have been affected by marijuana prohibition,” states Frederique.

Last month, members of the D.C. Council passed legislation to give local minority-owned companies a preference when applying for licenses to operate medical marijuana businesses.

With adult use now legal in California, lawmakers and advocates in Los Angeles are demanding equity in access to opportunities.

Oakland sets aside half of its available permits for those arrested for drug crimes or those who come from neighborhoods with many drug arrests.

So, I have to ask—how does this play into the idea of reparations, to obtain that 40 acres and a mule?

“You know, I think that conversation is still developing. If there are people uninterested in being involved with cannabis, but very much interested in the reinvestment in their communities, then the focus of that conversation is–where should marijuana reparations go?,” says Frederique.

“Does it go to building more after school programs? Supporting re-entry programs? Does it go to the local senior center? Creating more parks? Does it go to fixing our bus system which has cut us off from the city?,” she probes.

“Let’s have conversations about where each community has been decimated and figure out the investments that would be best for them. You don’t have to be in the marijuana industry to have a stake in where that marijuana resolute gets invested.

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(Image: Cathy Yeulet)

I don’t know if this would lead to everyone getting their 40 acres and a mule, but it could get them an afterschool program. It could get them the church roof.”

Considering how much incarceration and over-criminalization has led to establishments not investing in our communities, could cannabis eventually serve as a viable mechanism for community investment?

Making the System Work for Communities

The truth of the matter—there are individuals who are better positioned to enter the cannabis market based on the continued criminalization of communities of color, based on access to the right networks, based on access to capital. How do community members mitigate those real effects?

“I recently had a conversation with a black man last week, and he said, ‘You know when you’re talking about this kind of work, you’re trying to fight against capitalism.’ I replied, ‘No, it’s moreso trying to make capitalism work for me because that’s what everyone else does.’

We just haven’t figured out how to make capitalism work for us in a better way that’s more respective to us. We must not pretend that these responsive programs have not already existed and there’s no historic precedent. For instance, the G.I. Bill was about making capitalism work better for veterans and their dependents. We’ve done this before,” says Frederique.

The Re-education of the People

We know that education provides the groundwork for a shift in mindset. The images and narratives surrounding the war on drugs, and communities of color’s role in incarceration, impedes people from asking questions.

There has been a brainwashing that happened to us and by us.

The concept of respectability politics– that you pull up your pants, don’t smoke weed, that you go to school—will keep us safe. But if there is anything that I’ve learned in the last five years is that you can do everything from walking home from getting Skittles and iced tea to knocking on someone’s door asking for help, to playing music in your car, and still not be protected.

There is this idea that in order to stay out of trouble, we shouldn’t be a part of the cannabis legalization movement, that we should not be a part of ending the war on drugs. There’s a consciousness shift that needs to happen.

This shift has the potential to yield opportunities from building community to generational wealth.

“No one talks about how the war on drugs really impeded communities from building wealth. To be in a position to go to business school, so certain hedge funds employ you. No one’s talking about the fact that most of the people that are in the space are exceptions and not rules,” Frederique states.

“We can have conversations around personal responsibility as long as we’re having conversations around systemic accountability. We can’t have those conversations separate, they can happen at the same time.”

History as a Way to Shift Mindsets

So, what’s the next step? How do we create that shift and cultivate education in communities of color, I ask?

“The hard thing for us is that people know people who used or struggled with drugs, so they use that singular interaction as a basis for how they think about it. And with that, I often point to alcohol– we know people that drink and we know alcoholics.

Make the distinction between someone who’s in control of their use and someone who is not,” adds Frederique.

“I mainly focus on history. These laws weren’t put in place because of science, they were put in place because of who they could criminalize.

I often start off with what made a drug law come into being and what groups of people were affected by said law. Often times, that has opened up a space for conversation.”

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