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Cannabis at the intersection of immigration and the war on drugs

By Hector “Freedom Love” Gerardo EVERCANNABIS Correspondent

Growing up in the Dominican Republic in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was always made clear that marijuana consumption would make you a “tecato,” meaning a person with no future who will never amount to anything.

When I was 11, my uncle came back to live with us from the United States. When I inquired about what happened, all my mother could respond was that my uncle was a “tecato.” A few years later another uncle would be deported as well.

Fast forward 26 years, I am a public cannabis advocate and medicinal cannabis user. On the heels of the devastating pandemic, federal cannabis legalization is imminent and being painted by many advocates as a silver bullet to save our dwindling economy.

My uncle was directly impacted by President Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. My second uncle was also caught in the middle of the 1994 Crime Bill, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, and the 1996 Anti-terrorism & Effective Death Penalty Act.

The Crime Bill is seen as the entity that gave life to mass incarceration of Black bodies in the U.S. The political attitude of being “tough on crime,” including strong anti-immigrant sentiment – similar to what we are experiencing now – grew alongside Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” narrative in the 1980s that denigrated Black single mothers.

The 1996 Immigration Reform Act poured millions of dollars into the Immigration and Naturalization Service, increased Border Patrol Agents by 45 percent and created the narrative of the “good” and “bad” immigrant. The 1996 Anti-terrorism Act made a broad number of drug offenses “aggravated felonies.”

Clinton was reactive in the bills he championed – most of which further vilified Black and Brown people in this country, and created a sharp shift in the way the country viewed and treated them. What was missing from the analysis of Clinton’s laws was a racial justice analysis and a deep dive into the impact of these laws.

My uncle was incarcerated for six months for selling marijuana before being deported in 1994.

My other uncle, deported in 2003, drove a friend to purchase some weed. His friend bought it from an undercover cop and my uncle was named an accessory and deported after being incarcerated for three years.

Both of them had families in the U.S., both were working-class people. It is so easy to say that one uncle was “better” than the other based on their line of work, and then fall into the problematic stigmas of “good” or “bad” immigrants and which one is more deserving.

If we were to change this story and fast forward the timeline to today, maybe one uncle would have been working at one of the many legal cannabis farms or retailers across the United States, and the other would have driven his friend to a neighborhood dispensary. Then this conversation and the outcomes would be completely different.

State by state, cannabis is being legalized. Both of my uncles lived in Boston when they were prosecuted for cannabis and incarcerated. Massachusetts legalized recreational cannabis in 2017 and its first stores opened in 2018.

Approximately 36 states and four territories have legalized medicinal cannabis, and 14 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational cannabis. The MORE Act, which would federally decriminalize marijuana, passed the House of Representatives at the end of 2020, but where does that leave people like my family, like my uncles who were negatively impacted by archaic, racist laws?

Equity in the cannabis legalization space has been a buzzword recently. However, equity is so much more than simply speaking about those impacted by the domino effect catalyzed by the 1994 Crime Bill.

Equity is about creating a playing field accessible to everyone and repairing the damage created over generations through culture shifts, reparations, and deep investments in communities that have been written off and forgotten.

Are we ready as a cannabis legalization movement/cannabis entrepreneurs to take this on boldly? Now is the time. No more code switching to make people feel comfortable with Brown and Black faces; it’s time to make demands up front – how else do we recover?

Culture shift is necessary to change the conversations families have about cannabis, so young people don’t have conversations like my parents did with me. Instead the messages should be that cannabis can be for medicinal use; that we need more research about cannabis and its impact on our endocannabinoid system; that for entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, cannabis is an abundant industry where many can thrive and grow businesses.

Gone should be the days where people call marijuana a gateway drug, and instead we should talk about trauma being the gateway to abusive and addictive behaviors.

Legalization means heavy taxes on cannabis – where is the money going to go? Our demands should include:

• Reinvest in neighborhoods and people who have been forgotten and written off.

• Reinvest in workforce development and jobs, rebuilding schools, and creating after-school programming.

• Renovate building parks and community centers.

• Creating holistic rehabilitation centers.

• Invest in mental health workers and deploy them to these communities.

• Divert monies from mass incarceration to education and investment in our young people.

• Explicitly carve out money for Black, Indigenous and people of color who want to enter the cannabis market.

• Ensure that people from the community are given priority to open up neighborhood cannabis businesses.

• Ban multi-state operators from opening up in neighborhoods most impacted by the war on drugs who are making billions off of our communities.

On my podcast, BlueDream Radio (, we talk about equity frequently, and interview BIPOC folks in the industry, reclaiming space for themselves and others who don’t want to see this industry dominated by the same people who locked up our family members who tried to make coin from it.

This is 2021. We have lived through a terrible pandemic. We must change the way we see this plant and accept it as an industry where we should be.

Freedom Love, host/executive producer of the Blue Dream Radio Podcast, is an Afro-Dominican cannabis advocate and community organizer who grew up in the Dominican Republic and the United States in the 1990s.
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