As someone who watches a ton of cannabis documentaries for a living, I came into “Smoke: Marijuana + Black America,” a new BET documentary focusing on the cultural, social, economic, and legal impact of cannabis in Black communities around America, with a certain degree of apprehension — was this going to be just another hollow documentary banking on the plight of Black people at the hands of cannabis?
While I was working, I got a Slack message from Weedmaps contributor Dante Jordan: “Hey, man. Watch the BET doc. I think you'll appreciate it.” I found the link a publicist had sent me, started it, and my attention was immediately grabbed by the collar.
Narrated and executive produced by Nasir “Nas” Jones, “Smoke” premieres Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 10 p.m. PST on BET. The two-hour original documentary provides an intimate portrait of weed's place in Black culture and its influence on some of the greatest artists, activists, athletes, and politicians in American history.
“Weed was in my music because it was in my world,” says Nas Jones early in the documentary. Former NFL star Ricky Williams says “One of the things that cannabis did is help me come to a kind of resolution to this inner conflict.”
It also explains how “America's unjust War on Drugs systematically targeted marijuana use in the Black community, resulting in racially disproportionate numbers of arrests and convictions,” according to a press release.
While the cannabis industry is expected to grow exponentially as more states legalize adult-use and medical use, and federal cannabis legalization becomes an inevitably, projections expect the industry to generate $30 billion in sales by 2025. Much of cannabis' popularity and acceptance comes from the art made by Black hip hop artists, comedians, and filmmakers, breaking down the stigmas of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and priming American consumers to flock to legal weed in the 90s and 2000s.
And yet, only 4.3% of dispensaries are currently Black-owned. Legal cannabis states have largely failed to address the repercussions from the War on Drugs or craft policies that provide equity to Black cannabis entrepreneurs, effectively cutting them out of the market they helped build.
At the same time, to this day, Black Americans are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement for the possession of cannabis, despite the fact that white Americans have equal consumption rates. As my colleague Summer Fox wrote in an explainer earlier this year:
Black people are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people, despite both groups consuming at similar rates. These disparities exist in every state across the country. Black people are also more likely to receive longer and more punitive sentences than white people for similar offenses.
“Smoke” tells this story of injustice through numerous high profile interviews with Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Cory Booker, rapper B-Real, hip hop artist Ty Dolla $ign, WNBA star Cheyenne Parker, former NFL star Ricky Williams, former NBA player and cannabis entrepreneur Al Harrington, C.J. Wallace, the son of Notorious B.I.G., rapper and weed mogul Berner, and many more.
What “Smoke” manages to express better than most documentaries is just how complicated and compromising life as a Black or brown person is in America when it comes to cannabis. We're constantly seeing how weed is a part of the culture and a source for expression and creativity, yet it's stigmatized and criminalized. How cannabis is a relatively safe, inexpensive medicine to help manage the fears and stressors of oppression in America, yet it leads to harsher, more severe oppression from U.S. law enforcement. How cannabis helps create and is the subject of some of the most significant works of art, and yet Black people are the last in line to profit. And, most devastatingly, how paths to changing systemic racism and inequality often lead Black people to harm the very people they intend to help in the name of cannabis.
“Most of the people I prosecuted were young Black teenagers. Mostly boys,” says Kim Fox, state's attorney for Cook County, Illinois. “I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like I was put into this role as an assistant state's attorney to bring safety and fairness to our communities. And in the exercise of doing prosecution of these low-level marijuana offenses, I felt like I was doing harm.”
“What I'm a little frustrated with is the lack of urgency around these issues. Every day we wait to change these laws, more and more people's lives are being upended and impacted in such a savagely unjust way” says Senator Cory Booker. “I get very emotional about this because this is not an academic subject for me. I live in Newark, New Jersey. These are my friends.”
“What I like about it is that it's not just another showcasing of like … a couple of Cheech and Chong clips, some talk about Snoop, and then Willie Nelson,” Dante slacked me. “It covers all the bases from rappers to civilians and politicians. I'm impressed more than anything, to be honest. This is really good work.”
“Smoke” is directed by Erik Parker and executive produced by Nasir “Nas” Jones, Jason Samuels from BET, and Eric Tomosunas from Swirl Films. Swirl Films' Tony L. Strickland serves as co-executive producer. It premieres Wednesday, November 18, 2020, 10 p.m. PST on BET.
Images courtesy of BET.