Justice Reimagined: How Cannabis Has Been Used as Tool for Oppression

July 16, 2020

Over Father’s Day weekend in 2013, Jawara McIntosh, son of reggae musician Peter Tosh and himself a father of four, was arrested for marijuana possession. After making bail later that year, he was given a plea deal of 20 years in prison, but finding it outlandish, proceeded through years of pretrial motions. Over time, he received more favorable offers. Then, despite his devout Rastafari religion, Jawara struck a plea deal in 2017 for a six-month sentence, lest he “be made an example of,” as his sister Niambe McIntosh tells the story.

Jawara lived in the Bergen County, New Jersey, jail for a month and a half in 2017 for the possession charge, his first, before a fellow inmate attacked him, causing him to suffer a traumatic brain injury. Today, he can’t talk or walk, and he needs 24-hour care.

After the attack, the family visited the intensive care unit. When they arrived, Jawara’s face was swollen, tubes were stuck down his throat. He wore, as dictated by the legal system, a brace on his neck and a handcuff on his ankle.

“It was devastating to see that here he is fighting for his life, but treated like an animal, with a handcuff on his ankle,” said Niambe McIntosh, executive director of the Peter Tosh Estate. “And when we asked the hospital about the handcuff and if we could remove this—that’s not helping his medical condition—they told us that the prison had hierarchy over the hospital. And we were also told that we were lucky that we could visit my brother.”

Jawara’s is one of the many stories shared during Marijuana Policy Project’s July 15 virtual live event “Reimagining Justice: Race, Cannabis & Policing,” streamed on Facebook and YouTube and using the hashtag #ReimaginingJustice. The speakers throughout the three-and-a-half-hour event spoke about how politicians made cannabis use illegal through racist motives and policies; how police use the plant as a weapon against Black and brown people; what a better image of justice can look like; and how to reverse harms.

Panel 1: Cannabis Criminalization and Oppressive Policing in Communities of Color

In the event’s first panel, moderated by journalist Roland Martin, The Equity Organization Founder and Executive Director Natalie Papillion spoke about the racism that fueled the criminalization of cannabis. After the early requirement of farmers in various colonies to grow hemp and the end of slavery, cannabis became popular with Black people in the U.S.’s South, including musicians and entertainers like Louis Armstrong.

Papillion noted how one of the foremost opponents of cannabis in the 1930s was Harry Anslinger, who had worked as a prohibition officer. She read his quote, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” and another of his quotes about interracial sexual relations that were meant to upset the white majority.

Screenshot of "Reimagining Justice" on Facebook Live

Soon afterward, the Justice Roundtable Executive Director Nkechi Taifa, spoke about the official “War on Drugs,” beginning in 1971. She shared how Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief between late 1969 and early 1973, John Ehrlichman, admitted that the White House, despite conducting a militarized war in Vietnam, viewed Black people and “the antiwar left” as its two enemies.

Ehrlichman told Harper's Magazine: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Later, during Bill Clinton’s Administration, came the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Taifa said: “That crime bill in 1994 featured the largest expansion of the death penalty in modern times, the gutting of habeas corpus, the evisceration of the exclusionary rule, the cutting out of Pell educational grants, the trying of 13-year-olds as adults, the refusal to address the crack-powder [cocaine] disparity, and more and more money given to more and more states, to lock up more and more people, for longer periods of time.”

Martin and the panelists provided this history to outline how the system of uneven oppression of marijuana crimes and the plant’s stigmatization came into being. Much of what followed in the first panel and the others referenced back to it.

The “Cannabis Criminalization” panel also featured commentary from Neill Franklin, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, who spent 34 years working with the Maryland State Police and Baltimore Police Department. In that time, he oversaw 17 separate drug task forces.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of arrests officers make every year for marijuana possession alone, Franklin pointed out that a disproportionate number of those arrests are of Black people. An American Civil Liberties Union analysis of Federal Bureau of Investigations statistics found that Black people are on average arrested 3.64 times more than white people in situations where the possession offense was the highest charge in a given police interaction.

“Meaningful police reform cannot happen as long as we have marijuana prohibition in this country,” Franklin said. “We have to end it from coast to coast. Most of the searches that we experience today in law enforcement are the result of marijuana. The street-corner searches that police are doing on our citizens, the car stops—it is because of the odor of marijuana that the police are walking up to people, stopping cars, smelling—or saying they smell—marijuana, and then conducting searches.”

No matter the basis for a traffic stop, the Stanford Open Policing Project has found that Black drivers are pulled over at higher rates than white people, as a percentage of an area’s population.

Franklin also noted that a process called civil forfeiture allows police to take “money from people on a daily basis all across this country, not arresting them, not charging them with crimes. The No. 1 tool for doing that … the odor of marijuana gets me into your pockets, it gets me into your cars, it gets me into your homes, to take whatever I think might be tied to the illicit drug trade—selling marijuana or anything else,” said the police veteran. “And I don’t have to explain myself for doing it because it’s a civil process.”

Rev. Jamal Bryant of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., spoke about his belief that people who have a history working in the illicit-cannabis market should be given a chance in the legal industry.

To exemplify this, Bryant, a Baltimore native, spoke of a gun buyback program he hosted four years ago when he was pastor of that city’s Empowerment Temple AME. When people showed up with military-grade weaponry, the police said they had to leave. A line of people with guns was wrapped around the church.

He and his team were about to close the event, then a black Suburban rolled up. When the trunk popped open, the pastor recalled, “there were guns everywhere.” He told him they didn’t have enough money for the weapons and would have to withdraw money from the bank.

“They said to me, ‘Pastor, we don’t need your $100. We want to know—can you get us a job?’” he said. “And I realized that the church had failed because we have really been putting a Band-Aid on an open-heart surgery issue.”

Panel 2: Weaponizing Cannabis to Justify Deadly Encounters and Victim-Blaming

The event’s second panel was moderated by David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. The speakers discussed how the police and broader justice system use cannabis use by victims to justify their killers’ actions, including in the case of police killings, through both legal steps and stigmatization.

“I want to lift up the name of Ashanti Posey, a 17-year-old, Black LGBTQ activist who was shot and killed in April of last year,” Johns said at the beginning of the panel. “And there was a Tennessee lawmaker who blocked what would have been a resolution to honor her life and her work because she was allegedly involved in a low-level marijuana sale prior to being murdered.”

Niambe McIntosh said she and her family’s experience in that hospital in 2017 included bullying by correctional officers. Most other victims in the ICU who are serving time, they were told, weren’t allowed family visits. She said she believes they were able to see Jawara because Peter Tosh was a celebrity.

However, that relative privilege stemmed from the artist’s musicianship and cannabis advocacy that was in part rooted in his oppression. “He really made a point to consume cannabis no matter where he was, onstage, [at] a concert, Germany, in the U.S., in Canada,” McIntosh said of her father, who was murdered in a home invasion in 1987. “And you would think that he was doing it with ease. But the reality is that he was constantly targeted by the police.”

Screenshot of "Reimagining Justice" on Facebook Live

Niambe McIntosh

The police once dragged Tosh out of his home, beating him and breaking his ribs for smoking cannabis, McIntosh said.

And some of the people who incarcerate people for cannabis use use it too, as Tosh sang in his anthem “Legalize It.” He sang, “Doctors smoke it / Nurses smoke it / Judges smoke it / Even lawyer[s], too.”

Another panelist, Jasmine Rand, civil rights activist and attorney to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s families, said that in both these high-profile cases and others of hers, cannabis found in the victims’ bodies was brought up by participants in the criminal justice system as an allegedly relevant point. “That makes the assumption that within our society, you can still weaponize a person’s character simply for their use of cannabis, even when cannabis now is legal in many states and legal in many countries,” she said. These things are also widely reported in the media.

Given this sordid history, the logical step for the media and cannabis industry is to speak loudly about the weaponization of cannabis, especially in this political moment, said panelist Rev. Mark Thompson, host of the “Make it Plain” Podcast.

Related: America’s Reckoning with Racism is ‘More Than a Moment,’ Say Cannabis Industry Members

“We can’t divorce Black Lives Matter and the deaths of people at the hands of the police from the weaponization of cannabis, and then therefore can’t divorce it from legalization,” Thompson said. “So, like I just did right there, we can talk about three things in one sentence.”

Panel 3: Fireside Chat: Reimagining Justice

Steven Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, moderated the third session, featuring Ben Jealous, president and CEO of People for the American Way and who previously held those same titles for the NAACP, and Al Harrington, CEO of Viola Brands and former NBA player.

Black people are always upset about police brutality, Jealous said, but what sparked the recent massive uprisings in part are issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and recession—unemployment, joblessness, housing and healthcare. Also, knowing how easily communicable diseases can spread in prisons, criminal-justice reform needs to happen now. “The urgency for us to keep people out of jail needlessly has never been greater,” Jealous said.

Legalization will de-incentivize violent crime that occurs with gangs who operate in the black market, Jealous said. Despite medical cannabis legalization and relatively easy access in Maryland, where he lives (and where Bryant held his enormous gun buyback program), he said: “That trade has been used to fund sex trafficking and a whole bunch of other things that are far more horrible than cannabis consumption.”

In addition, he gave this perspective on rethinking justice.

“For me, reimagining justice means, at the end of the day, a much smaller criminal code and law enforcement that is there almost exclusively to deal with the most dangerous people in our society—because the flip side is the same communities that are terrorized by overaggressive policing, frankly, are also terrorized by some overaggressive, very violent people who seem to never quite get off of the street as fast as they should. And so, we need to, frankly, stop distracting police officers by making them be the social worker—well, then you can actually restrict them—and focus them on solving unsolved homicides, which are way too high in our communities.”

Harrington, for his part, knew the man whose murder by police has become a rallying cry behind America’s uprisings and pushes for massive societal change. George Floyd was very good friends with Stephen Jackson, another NBA player, who is in turn close with Harrington.

Screenshot of "Reimagining Justice" Facebook Live

Al Harrington

“There were times when I would go to Houston and different things like that, he’d pick us up from the airport, anything we needed while we were in town—he would run and go and get it for us,” Harrington said. “He was an unbelievable human being, and he did not deserve to be executed like that in the middle of the day with all those people watching.”

After recounting his own negative experiences with police, Harrington said: “Over the last, I guess, 6 to 8 years, police officers have been killing Black people on camera. I don’t know how much more evidence you need than a camera showing you what happened. And they still go to work the next day and different things like that.”

While Jackson’s fight is largely in the space of police injustice, Harrington says he has used his position as a former professional athlete and successful cannabis entrepreneur to advocate for economic empowerment in Black communities. “We control $1.7 trillion of money that’s circulated throughout this country, and right now, when a Black dollar comes into the community, it’s gone within 6 hours,” he said.

On that same topic, Harrington said children, for instance, shouldn’t just be given gifts like shoes but need a foundation and a structure to be as powerful as other races.

Panel 4: Reversing Harm Through Legalization, Expungement, Release, Removing Collateral Consequences

The day’s final panel, also moderated by Hawkins, featured guests in the law enforcement, religious and entertainment/cannabis industry spaces: Rachael Rollins, district attorney of Suffolk County, Mass.; actor Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg, who run Houseplant, a cannabis brand that works with Canopy Growth; and Rev. Delman Coates, pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md. (Houseplant sponsored the entire event, along with Pax.)