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“They’ll Come Back with Their Cousins and Guns”: Racism in America’s Cannabis History and Why it Matters Today

By Duck Fritts
“They’ll Come Back with Their Cousins and Guns”: Racism in America’s Cannabis History and Why it Matters Today
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Anybody who tells you serious progress against racism is being made in this country hasn’t sold drugs or gone to jail.

That’s a fact, a simple and grotesque one. Just like the stark reality that powerful interests have been exerting influence for centuries to keep it this way, both for profit and retention of control.

The consumption of Cannabis in America has long been tied into a greater spiritual and cultural awakening. The cultivation and sale of it, however, has followed a much darker path. One often mired by innate fear, violence and racism spanning the gamut from casual to deeply sophisticated and hierarchal.

The drug war has taught us many lessons and we as a nation have built some core values out of this struggle that are priceless and deserve to be brought forward: hearty self-reliance, ingenuity, creativity, the right to determine for one’s own self what to ingest and how to think. Rarely in our short national history have we been handed a situation forcing us to be more quintessentially American.

That said, it hasn’t been a perfectly clean fight. We’ve suffered some bad scars, PTSD, and a deep-seated sense of paranoia. The criminality of this universally healing herb has in many key ways left our affairs surrounding it fractured and divided and decidedly less than unified.

The advent of legalization has opened some powerful social doors, to be sure. All the while new barriers to entry are being fabricated daily, by corporations and banks and soulless businessmen who have no history in this thing, and these entities are often almost entirely unchecked in their influence on state and local governments and their ability to carve their own majority from the fresh-baked pie.

And we can’t avoid the facts. Just as it’s true for the poor and the dispossessed and the traumatized military veterans and the proud free thinkers of this country, the war on drugs has been a direct and open war fought on the grounds of skin color. For generations now a large portion of America, who has fought just as hard and knowingly faced the same (if not considerably greater) risk factors, have suffered unduly and unevenly for their devotion and acts of necessity. And today many of these same communities are being left in a position where they’re being shut out right when the chips are getting cashed.

This is fucked and we all know it.

We’ve handed ourselves a truly once-in-a-generation choice with legalization. On one hand, we can passively enjoy it, allowing large interests to essentially determine the path forward, perpetuating and legitimizing and greatly deepening an unfair status quo into further bylaws and patterns of business practice. On the other, we can exemplify what’s right and worthy about this struggle and stand together to kick ass and right wrongs and take some goddamned names on the way.

Freedom by no means ends with legalization. If we’re to make any progress moving forward past prohibition, it’s time for a stark and honest reckoning of how we got here. It’s time to take stock of the traps we’ve fallen into along the way and ensure a future more closely in line with the values of fairness and decency we espouse. It’s for these reasons I’m writing and if you’ve already read this far I’m eternally grateful. Here’s to healing and decency and everything else Cannabis has taught us.

***

Some number of years ago, being short on coin and needing a quick pile of cash and a break from the doldrums of the day job and the perpetual naggings of a good and wholesome wife, I followed the wild tales of a dear friend from my home along upstate New York’s Canadian border to the backwoods of Tahoe for a few weeks of work. Some mutual friends had established a successful grow and October was now upon us; the time was nigh to chop ‘em down and process roughly 500 finished pounds of gorgeous outdoor that I’ll never forget. Between several gallons of wine, a gram of heirloom Swiss Blue LSD, more than one cougar encounter, the acquisition of literally every coathanger available for legal purchase between Reno and Grass Valley: the deed was eventually done. It’s its own universe of a tale and I’ll leave the meaty bits for another time.

There’s always the constant flux of trimmers coming and going between one grow and the rest in an area. This field of work is much more fluid than I think a lot of people realize: one grow will harvest, another one will get raided, another one will decide it doesn’t owe anybody any money and the employees get marched off the property at gunpoint. Phone calls get made, loose networks of contacts are engaged and it’s off to the next job.

The tangled web of buyers, smugglers and middlemen is its own machine. Relationships are built over time, an approximate market price is generally established season by season based on a variety of factors. If you’re a grower who ships your weight to the Midwest rather than sell locally you can expect to command a higher price but also an insane level of risk. The odds and ends are innumerate, and again I’ll leave these for another time.

There’s one constant I found throughout all but the largest grows, where both the product and employees are under the constant supervision of sunglassed men with machine guns.

It is understood in this community that you don’t hire black or latino workers, nor go through anyone but white buyers. The reason?

Flatly stated, never questioned.

“They’ll come back with their cousins and guns.”

***

Let’s take a couple of paragraphs to address this widespread xenophobia and its place in the black market. This is a much broader and deeper subject than I’m going to be able to hold your attention for right now but I’ll provide some broad strokes, as I see them, in an effort to start a larger conversation.

First of all, we humans have a streak of tribalism that’s fully beneath our potential as a species and outdated by several millennia. We need to get past that shit immediately. So far as I’m concerned you can either accept that simple fact or go fuck yourself.

From Harry Anslinger’s days on down, the story of Cannabis in this country has carried a racist narrative. This is true for public perceptions cemented in media and government propaganda campaigns as well as prosecutions and arrests and enforcement by neighborhood and color. We’re trained to think about it along these terms, even if we’re not consciously aware of it. Similarly, the system by which the vast majority of prime farmland is not privately held by minorities is by design; this holds just as much truth for corn and soy as it does for Cannabis.

For generations now the non-white populace of this country has been forcibly and intentionally urbanized and dispossessed, both of land ownership and community strength. The jobs and opportunities presented to these quarantined communities are less glamorous and more dangerous, and this absolutely holds true for the black market experience.

I remember, vividly, when the first reports started coming in of Mexican drug gangs operating clandestine grows in the national forests of northern California. I remember the panicked NPR pieces, the somber tone of law enforcement officials grappling with this new and “foreign” challenge.

One of the things that struck me hardest about this was the realization that if a group of latinos, regardless of their ties to organized crime, had attempted to legally purchase property on the hill and gone through all the hoops of the California medical grow system they’d at best be treated with fear and much more likely been run off. There was truly no other option to determine their own place in the outdoor market but to partner up with violent criminals and wage guerilla war.

This system of repression and segregation is, of course, exacerbated and codified by the prison system. On this I’m hoping you’re at least glancingly familiar, if not there’s plenty of resources, not to mention millions of people who’ve been there that you can just ask.

***

In the end, I didn’t end up working permanently with my group of friends in NorCal. One of them was murdered, along with two other business partners, over an 80-pound deal shortly afterward. The murderer was a middle-aged white man hired as a mule to Colorado, not that that’s significant. The point is that in the black market, despite all the preconceptions that exist there, there’s truly no difference: in the end, it was greed and greed alone that killed them. Nothing else. Realistically this is almost always the real motive.

I entered the rec market in Oregon with high hopes and a fresh outlook. I’d stood up to guns, dodged helicopters, talked to state cops with 100 sheets of LSD in the trunk and on and on for years and I was ready to be part of a better way forward. In short, I was ready to fully join society and keep fighting for what’s right and fair.

It was a couple of years back, right in the big pinch of the “7 year surplus” of Cannabis on the Oregon market. Producer licenses were initially issued without any kind of checks or balances because the short term tax revenue was exciting to state and local officials who didn’t care to look too deeply into crafting a responsible market. Prices dropped from $2,400 per pound or so to less than $1,000. People who had spent their entire lives in the black market had put everything on the line to be legitimate and a combination of the state’s incompetence and ignorance were decimating everybody involved. Businesses were dropping off the map every day, selling for less than the cost of production to limp away with at least some of their failed mortgage.

I got a call one day, from a new dispensary in Portland. They were just getting rolling, proudly black-owned, looking to make a big splash for their grand opening. They had a request.

“We’re looking for below your standard pricing initially, hoping that you’ll consider some equity with us, as we’re a black-owned business.”

In the spirit of honesty: my first reaction was I bristled. I immediately felt bad about that reaction but it’s what I felt. I politely said I’d look into it.

I came into legalization with a big focus on treating everybody equally, something I’d honestly never seen done in the black market. I still believe in that ideal. We’re dealing with a chance few time periods have been given to equalize our society and its socioeconomic opportunity with this plant as it enters full acceptance in the legitimate marketplace. Everybody could finally get the same shot.

But, now here we were in this desperate and shitty financial situation, everybody’s back was up against a wall. We were struggling to keep our power on and keep pumping out all the stickers and vendor day appearances and all the other dumb shit that has absolutely zero to do with quality but nevertheless makes or breaks a brand. And we had a request that would have left us at best breaking even. Wasn’t it enough that I was treating everybody equally, offering the same rates, the same service? Wasn’t that justice? Isn’t that why legalization happened? Wasn’t that what I was working for?

I thought about it… for way too long. The moment passed. I did nothing. I’ve never felt okay about that.

Several months passed. I was in a neighborhood maybe 10 blocks from their location, riding my bike one night. I came up on the first house in Portland I ever lived in, 15 years ago. I thought back to the morning the man from the gas company came in to turn on our propane.

“It’s good to see this neighborhood being built back up,” he had said. “Wasn’t very nice until recently, what with all the coloreds.”

…I fucking stood outside that house for a long time, realizing lots of things I wish I had admitted to myself a lot sooner. Rarely have I felt like such a dumbass.

Portland’s history regarding race is pretty goddamn bleak. It wasn’t until embarrassingly recently that black families were allowed to live or even be out after dark in most of the parts of town that have anything a shade over a blue-collar economy. It’s also ground zero for American gentrification: many of the neighborhoods along its northern boundary, traditional enclaves of the black community here, have either been gentrified or simply taxed out of existence. A lot of the reputation we get as a city for being reactionary die-hard liberals is in fact entirely necessary: we have some serious challenges to react against and build a better future in place of.

The grow I was working for had enjoyed the luxury of decades of effectively being investigated, prosecuted and fined differently than if they had grown up black in this neighborhood. That’s a stone-cold fact. This had enabled them to have a much cleaner shot at opening their doors in the first place.

I wish I had treated that new small business differently. It’d be a drop in the bucket, but it would have been a drop in the right bucket. If we’re going to do this, as a nation: THIS is why we should do this.

We ALL need to be having this conversation, with ourselves and with each other. Whether you’re working in the industry or just enjoying the fruits of its labor, we have a choice to make and the clock is ticking.

Anyhow, that’s what I came to say. I hope you’ll consider it, I hope you’ll broaden the conversation with whatever you’ve got to add; at the end of the day what we do with our freedom shouldn’t be any one person’s decision, certainly not mine alone.

I’ll say it again: freedom doesn’t end with legalization. It’s up to the citizenry of this movement to decide its course. I pray we choose the right one.

Here’s to all of us.

-Duck.


ABOUT GUEST AUTHOR

Duck Brillo Fritts is the delusional fever dream of an algorithmic intelligence yearning to burst forth from the long metal tubes of the interweb and breathe free like a real boy. Duck is definitely not in any way associated with @dick.fitts on Instagram, who incidentally also writes occasionally for Beard Bros but (let’s face it) is way too much of a pansy-ass to knuckle down and say what he’d really like to regarding behind-the-scenes weed shit. Please leave that guy be. He’s probably doing something totally rational that doesn’t involve DMT or Melissa Ethridge right now. Read more Duck HERE

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