Cannabis prohibition is slowly fading away. As more regions pass legalization measures across the globe, new markets for cannabis open up, creating a world of opportunities—from expansive dispensaries and luxury CBD lines, to glamorous resort getaways and more —to get rich from. According to a recent report by BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research, people spent $12.2 billion on legal cannabis in 2018. Next year, it’s expected to spend $16.9 billion. However, the industry—just like Wall Street—remains overwhelmingly run by the white and disproportionately wealthy; approximately one percent of dispensaries in the United States are Black-owned, reports Buzzfeed News.
Meanwhile, the War on Drugs isn’t over. Black and Brown communities make up the vast majority of cannabis-related arrests in the US, even now in places where cannabis is supposedly legal. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Black and Latinx people represent nearly half of drug violations, despite being less than a third of the U.S. population and studies showing very similar rates of marijuana use amongst Black and white people. It’s undeniable that Black and Brown people have a huge stake in creating a culture around cannabis, even as it became increasingly more taboo. The climate of what makes weed cool dates back to the plant’s prominence in underground social scenes, long before the countercultural hippie wave of the sixties.
Artist and hip-hop pioneer, Fab 5 Freddy, is educating us on the blatant injustices happening in real time—in a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, despite currently being at an all-time low—as the “big money capitalists,” he said, cash in. Marijuana used as a tool for racialized violence against Black and brown communities goes back decades.
His new documentary, Grass Is Greener, out now on Netflix, tells the story of cannabis through music, particularly jazz, reggae, rap, and hip-hop. Fab is quick to reveal the reality for Black and Brown communities affected by the race gap in marijuana arrests, and how even prominent musicians like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday were targeted under racist drug policies.
“The life I’ve lived lead up to this moment of making this film,” Fab 5 Freddy told VICE in a phone interview. “It just all fell into place so perfectly.”
The hip-hop legend, whose name originates from his involvement in the Brooklyn graffiti group, Fabulous 5, is widely known for transforming mundane New York City subway cars into vibrant pieces of art. He once painted a subway train with Warhol-esque Campbell’s Soup cans, and in 1983, Blondie’s music video for “Rapture,” considered the first rap video to be aired on MTV, featured his art and Debbie Harry’s smoky voice giving a callout: Fab 5 Freddie told me everybody’s high. Late in 1988, Fab began a stint hosting the groundbreaking music program, Yo! MTV Raps, where he interviewed and featured upcoming hip-hop artists of the day, including The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J.
Using his close cultural connection to the hip-hop scene, the film includes interviews with musicians and veteran smokers, like Snoop Dogg, Damian Marley, Charlie Gabriel, Killer Mike, Cypress Hill’s B-Real, Kermit Ruffins, and others. The crew also recruited authors, policy experts, entrepreneurs, and other advocates, including writer and former Senior Director of the Drug Policy Alliance asha bandele.
By calling in cultural figures and scholars, we learn in the doc of the xenophobic history dating back a hundred years, which made “marijuana” a dirty word associated with Mexican immigrants and soon later, Black men under the false pretense they were a threat to white women. Mass media played into this racist myth, that white women were at risk of sexual violence from Black and Brown men while under the influence of weed, to influence public opinion. Throughout the 20s, the prohibitionist propaganda campaign, a la Reefer Madness, was successful in winning public trust. So when the government began implementing policies criminalizing cannabis, enough of the public was already in favor of more policing and reduce so-called “criminals” (which we know historically from data, have been Black and Brown people) from consuming weed in their communities.
“These politicians, like asha bandele says, can no longer write race into the law, so they wrote drugs in the law specifically to attack and harass and criminalize,” Fab stressed.
But many musicians of this era called bullshit and directly referenced cannabis in their songs. Their lyrics raved about the drug’s ability to soothe the soul through euphemisms, referring to cannabis as jive, reefer, or tea, in tunes like “All the Jive Is Gone” by Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy Orchestra, “Reefer Man” by Cab Calloway, and “Save the Roach for Me” by Buck Washington. These “reefer songs” were prominent in the underground nightclub scene in New Orleans, Louisiana, the birthplace of jazz, ”at a time when only the hippest cats knew where to find some good reefer,” Fab narrates.
The jazz era began a tradition still in practice today, of artists using music (across different genres) to raise awareness around the truth behind cannabis. Although Fab admitted he’d wanted to dive deeper into the genre’s history if the film were longer, reggae music in Jamaica revealed a contradiction. “It’s commonly known cannabis and Jamaica are synonymous, but why isn’t it criminalized?” He told VICE. “What’s the reason? And you realize they followed American law.” In other words, it’s American influence abroad that lead to other countries implementing racist drug policy—a truth that Damien Marley emphasized his father and many other reggae artists aimed to expose in their prose. Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It,” for instance, discussed the medicinal attributes of the plant: “It’s good for the flu / Good for asthma / Good for tuberculosis / Even umara composis.”
Of course, there are everyday people impacted by drug policing, that don’t have the platforms prominent musicians and artists do. Grass Is Greener accomplished something powerful, that unfortunately isn’t seen enough in cannabis media; it amplifies the stories of people like Bernard Noble, who was born and raised in New Orleans. In 2010, Noble left his car with his father (who installed sound systems for work) to have a new radio installed in his truck. Minutes after hopping on a bike to continue his day, Noble was stopped and frisked by a cop. At the time, he possessed a minuscule amount of cannabis, which escalated into a 13-year mandatory minimum sentence. During production, Noble had been eligible for release on parole. Fab was able to capture Noble’s homecoming, after serving seven years in prison. The intimate moment, where Noble is finally reunited with his family, puts a human face on the impact racialized arrests for marijuana use have on Black and brown lives.
“It’s hard to describe that feeling of seeing someone come out of the gates in the middle of the night with his family there, it was just… wow,” he explained. “[He’s] one of too many people who have gone through what he’s going through. As he walked out, and says in the film, there’s other people in there doing life for small amounts of marijuana.”
The film transitions away from music to discuss the state of weed today. Jesse Horton, co-founder of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, advocated for more inclusion of Black folks in the industry, even those who have been convicted of cannabis charges. Whether they were involved with the underground market or not, returning citizens are often barred from entering the cannabis industry. Additionally, Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director of the DPA, named reparations as critical for moving forward with legalization efforts. For so long, cannabis culture was built, developed, and shaped by Black and Brown people—something shown in Fab’s oral history of the relationship between music and weed in the past century. Yet continually Black and Brown people are barred and disenfranchised in the industry. While Snoop is often attributed to being a major player in the cannabis industry, with his venture capital firm securing $45 million in investor funding at its debut, there are very faces like him working across the industry.
“Reparations, if you want to call it that, or some type of restitution, for those most victimized must be dealt with,” said Fab. “Those records need to be expunged and people need to have a chance to sit at the table and join this party.”
The film is intended to spark conversations about what has yet to come. “Talk about it,” he emphasized. “Tell your friends. Look at these issues that a lot of people don’t know about is all I can say, because I was blown away traveling to all of these different places and getting these different stories.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Danielle Corcione on Twitter.