This article by Ben Hartman was originally published on The Cannigma, and appears here with permission.
There is a segment early in the new documentary, “Smoke: Marijuana + Black America,” which is a combination of heartbreaking, infuriating, and painfully ironic.
The film, which looks at the history of marijuana and the African-American community, and how the war on Drugs and now legalization are affecting communities of color, turns the focus on the story of Corvain Cooper, an Inglewood, California father of two who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for his role in a marijuana trafficking operation.
Executive producer and narrator Nasir “Nas” Jones. (Courtesy)
At the time of his arrest he was an up-and-coming clothing designer who had opened a boutique shop in his neighborhood of Los Angeles, with a mural of his two daughters painted across the exterior of the building. Fast forward a few years, and Cooper is in federal prison in Louisiana, his family cannot afford to visit him, and the boutique he opened was briefly converted into a legal cannabis dispensary.
Cooper’s story is a microcosm of the sorts of problems covered by the documentary: people from disadvantaged communities of color who have been disproportionately targeted by the War on Drugs, are left on the sidelines — or behind bars — while a massive legal cannabis industry takes flight, led by investors and executives who were never on the wrong side of America’s criminal justice system.
The film, produced by Atlanta-based Swirl Films, premiered on BET on Wednesday night. The documentary is ambitious and sweeping in its scope, looking at marijuana in America from its origins in jazz music and the counterculture, through the War on Drugs, up to today’s era of legalization and “restorative justice.” It looks at marijuana through the lens of African-Americans not only in terms of the criminal justice system but also culture, music, and sports, and how all of them relate to cannabis.
“That’s the direction of the film that we took — it’s not just criminal justice. It affects the Black and brown communities differently in every aspect. And when we start to open people’s minds and eyes to that, then they can start to say, well, you know, now we have to make meaningful change in policy and law and reform as we move forward to legalization,” director Erik Parker told Cannigma this week.
Director Erik Parker (Courtesy)
Discrimination against Black athletes
One of the interesting ways the film shows this racial disparity in cannabis is by looking at the four major sports leagues and how they have treated cannabis use among players. The two whitest leagues — the NHL and MLB — have long been more tolerant towards cannabis than …