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“Smoke: Marijuana and Black America,” a two-hour documentary with appearances made by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and legendary rapper, Nas, premiered on BET on Wednesday.
It takes an in-depth look at the war on drugs and how marijuana legalization affects Black Americans. More specifically, it speaks about restorative justice and how Black and brown folks are left out of the conversation when it comes to the legal cannabis industry.
Less than one percent of marijuana licenses in states that have legalized cannabis use go to African-Americans and Latinos, according to the film. It reflects on existing barriers to entry for minority business owners and people looking to get into the business.
The feature was directed and executive produced by Bloomfield resident, and South Jersey native, Erik Parker. And comes on the heels of marijuana legalization in the Garden State.”There are all these issues that a lot of people are not being considered by most people on the sidelines,” Parker told us Thursday.
“A lot of people don’t see all the nuances, the issues that surround this that will affect whole communities, in particular black and brown people in America.” Parker said. “That’s what inspired me.”
“Smoke” explores how African-Americans have been disproportionately reprimanded for marijuana-related offenses, even as states continue to legalize recreational use. In New Jersey, this has been a sticking point for social and racial justice advocates. On average, police here arrest Black people 3.5 times more often than white people, according to the ACLU. Black and brown leaders have called on the state to institute a tax on licensed cannabis growers so that it can help repair the damages done to those most affected by the war on drugs.
In the film, Parker shows this dynamic with the case of Corvain Cooper, a Black man from California who was sentenced to life in prison for federal marijuana charges. His family is hoping he will receive clemency, now that the drug is legal in many places.
”(‘Smoke’) is also an emotional story. You know, there’s a lot of retelling through the eyes of people, you know, we tell the story through the eyes of people, and how they were affected,” Parker said.
Booker, an advocate for expunging the records of folks with marijuana-related offenses, makes several appearances in the film.
“You have people trying to feed their family, who can’t get a job because they’re checking a box, for having a conviction for doing things that two of the last three Presidents admitted to doing,” Booker said in one cameo.”This is about legalizing it but it’s more than about that. It’s also about restorative justice.”
Parker, spoke about having Booker on board for the project. “I’m actually happy that my representative of my state is one of the people who is in government, who is (advocating for people),” Parker said. “Most of the people in the country are ahead of a politician when it comes to legalizing or the way that they view marijuana. But in our state, you have senators like Cory Booker, who are leading in this topic, leading on this subject, and it is very much focused on on providing social equity.”
Booker, a former U.S. Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, pushed now President-elect Joe Biden on his moderate stance on legalization during debate season, which the documentary highlights. Biden supports federal decriminalization but stopped short of endorsing legalization, citing the need for more research, according to the film.
“I was just a little surprised that in 2020 a Democratic presidential nominee would be against the legalization of marijuana,” Booker said.
Vice President-elect Harris, the first Black woman and person of Indian descent to be elected to the role, also added her thoughts on the issue in the documentary.
“The war on drugs incarcerated people I grew up with,” Harris said.
In our interview, Parker speculated about what legalization policy enacted in New Jersey can and should look like.
“I think we should look at how it happened in others states. And we should build and improve upon that, because it’s still an ongoing experiment,. We don’t know how this all unfolds,” Parker said. “Any of the policy that we create, that causes harm is going to be really difficult to undo, so it’s best we try to get it right the first time. So I think we need to hold our politicians and our legislators accountable.”
“Smoke: Marijuana and Black America” is available to stream on BET on demand.
A version of this story first appeared in NJ Cannabis Insider.
Tennyson Donyèa may be reached at email@example.com.
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