A Black teen stands in a field of white. The sun is high, his brow is slick with sweat and dust. It’s a cotton field. The same field he’s been picking for weeks. He despises the work, but he knows every day in that field is another day closer to freedom.
The year is 1994.
This boy was not a slave in the 1800s. This boy was my brother, and the only thing he was a slave to was a system that chose to police Black and brown children more than their white neighbors.
My brother was a teenager when he was arrested for marijuana possession, and he served 4 years in prison where he was forced to complete free-labor for the state of Texas. For a boy his age, it was a lifetime. But he’s not the only young Black man or woman in America whose run-in with the law was colored by the pigment of their skin. Cannabis use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession and almost 800,000 people are arrested nationwide every year. That’s why cannabis legalization — and doing it the right way — is so important.
When I first opened our cannabis dispensary in Colorado, I didn’t know I would be the first Black woman legally licensed to do so. I didn’t realize my husband would be the first Black man, or that even in 2009 a booming industry would still be devoid of people of color.
All I knew was that seeing the disparity, and knowing how the prohibition had affected my brother, lit a fire in me. That’s when I joined the fight to legalize cannabis and train women and people of color on how to enter the cannabis industry and how to understand this plant. I wanted to give young people like my brother the opportunity to take back the years stolen from them. And what better way than by benefiting from the very thing that had unfairly deprived them of their freedom?
I worked with elected officials from the state legislature to the governor’s mansion and all the way to the White House, and no matter where I went, I realized the biggest obstacle we were facing was people refusing to get real about cannabis.
So let’s get real: It’s far past time we legalize cannabis — and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has the best plan to get it done.
I met with Kirsten for the first time in February and told her my brother’s story in Texas, and mine in Colorado. I told her that cannabis legalization isn’t just a criminal justice issue, but an economic justice issue. That the war on drugs wasn’t just a war on cartels across our border, but a war on American families of color.
Not only did she take the time to listen, she actually heard me. Today, Kirsten is releasing a Cannabis Legalization Plan that goes far and beyond any proposal I’ve seen from a presidential candidate.
Let’s get real: any marijuana legalization plan that addresses criminal justice but fails to address economic justice simply won’t cut it. Kirsten’s agenda was built with economic equity in mind. Her administration will ensure that minority- and women-owned small businesses have access to capital and technical assistance through cannabis-specific programs for small businesses. And she’ll ensure this program’s success by working directly with disparately impacted communities.
Let’s get real: legalizing cannabis won’t immediately help the many Black men and women already behind bars because of racist policing of drug laws. That’s why Kirsten will expunge all records for non-violent cannabis convictions, giving a fresh start to those prosecuted as felons. That fresh start would be life-changing to people like my brother. Felony convictions like his jeopardize the right to vote, travel abroad, receive social or housing benefits, and make it much harder to find jobs and secure financial loans.
And lastly, let’s get really real: Kirsten Gillibrand is a white woman who hasn’t experienced the same type of discrimination as my brother or me. But she’s doing everything she can to understand and to try to make up for the generations of injustice — and she’s a fighter who’s brave enough to lead on the issues where others won’t.
Kirsten Gillibrand is fighting for my family, for my business, for my American Dream. That’s the kind of president I want to get behind.
Wanda James is the CEO and Founder of Simply Pure, a former Naval officer and the first African American legally licensed to open a cannabis dispensary in the state of Colorado.